Saturday Night Lives!: Part 1

Part 1 of a 4-part series about the resurrection of "SNL" in the '80s. First up: 1986-87.
July 10, 2006

When Executive Producer and Creator Lorne Michaels returned to his job on “Saturday Night Live” in the fall of 1985, NBC was about ready to pull the plug on the show. After suffering in the ratings for the past five years, the network felt it was time to end the show after ten seasons on the air. But, Michaels was determined to bring to show back to its glory days of the early years.

The result was quite the opposite.

The 1985-1986 season was lackluster at best—the charisma-deficient cast, not to mention the pitiful writing, drove the show into the ground. So much, in fact, the season ended on an interesting cliffhanger.

Billy Martin, the disgraced former manager of the New York Yankees (infamous for being fired—and re-hired—five times), did what anyone would have done in order to get rid of a lackluster television show cast—he set them on fire! Yeah, this was probably the single most exciting moment of the season. Lorne Michaels goes in and pulls Jon Lovitz out from certain death. Apparently, Dennis Miller and Nora Dunn were a little smarter than everyone else—they managed to find their way out of the flames and into the next season.

NBC decided at the last minute to keep “Saturday Night Live” on the air, only picking it up for nine episodes set for the 1986-1987 season. Lorne Michaels and his crack staff started on a casting call, and what they wound up with what may very well be the reason “Saturday Night Live” survived the 1980’s.

In this four-part article, I will recount the story of how “Saturday Night Live” became popular again. We’ll meet the cast, visit with the popular characters, catch up on the headlines, and watch in wonder as a nearly dead-in-the-water variety show took a breath of fresh air and stepped back into the land of the living.

Part One: Season 12 - 1986-1987
[/i]The Newcomers Experiment[/i]

In addition to previous season keepers Dennis Miller, Jon Lovitz, and Nora Dunn, Lorne Michaels recruited comedians Dana Carvey and Kevin Nealon, comedienne Jan Hooks (who played Tina the Alamo Tour Guide in “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” in 1985), Groundlings alumnus Phil Hartman, and “Tonight Show With Johnny Carson” regular Victoria Jackson to be the new cast of “Saturday Night Live.” Michaels’ mission was to create a second coming of sorts of the original cast.

This time around, it worked.

Jan Hooks and Kevin Nealon dated prior to joining "Saturday Night Live" in 1986 (Hooks auditioned in 1985, but was considered too old--at 28 years old!--for a spot in the cast, but was picked the next year). Nealon was a featured player, as he was chosen last at the recommendation of friend Dana Carvey.

The Friend Connection
It's not always what you know, but who you know. The 1986 cast, much like the original, all had the distinction of knowing at least one person in the cast. Here's how the connection breaks down, spoken by the pros themselves:

Kevin Nealon: That was the magic of the original cast. Laraine and Belushi and Aykroyd. A lot of them knew each other and they just kind of knew how to mesh and there was that synergy that you need on a show like that.

A. Whitney Brown: Jon brought Phil.

Jon Lovitz: I knew Phil. I had met Jan before, and I knew Nora and I knew Dennis.

Dana Carvey: I knew A. Whitney Brown. I knew Nora Dunn. I'd known Dennis Miller from the clubs. Still never called me "Dana" in 25 years. [ dons his Dennis Miller voice ] "Carvey." One of those guys. But I didn't know Jon and Phil. And when they were around each other, they would just do that 40s gangster stuff. [ dons a gangster voice ] "How you doing, fellas. Come here, Hey, what's the name of the broad?" I thought they were a little, you know.

A. Whitney Brown V/O: And then, Dana recommended Kevin.

Dana Carvey: Lorne wanted one more guy. And I don't know if it was true or it was my imagination, but.. "Maybe somebody tall?"

Kevin Nealon: A couple days later, Lorne Michaels offered me the job. I said, "Well, let me think about it over the weekend." And he goes, "Well, okay, you go ahead and think about it and we'll see you in New York on Monday." At the time, I was dating Jan Hooks.

Lorne Michaels: There are people you just know -- Dana was one, and I think Jan was another, you just knew right away that it was gonna work.

Victoria Jackson: I had never met any of the other cast members before. But I had worked with Jan Hooks and I thought she was brilliant.

It All Begins...Again

October 11, 1975 was the series premiere of “Saturday Night Live.” Ironically, October 11, 1986 was the twelfth season premiere. At 11:30 pm, the cameras came on to the Material Girl herself, Madonna. Ms. Madonna stated that one year ago (which was November 9, 1985), she hosted “Saturday Night Live.” She was given a statement to read…

“It was all a bad dream.” She then opened the show with the famous tagline, “Live from New York, it’s Saturday night!” Then rolled the credits.

(Well, no shit it's "recorded from an earlier live broadcast." The episode aired in 1986--it's 2006 now!)

THE CAST (7 Starring, 2 Featuring)


Dana Carvey, Nora Dunn, Phil Hartman, Jan Hooks, Victoria Jackson, Jon Lovitz, and Dennis Miller

And featuring…

A. Whitney Brown and Kevin Nealon

The host of the season premiere was Sigourney Weaver, the musical guest was the over-the-top and excruciating-to-listen-to Buster Poindexter, and there was a cameo by Madonna and a special guest in Christopher Durang (I’m still not quite sure who this is).

The house band was headed up by G.E. Smith (and his ponytail), who became the musical director this season (after becoming the lead guitarist in 1985). You know who he is—he’s the scary guy with the blonde ponytail (actually, that wasn’t for a few more years) who would make love to the camera as he played his guitar. A gifted bandleader in his own right (the job currently belongs to Lenny Picket, who was part of the house band during this era), Smith proved that the house band could still be a lot of fun to watch.

I should note that during this season, Kevin Nealon was only a featured cast member (I’m not sure why this is – if anything, I think Victoria Jackson should have gotten feature status during this season). Unlike the traditional featured players, Nealon got plenty of screen time during the season, and proved his worth, hence promoting him to full status in 1987 (this will be covered in greater detail in Part 2).

The Season Premiere (Sketch Synopsis)

Host: Sigourney Weaver
Musical Guest: Buster Poindexter
Cameos: Madonna, Christopher Durang

It Was All a Dream – Cold Opening
Madonna (cameo appearance)

General Dynamics – Commercial Parody

Tommy and His Girlfriends – Sketch
Recurring Character: Tommy Flanagan (Jon Lovitz)

Quizmasters – Game Show Parody

Dana Carvey (Lane Maxwell, contestant)/Jan Hooks (Marge Keister, contestant)/Phil Hartman (Bill Franklin, Host)

The Amazing Alexander – Commercial Parody

Church Chat – Sketch
Recurring Characters – Enid Strict/Church Lady (Dana Carvey)/Sally Kellerman (Jan Hooks), Ann Landers (Nora Dunn)/Phil Hartman (Billy, stage manager/Announcer)/Sigourney Weaver (Zuul), Christopher Durang

“Smack Dab in the Middle” – Music Performance
Buster Poindexter

Weekend Update
Dennis Miller
Commentators – A. Whitney Brown and Victoria Jackson

Bows and Smythe Advertising - Sketch
Recurring Character: Mr. Subliminal (Kevin Nealon)
Victoria Jackson (secretary)/Jon Lovitz (Mr. Smythe)
Alienes – Movie Parody
Sigourney Weaver (Ripley)/Christopher Durang (Marine)/Dana Carvey (Marine)/Nora Dunn (Marine)/Phil Hartman (Hicks)/Jon Lovitz (Burke)/Dennis Miller (Bishop)

Ten Weeks in Jail – Commercial Parody
Phil Hartman

“Baby, it’s Cold Outside” – Musical Performance
Sigourney Weaver and Buster Poindexter

Derek Stevens’ Audition – Sketch
Recurring Character: Derek Stevens (Dana Carvey)
Sigourney Weaver (Paula Collins)/Phil Hartman (Michael)

“Fool For You” – Musical Performance
Buster Poindexter

The Brecht Opera – Sketch
Sigourney Weaver/Christopher Durang/Marc Shaiman

The Season Recap
Hosts and Musical Guests – 1986-1987

October 11, 1986 - Sigourney Weaver/Buster Poindexter
October 18, 1986 – Malcolm Jamal Warner/Run DMC
November 8, 1986 – Rosanna Arquette/Ric Ocasek
November 15, 1986 – Sam Kinison/Lou Reed
November 22, 1986 – Robin Williams/Paul Simon
December 6, 1986 – Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, and Martin Short/Randy Newman
December 13, 1986 – Steve Guttenberg/The Pretenders
December 20, 1986 – William Shatner/Lone Justice (Christmas Show)
January 24, 1987 – Joe Montana and Walter Payton/Debbie Harry
January 31, 1987 – Paul Shaffer/Bruce Hornsby and the Range
February 14, 1987 – Bronson Pinchot/Paul Young and Buster Poindexter
February 21, 1987 – Willie Nelson
February 28, 1987 – Valerie Bertinelli/Robert Cray Band
March 21, 1987 – Bill Murray/Percy Sledge
March 28, 1987 – Charlton Heston/Wynton Marsalis
April 11, 1987 – John Lithgow/Anita Baker
April 18, 1987 – John Larroquette/Timbuk 3
May 9, 1987 – Mark Harmon/Suzanne Vega
May 16, 1987 – Garry Shandling/Los Lobos
May 23, 1987 – Dennis Hopper/Roy Orbison

Accidental Happenings: The Bloopers Reel
It may be the live show, but mistakes are bound to happen, because after all, it is the live show. If you think the current cast makes a lot of mistakes, these are nothing in comparison.

November 15, 1986
-At the beginning of Update, Dennis Miller says, “Never let them see you sweat.” That’s because the “Weekend Update” set was only up moments before the camera was on him. Also, Victoria Jackson breaks character while narrating her video footage, and Dennis Miller makes fun of her for it.
-During “Krypton Survives,” Sam Kinison answers a phone, but it continues to ring. He ad-libs, “I answered the phone. Will you stop ringing it?” He left it off the hook when he hung it up.

March 28, 1987
-(Sketch - Church Chat) Jan Hooks (as Tammy Faye Bakker) can be seen briefly applying her running mascara. This is left unchanged in NBC reruns, but is removed in all others.

Controversial Moment

"People see me, they think I'm the Black Angel of Death. *Sam Kinison scream*"

Comedian Sam Kinison came to host on November 15, 1986, and performed an opening monologue that was foul-mouthed at best, and, in an October 18, 1986 special appearance, he delivered a comedy routine that is shown muted in reruns. Don’t adjust your volume – the only thing you’re supposed to hear is the audience laughing.

It Happened in 1986-1987: Newsworthy “Weekend Update” Moments

“And the New York Mets defeated the Boston Red Sox in Game 6 of the World Series tonight, prompting New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner to fire his manager Lou Pinella.”

“And remember, tonight's the night to turn your clocks inside-out. No, uh…actually, you turn your clocks back an hour tonight, so this show started at…what…12:40, and ends at 1:20? Pacing, kids, it's all pacing!”

“Christmas approaches, and the question becomes what to buy the children in your life. Well, why not a See 'N Say? Remember this popular toy? You dial a specific animal, and you pull the string…[demonstrates with horse] Cute, huh? But, you know, kids today crave up-to-the-minute toys, so here's the newest version of the See 'N Say - it's the Congressional Subpoena See 'N Say. We have Oliver North and John Poindexter and Regan - you know the guys. Let's see what Pointdexter says...[pulls string]
See 'N Say: I refuse to answer, on the grounds that it might incriminate me.
Dennis Miller: And…Oliver North? [pulls string]
See 'N Say: I refuse to answer, on the grounds that it might incriminate me.
Dennis Miller: And, you know, the crazy thing is, I must have pulled this thing about forty times, and it just kept saying the damn thing all the time!”

You know, it’s funny, but I was four in 1986, and See ‘N Say was actually an exciting toy for kids at the time.

“You know, Klaus von Bulow was sent home early from a New York hospital this week. The ailing von Bulow evidently angered hospital officials when he kept insisting on telling the anesthesiologist how to do his job.”

“Gary and Lee Hart have announced that, in an effort to reaffirm their love for each other, they will take their marriage vows again and recreate their wedding ceremony. The event will take place in a small chapel just outside of Denver, and Lee said, "We will try to recreate the wedding as faithfully as we can, but we'll probably skip the rice thing."”

“The Bernard Goetz Legal Defense Fund Committee is soliciting five dollar contributions. If a Goetz fundraiser asks you for a donation, just hand it over and get the hell out of there.”

The Best of the Season:

Breakout Star: Jon Lovitz

Best Impressionist (Male): Phil Hartman and Dana Carvey/(Female): Jan Hooks

Best “What the hell?” Moment: 3-way tie
-Joe Montana playing Phil Hartman’s honest roommate, Stu – he says that he is going to his room to masturbate – “The Honest Man” (1/24/1987)
-Kevin Nealon reads a map and attempts to tell viewers where he went on vacation, but tears it apart to demonstrate Hawaii, and folds it demonstrate New Jersey – it is a true testament to why he was upgraded to full cast member the next season (November 22, 1987)
-“Salmon Spawning” (I think this was one of the weirdest concepts for a sketch – I was never a fan of it) (May 9, 1987)

Best Couple: Phil Hartman and Jan Hooks

(I understand this picture is a little dark, but it was a black-and-white sketch)

Best Host (Based on Author’s Opinion): Robin Williams, Chevy Chase/Steve Martin/Martin Short, William Shatner (Don’t like him personally, but it was a good episode), John Lithgow, and John Larroquette

Worst Host (Based on Author’s Opinion): Bill Murray (I’m not much of a fan of his, and I only really liked one sketch)

Best Musical Guest: Paul Simon

Worst Musical Guest: Buster Poindexter (he friggin scares me!)

Funniest Holiday-related sketch: Tie – “It’s a Wonderful Life – The Lost Ending” (12/20/1986) and “Rev. Dwight Henderson, The World’s Meanest Methodist Minister” (4/11/1987)

Funniest Commercial Parody: Adobe, Team Xynex (my favorite “blink-and-you’ll-miss-it” commercial), Compulsion, “The World’s Most Indulgent Disinfectant,” and the New York Word Exchange (I just am amazed at how announcer-like Phil Hartman is, and he makes the best use of his distinctive voice here)

Dumbest Commercial Parody: General Dynamics (Does anyone want to tell me what this was about? Who are these people, and why are they in this commercial? Did they not have anyone who could have played these characters?)

Best On-Screen Duo: Jon Lovitz and Phil Hartman, “Johnny’s Finished” (10/18/1986)

Funniest Fake Fight: Phil Hartman and William Shatner have a shoving match, “16th Annual Star Trek Convention” (12/20/1986)

Funniest “Weekend Update” Commentator: Dana Carvey

Best Political Moment: Phil Hartman as Ronald Reagan in “Reagan the Mastermind” (12/6/1986)

Ronald Reagan attempts to discuss his policies in a take-charge attitude during a top-secret meeting with his staff, but constantly gets interrupted. The interruptions? Jimmy Stewart, the little girl “who sold the most Girl Scout Cookies,” an Arabic caller, and well…3 am. The sketch shows a time elapse, as Reagan is still discussing his policy while he staffers are sleeping. The idea was to show that Regan wasn’t the feeble-minded person we thought he was, but rather a take-charge figure. I thought it was funny.

“I’m the President! Only I need to understand!”

Best Movie We Want to See: “The Fruiting” – an obvious parody of “Poltergeist” – Phil Hartman and Nora Dunn play a husband and wife plagued by a “fresh” problem – they are being haunted by citrus fruit.

You know, I think we’ve all had that nightmare that we are being chased by something. I fear I’ll have nightmares about being chased by a pineapple tonight.

The Season Finale

“Saturday Night Live” ended its solid twelfth season on May 23, 1987 with host Dennis Hopper and musical guest Roy Orbison (who performed “Crying” and “Pretty Woman” during his first set, and “In Dreams” during his second set). In all, it was a great end to a great season, the first great season in a long time. At 1:00 am on May 24, 1987, the show went out on a high note, and the only way to go was up. But, that’s a story for another time. Like part two.

Dennis Miller’s Hair: A Comparison

So, what happened between late 1986 and mid-1987? For one thing, Dennis Miller’s hair grew. And boy, did it grow! Miller’s hair reached one of its longest points by the close of the season, but—I guess there must have been some pressure—his hair was short the next season.

Images of the Season:

Cast Photo: 1986-1987

Author’s Essential:

“Saturday Night Live” Best of 1986
Annuals Video
Copyright 1992 – Starmaker Entertainment
60 minutes

Iranian Cold Opening
Jon Lovitz, Dana Carvey, A. Whitney Brown, Kevin Nealon, Phil Hartman

Thee Amigos (Monologue)
Martin Short, Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, and Company

You know I finally figured out why Dana Carvey wasn't part of the musical number--he was busy playing Steve Martin circa 1978![/align]

Adobe (Commercial Parody)
Phil Hartman, Nora Dunn, Victoria Jackson, and Kevin Nealon

Phil Donahue Show (Sketch)
Phil Hartman, Victoria Jackson, Jan Hooks, Nora Dunn, Kevin Nealon, Jon Lovitz

Hercules (Sketch)
Bill Murray, Nora Dunn, Dana Carvey

Weekend Update (News)
Dennis Miller, Jon Lovitz

Church Chat (Sketch)
Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman, Jan Hooks

Mr. Subliminal (Sketch)
Kevin Nealon, Victoria Jackson, Jon Lovitz

The Fruiting (Movie Parody)
Phil Hartman, Nora Dunn

Back Page (Sketch)
Jon Lovitz, Phil Hartman, Steve Guttenberg, Dana Carvey, Nora Dunn

Chevy Chase, Steve Martin, Martin Short, Randy Newman, and Company


Well, that does it for part 1. Stay tuned, because in part 2, we’ll move ahead to the 1987-1988 season, where we’ll take a look at the sophomore year of the cast, see what made headlines, who the breakout star of the season is, who hosted, what were the best and worst moments, who made mistakes, and trivia of the season. That’s coming up next, so stay tuned for the next installment.

Photo Sources:
Saturday Night Live: The Best of Phil Hartman, Jon Lovitz, and Dana Carvey
Saturday Night Live: William Shatner/Lone Justice (12/20/1986)
Saturday Night Live: Malcolm Jamal Warner/Run DMC (10/18/1986)
Saturday Night Live: The Best of 1986
The Best of Saturday Night Live: Robin Williams
Saturday Night Live in the '80s: Lost and Found

I just wanted to say that I think it borders on weird that my desk lamp magically shows up in the television screen every time I took these pictures. It's kind of like in "The Sixth Sense" when you see that glimmer in all of the baby pictures. No sponsors tonight though, kids. Actually, think of that background lamp as a sponsor.

This is Allison Venezio, your “Saturday Night Live” guru, saying, “good night!”[/size]
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