A few years back, I had gathered, through gifts, prize awards and purchase, the DVD box sets of the first 5 seasons of NBC's Saturday Night (aka Saturday Night Live). These boxed sets were a massive undertaking for Broadway Video due to all the music and film rights they had to secure to present the shows as they were originally (practically) broadcast (At the time an SNL BBS was complaining that they didn't use the various host portraits where the commercial breaks would have been). The task had been so exhausting and expensive, the powers that be decided not to bother doing it for any other show after the fifth season.
Watching these DVDs made me curious about the remarkable and disastrous 6th season of SNL. I poked around online at the time and there were bootleg copies of the shows available, but I couldn't bring myself to buy a set.
The first opening was cute, each new cast member introducing themselves as a cross between two members of the previous cast. But you have to remember, the show "Fridays" did something very similar when they first went on the air in their cold open. One show did it to parody the inevitable comparisons to SNL, the other desperate to make them. The first couple of shows got well-known hosts like Malcolm McDowell, Ellen Burstyn, Jamie Lee Curtis, and David Carradine, in SNL's tradition of getting second bananas or boomer-friendly hosts. Then show five had someone called Ray Sharkey hosting. He must have been hot Italian actor in 1980 and he did okay (I googled him. Not a good person). But you get the sense that people started to regret taking the gig and that others decided they wouldn't bother taking it.
By the third show it was apparent they needed help and several Feature Players began appearing, most notably Eddie Murphy. Soon he was starting to get more airtime than Ann Risley.
But the writing wasn't working. They did silly stuff (Serf City, which was just a series of medieval serf/surf word play), they did topical stuff (Amy Carter begging the Reagans to let her stay in the White House) they did the odd one-act plays (a little girl trying to get an old woman to buy candy) in the ten-to-one slot. The one thing they all had in common was that they were all laugh-free.
It's hard to judge the full measure of the shows because they only run 45 (or less!) minutes on Peacock. We're talking about a 90-minute show, half gone. I mean, even allowing for commercials and the edited out music acts, they seem to be missing a lot. Some of it may be filmed segments, the show was featuring student films made my now-famous directors and other filmed bits by well-known stars. I noticed end credits mentioning films that didn't appear. I remember a Dillon film that was a meta take on a homeless person; not there. The David Carradine show was only 27 minutes and there was no opening monologue. I can only assume music rights were an issue by the fact that the "musical guest" was Linda Ronstadt and the Broadway cast of "The Pirates of Penzance" that didn't make it to streaming.
They tried things; interrupting a sketch for a live count down to midnight for January 11th, like it was New Year's Eve. Everyone in the audience had hats and confetti. But the sketch they were interrupting was lame and the cut away was oddly abrupt. They did a sketch about the 1st televised court trial and they "filmed" it as it was playing on an old B&W TV. Then I noticed a few shows in, they started doing through-line sketches, a sketch would do something, then later in the show it would pick up the thread and then pay off in the end. This would reach its zenith in the "Who Shot Buckwheat" show several seasons later. They did a "Polish Invasion" story. They did a puppet boxing match that went on for 3 weeks. I don't recall the original group trying something like that.
Shows were made up of short commercial parodies, oddly, none of them on film. Eddie Murphy got to announce his own promotion from featured player to cast member in a segment, this a week after dissing Garrett Morris as a guy they could draft because he has a lot of free time now.
Then came the most infamous show. The guests were more B-level stars, leading up to Charlene Tilton, the young cast member of "Dallas," hosting. This show is most remembered for Charlie Rocket saying the F-word during the closing (which is shown) after being shot (which was not shown) during a running parody of "Who Shot J.R." Tilton mentions how nice Rocket has been to her, unlike the other cast members. Then throughout the show, there were "backstage" bits where different cast members each saying "I'm going to get Charlie Rocket" for some evil thing he did. While they didn't show him being shot, Don Pardo announces he shot Rocket over the closing credits right after announcing Bill Murray would be hosting next week.
The show, while best known for Charlie's F-bomb, was also the first Mr. Robinson's neighborhood sketch. Also Piscopo introduced his Sinatra (probably saving their jobs). There was a huge bump in the amount of laughter. The show actually seemed to be getting its footing. The puppet boxing show was a major goofy bit with Don King sitting there for the color commentary. The Rocket Report took Tilton on the NYC subway for her first time (and getting berated for writing graffiti on the wall).
Then Bill Murray hosts. SNL desperately needed a boost. I'm assuming Brian Doyle-Murray had something to do with this, since he was still writing for the show. Did Rocket drop the F-bomb knowing Murray was coming back? Lord knows Murray had fun with that and the bad reviews and ratings during his cold open. But the show on streaming is 22 minutes long! The Peacock description of the show lists "Waltered States" as one of the sketches (it wasn't included) and I vaguely remember that sketch as an "Altered States" parody where Murray plays Walter Cronkite. Plus I remember a news article about it. "Fridays" did an "Altered States" parody and this article declared that "Fridays" was better (it wasn't) and the pop-culture torch was handed off to "Fridays." One aside: Included was a Weekend Update Newsline segment, separate from the actual WU. It was a bit about DNA, presented by an uncredited actor (Mark King) with some flash cards. It was very much a proto-Dr. Jack Badofsky that Tim Kazurinsky would do the following season.
Everything hit the fan afterward. Jean Doumanian was fired. The show was shuttered for a month as Dick Ebersol was brought in to save the show. First thing he did was get Lorne Michaels' blessing. In April, the show aired live. The original theme music was brought back. Chevy Chase was the host. Al Franken did an Update Segment. Robin Williams, Chris Reeve and Mr. Bill popped up for support. Chevy anchored Weekend Update and it was extra long and Franken's bit was announcing both that the show should be canceled and that he and Tom Davis would be hosting the following week.
Renewing the show the way they did seemed doomed from the beginning. If you watch the 1st season of SNL, some of it was decidedly awful, underwritten and under-rehearsed. However, they were doing something not seen before nor seen elsewhere and people flocked to it. Season 6 had the same growing pains, only, now, people had seen it before and were comparing it to season 5, where the show and cast were an institution (and season 5 wasn't that outstanding, actually). Saturday at 11:30 was no longer the video wasteland it was in 1975, it was a ratings and revenue powerhouse that Doumanian and crew couldn't maintain. They were not going to get a chance to prove themselves. Had the WGA strike happened a month earlier, would that have saved Doumanian? Would the cast have eventually risen to the challenge? If Doumanian had muddled through, what would season 7 have looked like? What if NBC had worked with the original cast and crew to continue the show (with Al Franken producing, as he alludes to in his WU bit)? We know when Michaels did returned to the show for season 10, he faced the exact same problems Doumanian had trying to launch a new cast. Most of the season 10 cast didn't make it to season 11. And we mustn't forget about Michael's own prime-time failure with "The New Show."
Jean Doumanian had an uphill battle on which everyone felt free to comment. She did keep a lot of NYC-based TV people employed. She is part of the epic SNL history and helped solidify the idea that SNL is as much a part of the NBC landscape as The Tonight Show, the Today Show or Late Night. We should see some interesting things once Michaels does step away from the show and SNL is forced to go Lorne-less again.
But I would still like to see the 90 minute versions of that lost season.