About seven years ago, Saturday Night Live aired a sketch in which several cast members portrayed Greeks working in a gyro restaurant. The joke involved each Greek worker asking the patron, “You wanna the juice? You like-a the juice?” This went on for about five minutes of painful, cricket-chirping silence before one of them delivered the punch line, “You wanna us to end-a the sketch? You like-a for us to end-a the sketch?” Had the previous hour of the program been a side-splitting experience in hilarity, this segment might have been seen as a Kaufman-esque attempt at aggravating the audience for humor. Instead it was typical of the comedy war-horse’s quality level that yeara year in which critics savaged the show as being finished for good and cast members Mike Myers and Janeane Garofalo departed midway through the season. It was Garofalo’s first year.
In 1995 the decks were cleared, and Lorne Michaels hired a whole new cast to reinvigorate the show. While smart, eager performers like Molly Shannon, Cheri Oteri, Darrell Hammond, and Jim Breuer brought a level of professional talent that was sorely lacking in childish buffoons like Adam Sandler, David Spade, and Rob Schneider, the writing was still wanting and the show only moderately regained its stature. Still stinging from the drubbing suffered earlier in the decade, SNL seemed to play it safe with goofy sketches about enthusiastic cheerleaders and repressed Catholic schoolgirls. Skits depended heavily on delivered catch phrases that were funny at first but ultimately slipped into redundancy. It was as if Lorne Michaels had forgotten what had made his show such an immense success when it premiered in the mid-’70s: biting lampoons of the very medium on which it existed.
This year, from out of nowhere, the show seems to have found its voice, and audience, again. Many have attributed the increase in ratings to Will Ferrell’s merciless parody of President Bush; he seems to have nailed the mix of dullardness and astounding casual arrogance that makes Bush so entertaining. And certainly the show rose to the occasion during the election, nailing both candidates with precision satire that left neither one’s absurdities untouched. But I would argue that the key to the show’s reinvigoration is the “Weekend Update” comedy-news segment. If you look at the history of SNL, the success of “Weekend Update” seems to correspond to the success of the cast: The show rocketed to stardom on the back of Chevy Chase’s anchoring and then didn’t experience full-blown popularity like that again until the late-’80s cast, which featured Dennis Miller behind the desk.
Since Tina Fey and Jimmy Fallon started co-hosting the segment this year, the show has hit an irresistible groove. Fey, the first female head writer in the show’s history, is following in the steps of Chevy Chase. Much like Chase, Fey was never intended to be a performer, but she has broken out in the role and has helped give the show new bite and irreverence. And the interaction between Fey and Fallon marks a new attitude on the show. In the late ’70s, when Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtain co-anchored the bit, it revolved around their antipathy toward one another, evidently symbolic of Lorne Michaels’ force-the-performers-to-compete theory. But Fey and Fallon bring a newfound teamwork that the program has lacked in recent years. This has seemingly given the entire show new guts, resulting in hysterical lampoons of Internet culture, MTV’s TRL, and even their old pal Dennis Miller on Monday Night Football. The new spirit was perhaps never clearer than in a scathing spoof during the election debacle, in which all the main charactersfrom Gore and Bush to Katherine Harris and Jeb Bushwere cast in an Aaron Spelling soap they all so ripely deserved to be in.
It’s sometimes hard to believe that SNL has been a breeding ground for great performers, especially with the glut of bad sketch spin-off movies in the past decade. But from John Belushi and Chevy Chase to Phil Hartman and Mike Myers, the most talented have gone on to greater comedic work. For the first time in a while, Saturday Night Live has a cast of actors and writers who may do the same.
One of my other jobs at the Scene (no, I don’t just sit around reading ludicrous celebrity gossip all the time) is to sift through the mountains of promotional material we get from bands playing at clubs in the area. I won’t lie: It’s not always the most enviable of tasks. Nine out of 10 bands stink, and they all have flacks hustling for them, leaving endless messages on my voicemail. As a result, Iprobably more than mosthave found a particular perverse pleasure in VH1’s reality show Bands on the Run.
On this Survivor for rock bands, four groups are given weekly challenges representing the rise to rock ’n’ roll stardom. The first episode introduced us to three of the bands and had them travel from Venice Beach to San Francisco, where they had to promote their own club gig. The band that made the most money from ticket sales and merchandising would win. At the end of the series, the band with the most challenge wins gets $25,000. Sure, it’s a contrived situation as all reality shows are, but I found that unlike most, this show engagingly conveys a sense of the scene and lifestyle in which these wayward groups exist. Even though each band evokes about as much as originality as your average Dancin’ in the District lineup, they all deal with the same silly rock-band clichés as any big-time, noteworthy rock band. And given these groups’ unknown status and dubious talent, those clichés somehow manage to ring more true.
Flickerstick is a Texas band trying to work the power-pop vein, inspired by Big Star but coming off more like the Gin Blossoms. And the band features the classic rock-star egos. One of the guitarists even concedes that he was brought on board so the lead singer could quit playing and concentrate on being the star. They’ve got classic band drama, with one guitarist getting the news that his father had died and the Keith Moon-ish drummer becoming jealous after losing the spotlight.
Soulcracker embodies all of the soul-sucking careerism of bands like matchbox twenty or Everclear. More concerned with becoming famous than having a good drunken time (like Flickerstick) or making remarkable music, by the end of the series Soulcracker will most likely earn the distinction of being the Hootie and the Blowfish of reality TV. The unfortunate thing is they would probably take that as a compliment.
Then there’s Harlow, who, as far as I’m concerned, are the heart and soul of the whole show and rock ’n’ roll itself. This band consists of four gothed-out girls who couldn’t care less if they win the contest, but are doing it for the same reason every great band forms: They want to have fun and play music. They may not know many chordshell, one of the guitarists only learned to play a month prior to the showand their shtick may be heavily borrowed, but they’ve got more heart than the other two bands combined.
While other popular reality shows seem to be exercises in validating depressing truths like “nice guys finish last,” or are doing their damnedest to try and ruin relationships, Bands on the Run merits distinction for affirming something better: Even if you don’t really have what it takes, your passion can be enough to make you happy.
“God is dead and no one cares. If there is a hell, I’ll see you there.”
E-mail the origin of this useless bit of trivia to poplife the shame of your name printed in the paper and some free useless crap from the Nashville Scene!
Previous week’s answer: William Forsythe as Evelle Snopes in Raising Arizona.
Winner: Richard Neville.
Yes, but it's a term that you are infinitely more acquainted with than I.
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