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Saturday Night Live Turns 40; Tim’s Visits to the Show Turn 38.

February 24, 2015

The fairly unspectacular memories that follow are dedicated to Alan Zweibel, who was inordinately kind to a 14-year old boy 38 years ago.

When I watched the occasionally thrilling circus of self-congratulation that was SNL 40, more than anything, I saw myself. I’m sure a lot of us did. When we revisit old episodes of Saturday Night Live, we flash back to where we were and who we were when we first saw these actors, these sketches. I found myself entirely conscious of how I reacted to the show when it was a bright, sassy miracle that suddenly appeared on my TV during the dreadful years when Junior High was preparing to end its’ reign of humiliation and cruelty.

A rather gruesome example of the American model

A rather gruesome example of the American model

Historical Context: Circa 1975, there were essentially two models for non-sitcom television comedy: The American and the British. The American model involved light satire, broad sketches, musical burlesques, and guest stars, and was typified by (the wonderful) Carol Burnett, Sonny & Cher, Tony Orlando & Dawn, and a rather large stack of forgettable summer replacement shows. It had fairly direct roots in the Vaudeville format omnipresent in the earliest days of television variety.

Beyond the Fringe, the Rosetta Stone of all modern sketch comedy

Beyond the Fringe, the Rosetta Stone of all modern sketch comedy

The British model involved high-concept and frequently absurd sketch comedy, acute topical satire, an ensemble cast, and minimal guest stars; it was typified by Monty Python, The Frost Report, That Was The Week That Was, lesser lights like the Two Ronnies and the Goodies, and many brilliant (but unknown in America) shows like Not Only But Also, At Last the 1948 Show, Do Not Adjust Your Set, etcetera. It had direct roots in the cool, crisp satire of Beyond the Fringe and the Dada hysteria of The Goon Show.

These two branches did not meet, at least not in any real or lasting way,until NBC’s Saturday Night came along. NBC’s Saturday Night (I am deliberately using the show’s original name, which was not altered until 1977) was the child of three very distinct but compatible bloodlines: The National Lampoon (from which it drew the heart of its’ writing staff and its’ acidic attitude – also, a chunk of SN’s original cast came from the Lampoon stage shows), Toronto’s Second City Troupe (which gave Saturday Night some cast members and, more importantly, the general skill-set and acting style of its’ performers), and Monty Python (whose ensemble style, penchant for absurdity, and non-punchline based sketches was possibly the most visible influence on SN). Put the three together and throw in a soupcon of Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, and you had the DNA for NBC’s Saturday Night.

Unknown-2If you were sitting in front of a television in late 1975 and early 1976, this bizarre, beautiful, feisty, fluid object startled you. It was, quite literally, like nothing on American television; the unsubtle and unpredictable sketch format felt vaguely familiar to those of us who were already Pythonophiles, and the language and the attitude of the new show had a resonance if you were acquainted with the Lampoon; but aside from that, it was an Atom Bomb. If you watched a lot of television and listened to a lot of comedy albums (and being a lonely, trivia-obsessed and highly curious 13 year old, that would be me­), Saturday Night seemed to achieve the impossible: it was obnoxious, unpredictable, cocky British-format humor,Americanized.

I instantly became obsessed, and starting with the third episode, I found myself glued to the TV every Saturday at 11:30. I would even carefully balance my cassette recorder and tape every new episode, to aid the process of memorizing, analyzing, and understanding this exciting new object.

I turned 14 in March of 1976; I grew a few inches, lost the baby-fat bursting face and peanut-shaped body so permanently memorialized in my Bar Mitzvah photos, and I suddenly found myself somewhat confident in my abilities to actually achieve the goals that my obsessively nerdy mind had latched on to. In the long term, this set me on a course to insert myself into the world of British and American punk rock; but more pertinently, I recognized that Rockefeller Center was only a short ride away on the LIRR. By the autumn of 1976 and the onset of Saturday Night’s second season, nothing was going to stop me from trying to investigate my obsession first hand.

A Long Island Rail Road Train, circa 1977.  This was the magic carpet to my dreams.

A Long Island Rail Road Train, circa 1977. This was the magic carpet to my dreams.

So I did.

Now, this story isn’t going to involve sex or drugs or even encounters that are particularly anecdotal or remarkable. This story just is, well, what it is.

Throughout the second and third season of Saturday Night, I began regularly going to 30 Rock on show days. Sometimes I waited on the stand-by line, a few times I actually had tickets, but the most interesting times were when I just snuck in. I found that if I put on my older brothers’ tan corduroy jacket and wore his well-tempered Frye Boots (which supplied me with a somewhat jaunty, adult step), I could basically look like someone who might belong in Studio 8H. I can’t recall the precise method I used to slip past security, but I remember that it wasn’t too hard. I think the trick was to keep your head up (if you keep your head down, it’s fairly obvious you’re trying not to be noticed; keep your head up, and you look like someone who isn’t trying not to be noticed, therefore you belong there); to move smoothly but not rapidly; and to have that slight angle to your shoulders that says “Hey, hold that elevator!” I am quite damn sure it wouldn’t be that easy now (though I will note that I did do this trick again in 1996, when I was visiting a friend who was working on that week’s show). When push comes to shove, I really think it was the corduroy jacket that made it so easy; the other fans hovering about wore down or denim, and it seemed like an inordinate amount of the staff wore corduroy.

When I would get up to 8H, I would find a spot in the hallway adjacent to the big studio and just lean against a wall and try to stay compatibly invisible. I wasn’t pretending to be a writer or musician or whatnot; rather, I just wanted to pass for someone who had some small but not intrusive reason to be there (maybe people would think I was the younger brother of a cast member, or the guy who had just dropped off an important prop). Sometimes, if I felt exposed, I would look at my watch and glance around with a small frown on my face, as if I was waiting for someone to hand me something that hadn’t come yet.

I didn’t talk to anyone. I wasn’t there to engage, I was there to observe. There was only one person I revealed myself to; that was one of the writers, Alan Zweibel. I was very curious about his craft, and for some reason he seemed approachable. He could not have been nicer. Seriously, I will always recall that this busy, brilliant man took the time, on a show night, no less, to be kind to a wide-eyed 14-year old passing as a devil-may-care 18-year old. I also talked a little bit (on different visits to 8H) with Dan Aykroyd and Laraine Newman, and they were both nice, especially Newman. Again, I am grateful for her unnecessary kindness.

Not very exciting, right?

Alan Zweibel, an SNL writer who was extremely kind to an annoying 14 year-old.

Alan Zweibel, an SNL writer who was extremely kind to an annoying 14 year-old.

But it was hugely exciting to be 14, to be captivated with the process of television, to be utterly obsessed with this exciting new show, and to just be able to lean against a wall and watch the incredible, beehive-like buzz of frantic activity and visible tension as the live show unfolded in the hours and minutes before it aired. Who needs anecdotes when you had a front seat?

Somewhere along the way, in the nearly 4/10ths of a century since then, I lost the Frye Boots, the corduroy Jacket, and the cockiness that would allow me to just stroll past security at a live network TV show. But I had it once; it served me well on those nights, and many other times, too. Nothing bad happened to me because I did such ridiculous things – some kind of inner compass of common sense counter-balanced my nerve — and I just followed my dreams onto a train from Great Neck to Penn Station.

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“Your Mother Should Know” is a TURD

September 15, 2014

“Your Mother Should Know” by the Beatles came on the radio. I have heard this song perhaps as many times as there are grains of sand in the River Ganges; yet for the first time I realized THIS SONG IS A TURD.  If a cotton candy machine (hidden in the greasy, cobweb-laced cellar of a disused and abused Vaudeville theatre now repurposed as a sex club) was able to develop a rectum, and that well-muscled and finely clenched orifice shat out a coiled piece of velveteen SHIT laced with Splenda, this expertly-wound BOLUS would be “Your Mother Should Know” by The Beatles.

Paul McCartney, around the time he made a musical turd.

This Mento-flavored infusion of over-clever hookery (bereft of edge or even the bile-colored rainbow of irony) defies the spirit of discovery and adventure that defined 1967, but not in a rebellious or prescient way (as similar exercises by the Kinks did); instead, “Your Mother Should Know” is an asinine prodigies’ shriek to be liked and to be admired, to be seen as timeless, in other words, better than it’s time.

“Your Mother Should Know” utterly lacks the thorny point of view or originality that, say, the spectacular Bonzo Dog Band would have brought to the proceedings.  The Bonzos trafficked in revisiting and re-inventing the 1920s tropes that McCartney explored here, but the Bonzos bought a true dose of adventure, invention, dada, and near-revolutionary fervor to the proceedings.  The Bonzos did this kind of thing and waved the flag of Tristan Tzara; McCartney does it and waves the flag of Ukulele Ike. The Bonzos would have approached a song like this the way Magritte would have approached an apple or Picasso would have approached a woman’s profile; they would have seen it from all sides, including dimensions that defied normal vision.  Likewise, the Kinks (or the Small Faces, who also dabbled with faux-archaic material) would have tackled it as a musical adventure, attempting to construct an emotionally rich piece in an antiquated style using contemporary instruments and production techniques. But Paul McCartney, on the other hand, does none of that; not only is he JUST trying to reproduce the sound of a bygone era, he is also INSISTING we be impressed by how well he does it.

And that’s exactly what McCartney is doing here: he is trying to impress the adults.  Conversely, with something like “Yesterday,” I genuinely think he was trying to impress his peers; in other words, with “Yesterday” McCartney was saying “I can reach you via a different palette than the one we – the generational we — might normally use;” he was also likely referencing a somewhat-underground (for U.K. and U.S. listeners) tradition of hyper-emotional French balladry. So hooray for “Yesterday.” See, believe it or not, “Yesterday” actually had an edge and a point of view that “Your Mother Should Know” completely lacks.  But “Your Mother Should Know” is an edge-less exercise (and a well-executed one, too, which actually makes it worse – that’s why I prefer the similar but utterly ham-fisted “Winchester Cathedral”), and it is most loathsomely and criminally committed to tape NOT to emotionally reach or move the listener (as “Yesterday” or even the inferior but delightful “Michelle” did), BUT JUST TO IMPRESS US BY SHOWING US HOW WELL HE DOES THIS THING.  McCartney is precisely like one of those moon-faced children you see in supermarkets who pick up a box of cereal and loudly announce “Mother, I hear excellent things about this product and suggest you buy it.” And everyone within hearing thinks “Awww, isn’t that darling, he sound so adult!”

By the way:  this piece was only indirectly about the mewling, faux-velvet-covered piss-puddle of forced smiles called “Your Mother Should Know.”  It was really about


Even the Beatles sucked sometimes.  Their very vulnerability created their genius, made them experiment and invent fearlessly, made them strive for the delicious angles of mortality instead of the boring ecru shades of mediocrity. Somehow, over the years the idea has developed that if you love the Beatles, you have to insist on their infallibility; you have to believe that every instance of Paul’s establishment-pleasing musical pleas for immortality is perfect, every expression of John’s angry sexism is perfect, every time George Harrison steals a sliding riff from Peter Green it is perfect, every time Ringo inelegantly whacks the crash-cymbal in a musically meaningless way that does nothing to enhance the song it is perfect.   Kill your fucking idols, man.  If you really love the Beatles, embrace the idea that they were real people who made mistakes, and did things for contaminated motives.  Because I never could trust anyone who did not believe that all beauty comes with infallibility.  I mean, shit, the first Boston album is pretty much perfect, but not one single person would accuse them of being the Beatles. There is no great art that boasts infallibility; this is why Warhol and Picasso will be remembered long after Rockwell.

Somehow, we set the Beatles apart; we consider them the one group exempt from the essential law of infallibility.  Just stop it.  It does them no honor, and lessens the magic of extraordinary, nearly flawless achievements like The White Album and Abbey Road.  The magic of the Beatles evolved, and like anything subject to the laws of nature, evolution, and impermanence, it is bound to be ridden with imperfection. And along the way, mistakes were made.  And I proudly announce, as a huge admirer, fan, and student of the Beatles, stating that “Your Mother Should Know” is a turd does not in any way make me less of a lover of the music or the achievements of the Beatles.

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All Hail Dada Sitcoms like Luxury Comedy

August 25, 2014

Bizarrely, live-action television has rarely been a particularly fertile venue for surrealism.

This is very odd indeed, for the very premise of most historical (and many contemporary) sitcoms could not be more surreal:  people pretend to act like a “real” family or “real” friends, except they do it in front of an audience in a three wall format, and everything is neatly sewn up in 22 minutes.  The standard sitcom modus operandi has, literally, zero to do with reality, and only its greatest masters (like Jackie Gleason and The Honeymooners) can eke any true realism out of such an impossibly unrealistic format.  Think, for a moment:  does a minute of any episode of I Love Lucy or The Brady Bunch actually resembles even a chalk-outline of real life?

So why not take it further? Why do sitcoms insist on building the same old imitation reality over and over again?  Why not try something genuinely different?

For generations, television comedy has been locked into two fairly unyielding formats:  the “domestic” or workplace sitcom where actors perform situational set-ups and jokes in three-walled setting, and the “review” format, where limited-time sketches are performed in the same three-wall setting (although Saturday Night Live has long boasted that there’s a big difference between them and the sketches of The Carol Burnett Show, it’s essentially all the same stuff, just with a few risqué concepts added).  Admittedly, there has been a little bit of healthy re-orientation in the last two decades, thanks to the introduction of the single-camera/no-live audience (or laugh-track) sitcoms pioneered by Ricky Gervais and Gary Shandling.

I am sure there are a few others, but only Green Acres stands out as a sitcom that utilized the absurdity inherent in the traditional sitcom format to explore completely non-realistic premises for comic effect (and, of course, I will note the insertion of the alien Mork into Happy Days, one of the world’s most unrealistic sitcoms).   I also think the often wonderful Scrubs got very close to finding a workable method for injecting surrealism into sitcoms (by the way, I am isolating the consistent use of absurd elements – like Green Acres’ sentient pig – from the bizarre trend in the ‘60s to take absurd premises and treat them as ordinary, like in The Flying Nun, My Mother The Car, Mr. Ed). 

All of this is to underline what a startling, original delight Noel Fielding’s Luxury Comedy is.  Luxury Comedy has recently started its’ second season on British television (it had a six-episode debut season in 2012; it would be largely pointless and almost certainly confusing to attempt to explain how the British model of television seasons and series renewals has virtually nothing to do with the American concept, so let’s just not go there, okay?).   One barely knows where to start in attempting to explain what Luxury Comedy is; it would be effective to say that what Fielding does in a live-action show is closer – far­ closer – to animated shows like Sponge Bob Square Pants, Superjail, or the marvelous Adventure Time.  There is a relatively steady “situation” – in series 2, it involves Fielding (using his real name) and his gang operating a coffee shop situated on the rim of a Hawaiian Volcano.  Oh, I should mention that Fielding’s cohorts include Andy Warhol, a human/anteater hybrid, and a mod, snarky German woman.  Other regular characters and visitors include a New York cop who drives a cardboard car and whose partner is embedded in his shoulder, a talking Hammerhead Shark who is an experienced recording engineer, Don Quixote, and Joey Ramone (who is just a silent, armless clay figure).

Fielding, of course, was one-half of The Mighty Boosh, the utterly brilliant comedy team whose television show (2004 – 2007) is quite literally one of the ten funniest television shows ever made. Luxury Comedy takes as a starting point the Boosh’s more psychedelic visual elements and more bizarre character factors; Fielding then spins these off into their own self-dependent world.  LuxCom is like an un-tethered balloon released by the Boosh, where the Dada/Dali/Duchamp Happy-Acid-Trip implied by much of the Boosh’s work is left to simmer into a surrealistic gumbo of nonsense that utterly refuses to walk the fine-line between the intellectual and the childish; rather, Fielding’s new show has one foot firmly in both, which is why watching even two minutes of LuxCom will make you think of Antonin Artaud, James Joyce, Thomas Pynchon, William Burroughs, and Samuel Beckett getting together to rewrite a four-year old’s story of the dinosaur living in their closet.  Seriously, it’s a lot like that. 

In its ability to channel surrealism via live action and its’ attempt (only sometime successful, but always riveting) to make live-action comedy that is completely detached from reality (even as it makes a bare effort to adhere to a consistent premise), Noel Fielding’s Luxury Comedy is the successor to The Goon Show, the British radio show which literally invented modern British humor.  The Goons, who were on the air from 1951 to 1960, abandoned traditional storytelling and replaced it with illogical absurdity that took advantage of the idea that in one-dimensional radio-land, nonsense made as much sense as bad imitations of reality; the Goons also pretty much invented the idea that a non-sequitur could replace a punchline.  I’ll write about the Goons at greater depth in the near future (they are one of the most important cultural forces of the 20th Century), but very, very rarely has their innovations been utilized in setting-based live action comedy, which is what makes Luxury Comedy so very, very exciting.

Recently, drama on television has taken enormous leaps; following the pioneering lead of Six Feet Under, shows like House of Cards, Hannibal, Breaking Bad, American Horror Story, and many others are, for the very first time, consistently bringing cinema-quality events into the living rooms of America.  It’s now time for live-action comedy to play catch-up, to move on from the done-to-death innovations of Office-type mock-docs and realize the rather stunning potential the medium has for capturing, exploring, and exploiting entertaining surrealism. Go ahead; stop putting a bunch of people in an apartment or an office and writing jokes about their relationships and their jobs and what’s in their refrigerator.  Instead, I challenge you to go all Duchamp and do the equivalent of sticking a urinal on the wall (or as Luxury Comedy does, have a regular character who Wikipedia, in it’s best dry fashion, describes as “an anthropomorphic chocolate finger biscuit who works as a PE teacher and once served in the army. He suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and often talks about how depressed he is because his wife passed away”).  I hope Luxury Comedy is a harbinger of the future; in the meantime, it’s just a gorgeous, original, psychedelic delight, a brave attempt to bring the beautiful non-logic of animation to the world of live-action.


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