Saturday Night Live This: a Review of the Time Balki Hosted Saturday Night Live

Welcome back! For the second week in a row, here’s a post that is not a review of “Just a Gigolo”.

Filling in is Philip J Reed, Lord and Lady of Noiseless Chatter, with a special Valentine’s Day gift for you. (This post was written in exchange for my promise that I would stop putting on my Reagan mask when we’re on the Kiss Cam.)

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In 1987, Bronson Pinchot hosted Saturday Night Live.

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Let…let that sink in for a moment.

Balki.  The guy who played Balki.  Hosted Saturday Night Live.

It was great and I enjoyed it.  Thanks for reading, and enjoy your weekend!

Okay, okay.  Let’s look at the context here.  Balki was a legitimate breakout character, one immediately recognized, understood, and enjoyed by a large portion of TV viewers.  And Saturday Night Live was…not very good at the time.

Pinchot was tapped to host the February 14, 1987 episode, presumably because nothing is more romantic than sitting silently with your sweetheart, watching a guy famous for a silly voice participate in tepid sketch comedy.

And, you know what?  Let’s put snark aside.  Hosting Saturday Night Live is a valid thing for Pinchot to be proud of.  It’s an honor.  Not that all of its hosts have been honorable, and certainly not that all of its eras were even remotely worth watching, but the show is an institution.  Hugely influential.  Hugely important.  It’s a show that has more of a reputation than most of the people involved with it have ever had.

In 1987, it was fighting to claw its way back into relevancy.  Its early years were marked by a great cast, strong writing, and a thrilling irreverence that was simply unlike anything American audiences had ever seen.  (British audiences had Monty Python’s Flying Circus, but we liked the Coneheads.)  Its singular gimmick – the fact that it was performed live – lent the show an air of unpredictability, even though we know things are tightly scripted.

But like any show that runs for a substantial length of time, Saturday Night Live found its credibility flagging.  Cast members left for other (often bigger and better) things.  Writers were cycled in and out behind the scenes.  Eventually creator / showrunner Lorne Michaels left, and the show continued without him, seemingly in format only.

It wasn’t good, and the Lorne-free years are rightly reviled as being toothless and hollow.  In the time that Lorne was gone, only two true talents really rose above the material and kept the flame (if not the blaze) alive:  Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo.

But by 1987, the show was primed for a second renaissance.  And it would have one…but not for another few years.  Brandon Tartikoff – the whizkid president of NBC who could genuinely do no wrong – insisted that Lorne Michaels be reinstated.  Old blood from the show’s early relevance – namely Al Franken and Tom Davis – were brought back to whip it back into shape.  Jim Downey was made head writer.

And, most noticeable to those watching at home, flagging cast members were dropped in favor of new faces.  Season 12, the season in which Pinchot hosted, saw the first appearances of Phil Hartman, Jan Hooks, Dana Carvey, Kevin Nealon, and Victoria Jackson, all of whom would help usher the show into another, brilliant golden age.

Pinchot had the good fortune of catching the show on an upswing; the comedy was on the rise, but its clout was still low enough that an as-yet-untested sitcom star could get the chance to host.

This episode aired during season two of Perfect Strangers, right between “Ten Speed and a Soft Touch” and “Snow Way to Treat a Lady (Part the First)”.  (So you asked me to do this too late, Casey YOU FUCKING IDIOT.)  Balki had not yet become a cartoon character, and Bronson still had an opportunity to demonstrate to viewers that he was more than a comedy accent.

Sketch by sketch, let’s see how that turned out.

Saturday Night Live

Season 12, Episode 11:  Bronson Pinchot / Paul Young

Sketch 1:  Liberace in Heaven

sketch1liberace

The cold open is…a weird one.  It’s just Phil Hartman dressed as Liberace, sitting at a white piano.  He’s wearing angel wings, and tinkling away.  (In a musical sense.  Ahem.)

True Liberati like myself and Larry know immediately that this show aired only 10 days after the man himself passed away, so this was a very topical sketch.  Except that it’s not really a sketch at all; it’s certainly the quickest cold open I’ve ever seen on the show.

Here’s what Hartman says, in its entirety: “If you thought the censors were going to let us do any more than this, you’re crazy!  You’re living in the 70s!  Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!”

So, yeah, it’s not really a sketch.  It’s not even a monologue.  It’s basically just a line, and I’m not sure what it means.  Maybe the show really did have an idea for a Liberace sketch that was nixed by the censors, or at least by concern that the censors wouldn’t allow it.  I don’t know what it would be, but I’d assume it was Liberace being fucked to death by a big gay man.  He could say, “I’m in heaven!”  Lorne, return my calls.

Hartman’s Liberace is the standard impression you’d expect, and this one drifts pretty firmly into Paul Lynde territory, but for TV sketch comedy it’s fine.  It’s also interesting that Hartman, a new kid, is given such an early solo spotlight.  I think the show was already very much aware of how much he had to offer, and how much of him the audience deserved.

Then we get our standard (for the time) opening credits, with Jon Lovitz having trouble with a turnstile the same way the cousins have trouble with that revolving door in their credits.  CLEARLY DELIBERATE HOMAGE.

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Monologue

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Bronson Pinchot wastes no time in introducing himself to the crowd as an insufferable prick.

No, seriously.  It’s not even part of the monologue.  There it would be understandable, as “I know you know me as this one thing, but really I’m a secret asshole” is the joke behind 80% of all Saturday Night Live host monologues.  (The other 20% just start singing for some reason.)

The first thing he does – again, not as part of the monologue – is quiet the audience so he can chide legendary announcer Don Pardo for ever-so-slightly getting his name wrong.  “I just want to mention one thing before we get started.  Don Pardo mispronounced my name.  It is not Pinch-Oh.  It is Pinch-Ow.  Okay.  So that’s out of the way.”

And, man, what a dipshit.  This is literally the first thing he does with this unquestionably invaluable opportunity.  He shushes the crowd – shushes the people cheering for him! – to announce to a live audience all across America that an old man made a mistake.  He really seems to take it personally, and it gives the actual monologue a sour note.  We no longer want to laugh with Pinchot…we want to kick him in the balls.

It’s idiotic.  It’s the showbiz equivalent of being taken to meet your significant other’s grandparents and shouting “The fuck smells like old people?” as soon as you walk through the door.

The audience, for what it’s worth, seems as rattled by this as I am.   There’s some nervous laughter, some audible shifting in seats, and Bronson – no joke – actually justifies it.  “It had to be said,” he claims.

So, there’s Bronson’s second rule of comedy, right after “pick on old people who are just doing their jobs.”  It’s “Always correct your audience.”

I wish I could say the ensuing monologue lands with a dull thud, but that would mean that it lands at all.  It’s actually just some shaggy-dog story about Maureen, a presumably invented ex-girlfriend of Pinchot’s (it’s Valentine’s Day, you see) who encouraged him when nobody else would.  The joke is that now he’s actually famous, she was right to encourage him, and he didn’t invite her to the show.

That is really the joke.

So the whole “I’m a secret asshole” thing could have worked here, if not for the fact that Pinchot already revealed to the world that he’s an open, active asshole.

Of course, a shaggy-dog story lives or dies on its delivery, and Pinchot obviously thinks he’s a better storyteller than he actually is.  He drags it out, speaking too slowly, leaving too many pauses for the comedy to crawl into and die.  The laughter out of the crowd is awkward, coming after sentences that clearly aren’t jokes, and it really is pretty bad.

Did Pinchot write this?  Maybe not.  But he did perform it, and that’s the problem.  A more natural storyteller could have salvaged it.  Pinchot just reads a long story off a set of cue cards.  Somebody else…oh, say, Mark Linn-Baker just to pull a name out of nowhere…might have had the chops to give it some personality, some life.  Pinchot just slowly buries it in front of everyone.

Also, just for the record, after the monologue he introduces musical guest Paul Young and special guest Paulina Porizkova.  He just calls the latter “Paulina,” because he can’t fucking pronounce uncommon surnames either.

Sketch 2: Amerida

sketch2amerida

The first proper sketch of the night is…pretty awful.  If this is what they lead with, I really am not looking forward to the rest of the evening.

There’s no Pinchot, so I won’t spend too much time here.  It’s Phil Hartman playing a guy who is not very happy about America being taken over by Canada.  Which…is…what happened here, I guess.  Nora Dunn is his wife who reminds him that Canadians say “aboot” and Victoria Jackson is his daughter who reminds him that Canadians use the metric system.

I guess the joke is that this guy gets so upset over what, in most cases, amounts to nothing more than having to learn some different words and spellings?

I don’t know.  It sucks.

Sketch 3:  Nightline

sketch3nightline

In a pretty rare instance of two sketches being connected, this one is an episode of Nightline commenting on the Amerida sketch (which they refer to as being a TV show of its own, though if anything Lorne was planning on making a movie out of it).

Here we’re back in impressions territory.  Dana Carvey gets to trot out his soon-to-be-famous Ted Koppel.  It’s a bit rough around the edges, and he doesn’t really have it down yet, but it’s interesting to see a gifted impressionist finding his footing.

Phil Hartman does a predictably great Henry Kissinger.  Kevin Nealon also gets to be on TV, like they promised him when he signed his contract.  He plays Brent Musburger, some sports guy so I don’t know who he is.

Pinchot plays Carl Sagan, and gets a huge laugh when he’s introduced.  He leans his head back and shows his teeth a lot, which is what Sagan was famous for.  I guess.  I mean, based on this I’d absolutely have to guess that.

He makes for a good likeness of Sagan, but his impression isn’t especially good.  Just think back on whomever you last heard say, “billions and billions of stars” in a flat voice that sounds like it’s coming from the front of their mouth and you’ve got a better Sagan impression.

Pinchot’s gets a big laugh, at least, due far more to his mannerisms than the material, which doesn’t seem to have many jokes in it anyway.  The entire sketch is obviously an excuse to do impressions, and wasn’t born of any especially clever discovery in the writers’ room.

The sketch ends with Pinchot actually saying the “billions and billions” bit, at which point a duck drops from the ceiling and the sketch ends.

Kissinger is upset because…he didn’t get to say much, I guess?  Who knows.  It really sucks.

Sketch 4:  Sports Illustrated Commercial

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Special guest – and emphatic not-actor / not-comedian – Paulina Porizkova actually gets a bigger laugh than Pinchot’s gotten all night.  And rightly so.  No, she’s not exactly natural in this fake commercial for the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, but she is funny, and it’s a good concept.

The joke is that she’s trying to sell the swimsuit issue as having more merit than just containing photos of sexy ladies in skimpy outfits. She spotlights its other virtues, such as “sports scores, and essays on thoroughbred racing.”  She’s charmingly desperate to convince people to buy it as something other than an aid to masturbation, and it’s actually a pretty decent, quick little sketch.

The true, raunchy intentions of the swimsuit issue seep out as the commercial plays sexy jazz music over benign photographs of female golfers and gymnasts, which is a funnier touch than I can convey here.  The best joke is that it comes with a door hanger that reads, “Keep out, mom, I’m studying.”

For those who don’t know, Porizkova was a famous swimsuit model who actually graced the magazine’s cover twice, in succession.  The month this episode aired, though, she was displaced by new covergirl Elle Macpherson, who then held the cover for three years in a row.

I have no regrets about researching this entry.

Sketch 5:  Birds Eye Jingle

sketch5birdseye

This is one I didn’t expect.  Dana Carvey performed a sketch in the season 12 premiere, a very famous one that I remember well, in which he played a washed-up rockstar performing a song called “Chopping Broccoli” for some record executives.

Well, okay, the song is called something else, but we all remember it as “Chopping Broccoli” for very good reason.  It was a great sketch, but I didn’t know the character ever came back.

He’s here now, though, upset that his success with “Chopping Broccoli” has led to him recording a jingle for Birds Eye.

It’s not especially good, the character didn’t need to come back at all, and, man, I have to admit it’s pretty odd to see a Saturday Night Live sequel sketch that isn’t just the same jokes in the same sequence as we saw last time.  This one actually moves the story of this character ahead, which is odd.  That’s a better impulse than recurring sketches usually have, but it’s pretty pointless.

Jon Lovitz plays Ringo Starr, just to really hammer home the pointlessness.

Sketch 6:  Romance

sketch6serge

Oh, hey, look, it’s Bronson Pinchot!  I almost forgot he was in this episode.

Anyway, we get a whole sketch about…uh…well, there’s…

Okay, it’s a sketch-length excuse for Pinchot to play Serge from Beverly Hills Cop again.  That’s literally all it is.  He even tells a few of the same jokes, and calls a character Achmed instead of their actual name, ostensibly due to a mishearing but when you hear TWO DIFFERENT NAMES as Achmed, that no longer flies.

In this sketch Serge comes off as nothing more than a fay Balki, which really shows the breadth of Pinchot’s abilities: he can play one character, or play that same character with kind of a lisp.

It literally is exactly like the scene in which Axel Foley is waiting to see Jenny Summers, except it’s ten times as long, half as funny, and…well, there might not be another difference.  Phil Hartman plays a guy waiting to see a girl while Serge offers him drinks and acts like a crude gay joke on legs.

Nora Dunn plays a prostitute named Babette, which is apparently one of her recurring characters.  I don’t remember her at all, but Dunn was always clearly better than the material she was getting, so that’s not her fault.  I do recall her doing a pretty great Liza Minelli, though.

Weirdly, at about the halfway point the sketch turns from being about Serge to being about Babette, and it’s not an improvement.

sketch6serge2

Weekend Update

weekendupdate

Weekend Update by its nature doesn’t age well.  These are jokes that, by design, would feel old one week later, so you can only imagine how many shrugs an installment of this segment from 1987 will elicit.  We’re in the Dennis Miller years, as well, so fuck it.

I never really liked Miller as a kid.  Even then I thought he was a smug asshole, and the years have not changed my view.  In fact, I’m pretty sure I prefer any other anchor to him.  (The top three, however, are clearly Norm Macdonald, Kevin Nealon, and Jane Curtin.)

weekendupdate3

We also get a report from Dana Carvey as Jacques Cousteau.  Carvey looks nothing like the guy, but his gift for impressions comes through, and it’s very easy to see even at this early stage of his career why he’d become such a valuable player, and one of the most memorable cast members the show’s ever had.

His monologue here – about the mating ritual between a male and female napkinfish – is legitimately funny, and he knows exactly how to work an audience even with material that’s not especially smart.  It’s fair to say that he succeeds here exactly where Pinchot failed in his monologue.

weekendupdate4

There’s also a very welcome edition of The Big Picture with A. Whitney Brown.  Brown’s Big Picture series appeared now and then on Weekend Update around this time, but it never really fit.  The guy was sharp, intelligent, and winningly caustic, but he also deliberately occupied a realistic position in a segment that wasn’t interested in realism.  (See: a moment ago, in which Dana Carvey made two napkins fuck.)

Brown was great, though, and came across as a political editorialist more than a satirist.  He pointed out problems humorously, but never lightly, and it made his work here feel like a clear precursor to The Daily Show.  (Where, indeed, he’d serve as one of its first correspondents.)

He had the good looks, innate authority, and serene demeanor of an actual news anchor who just happened to be deeply disappointed in the political climate and the idiocy perpetuating it. This wasn’t a good match for Weekend Update’s zippier, superficial jabs at current events.

It’s kind of neat to see this relic of a more “serious” version of the show that never was, even if it’s kind of sad that it gets fewer laughs than Pinchot’s monologue.

Anyway, when Brown finishes making perfectly salient points about government salaries, Dennis Miller wriggles into a full-body condom.

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Musical Guest: Paul Young, “War Games”

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It’s not the Crosby, Stills & Nash song.  Nobody cares.

Sketch 7: The Life of Golda Meir

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A very game Paulina Porizkova plays Golda Meir, being ogled by her advisors as she attempts to defend Israel.  The joke – communicated via title card because the sketch wasn’t doing a good enough job on its own – is that the Golda in this sketch is a composite character, based on “the real Golda Meir and a beautiful young model.”

It’s nothing great, but Porizkova is much better here than she was in the Sports Illustrated sketch.  Not that she’s a great actor, but based on this I’d have to assume she was still shaking out some stage fright when we saw her earlier.

Now she’s quite good, and decently funny.  I wish she got some better material to work with, as all she needed to do is deliver exposition and get salivated over.

Pinchot has, like, one line about how naked he wants to see her.

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Porizkova actually feels like an unofficial co-host this week, as she headlines about a third of the sketches, appears instead of Bronson in a few of the title cards, appears with him in one other, and even introduces the musical guest.

This could be a result of the fact that the show didn’t trust a full episode to Pinchot…or the opposite.  Perhaps they wanted a Porizkova episode to air near the release of the swimsuit issue (which was a massive deal in those pre-internet days) but didn’t trust a non-actor to be versatile enough.

Hedging their bets by hiring both was a good idea, but though he gets more screentime it’s Porizkova who actually surprises.  I didn’t know she could be funny.  I did know, however, that Bronson Pinchot could do an accent.

One accent.

Sketch 8:  Sketch Artist

sketch8sketchartist

Kevin Nealon is a police sketch artist who doesn’t sketch anything.  Rather he moves his face around to match the description of the criminal given by Bronson Pinchot.

It’s actually a pretty funny concept, but it goes on a bit too long.  It’s the kind of thing Python could have done quite well, but it doesn’t really pop here the way it could.

Nealon gives it his all.  Pinchot has nothing to do aside from feed him lines.  It’s…okay.

There are a couple of clever highlights, though.  When he finds out that the guy was white, Nealon says, “Okay, good, that’ll save us some time.”

Later he finds out the criminal was missing an ear, so he places a hand over one of his.  Bronson says, “No, he didn’t have a hand over his ear.  He had no ear.”  Nealon thinks for a moment, and then dismisses it.

It’s a nice concept.  It really is.  I can see why this survived the initial pitch session, but something holds it back from being much of a sketch.  (Did I just make a pun?)

It is an early example of Nealon asserting his comic presence on the show, though, and a pretty great one by those standards.  At this stage he was only a featured player; he’d be promoted to main cast the following season, obviously as a result of performances like this.

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Musical Guest: Buster Poindexter, “Heart of Gold”

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It’s not the Neil Young song.  Nobody cares.

Sketch 9:  Screw

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Bronson lets us see that he can do something other than play Balki and Gay Balki by playing Smooth Balki.  Specifically he plays some guy named Armando who seems to drift in and out of whatever accent he’s supposed to have.

The joke is that he tries to bang an uglied-up Jan Hooks who deserves far more than this.

It’s an odd sketch.  It starts with Hooks being unable to describe the kind of screw (literal screw) she needs to a hardware store clerk played by Phil Hartman.  Armando is able to figure out the name of the screw using some kind of telepathy or something.

Then he wants to get his poke on, and they sit down at a table (in the hardware store) and they have coffee.  But then Armando comes on too strong and Jan Hooks leaves, but she gives him money because she feels bad for him, and he falls to the floor and kisses her hand with gratitude.

No fucking clue.

Musical Guest: Paul Young, “The Long Run”

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It’s not the Eagles song.  Nobody cares.

Sketch 10:  Miss Connie’s Fable Nook

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Jan Hooks narrates a fairy tale about Dennis Miller, Dana Carvey, and Kevin Nealon trying to bone Paulina Porizkova.  They dance for her.  She tells them that their dance sucks dick.  Jan Hooks plays a zither.

Nobody involved knew what the fuck was happening either, but I guess that’s pretty common for the last sketch of the night.

Goodnight

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And that’s it.  Bronson comes out with the cast and just says, “Goodnight.  Thank you.  Great.”

Not even a complete thought.  I don’t know if he was just tired and wanted to go home, or if he was upset somehow, but it certainly doesn’t seem like he’s too excited to have completed an hour and a half of live sketch comedy on possibly the most famous show in American TV history.  I guess we should just be grateful he didn’t come out and say, “Also, before I forget, Don Pardo smells like shit.”

So, yeah.  Bronson Pinchot hosted Saturday Night Live, and though he was in an episode with some truly talented people, I think it’s fair to say that he got the episode he deserved.

Tune in next week for my review of the episode hosted by Mark Linn-Baker, in which he plays Larry, Gay Larry, Really Gay Larry, Evil Larry, and Harpo Larry.

Goodnight.  Thank you.  Great.

Boner* Count:

  • Phil Hartman (8)
  • Bronson Pinchot (7)
  • Kevin Nealon (5)
  • Dana Carvey (4)
  • Paulina Porizkova (4)
  • Jan Hooks (3)
  • Nora Dunn (2)
  • Jon Lovitz (2)
  • Dennis Miller (2)
  • Victoria Jackson (1)
  • A. Whitney Brown (1)

* speaking appearances

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I’m hoping that next week will be the review of “Just a Gigolo”.  Even if it’s not, it will be a wonderful post. – Casey

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