Saturday Night Live‘s big 40th anniversary special is airing this Sunday, and while the show has given us tons of laughs over the years, not all of its 40 seasons have been highly regarded among critics. Specifically, there are three seasons in that people think of when they think of SNL at its worst. Let’s look at the stories behind those seasons:
1980-81 – The Not Ready For Not Ready For Primetime Players
Considering how much Lorne Michaels is associated with SNL now, it’s strange to think that their would ever be a time when the show could exist without him. But after the fifth season, Lorne left, and Jean Doumanian was brought in as the new executive producer. Perhaps more importantly, the entire cast left along with him. Hey, when SNL started, it starred a bunch of no-name actors, so surely a new bunch of fresh-faced kids without much TV experience would have similar success, right? Well, not so much. It didn’t take long before the wheels started to come off, and SNL was nothing like the irreverent show viewers had loved for the previous five seasons.
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The sketch in the above video is “Jack the Stripper,” one of the more infamous sketches from this cursed year. It aired in the second episode of the 1980-81 season, and it drags on for six minutes with nary a laugh in sight. Apparently, the writers thought the concept of Jack the Stripper instead of Jack the Ripper would be enough to carry a sketch without any real jokes. The silence from the audience is deafening.
This was sadly typical of sketches during this season, but the show was mostly stumbling along without too much incident until Feb. 21, 1980. That night’s show was hosted by Charlene Tilton, best known for her work on Dallas. The writers naturally decided to parody that show’s “Who Shot J.R.” storyline with an episode-length bit called “Who Shot C.R.,” in which cast member Charles Rocket is shot. At the end of the episode, Tilton asked Rocket how he felt about being shot, and he responded “I’d like to know who the f*ck did it.”
Even these days, f-bombs on the air aren’t received well by the network, but with SNL already hanging by a thread, NBC brought down the hammer. The show would air just two more episodes that season, and Jean Doumanian was fired. Dick Ebersol would be the show’s executive producer for the next four years, and the show would improve considerably, mostly due to the talents of Eddie Murphy, the lone comedic stand-out of the 1980-81 season,
1985-86 – Lorne’s Difficult Comeback
After five years away, Lorne Michaels returned as the executive producer for the 1985-86 season. At that point, the show was coming off a great year, with the “celebrity” cast of 1984-85, which featured Billy Crystal, Martin Short, and Michael McKean. Once again, however, the show would start fresh with an entirely new cast, and just like five years earlier, there were difficulties finding people who fit the mold of the show.
The 1985-86 cast would feature a fair amount of people who would go on to have prolific acting careers after their departure from SNL, including Randy Quaid, Joan Cusack, Anthony Michael Hall, and Robert Downey, Jr., all of whom would leave after just one season on the show. You may be noticing a theme with those actors. None of them are known for their comedy skills. Sure, Quaid is funny in Christmas Vacation, and Downey, Jr. brings a strong sense of comedic timing to the Tony Stark role, but you don’t really think of these people as sketch comedy actors, and for good reason.
One cast member who would go into have a fantastic career in comedy is Damon Wayans, but he was fired halfway through the season after an infamous sketch called Mr. Monopoly. In the sketch, Wayans was supposed to be the “straight man” cop to Jon Lovitz’s Mr. Monopoly. Instead, he chose to play the character as super-effeminate, leading audience members to wonder if the joke was supposed to be his character’s behavior or Lovitz’s eccentric portrayal of the Monopoly icon. After the sketch, Michaels fired Wayans on the spot, screaming at him in the process, as detailed in Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller’s SNL tell-all, Live From New York.
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For all the difficulties with this season, there were some notable bright spots. The aforementioned Lovitz was a hit with viewers, with his Pathological Liar character Tommy Flanagan becoming a signature recurring character. Meanwhile, Dennis Miller’s sarcastic wit had proved quite popular at the Weekend Update desk. Miller, Lovitz, and Nora Dunn were the only three cast members to be retained for the 1986-87 season. That year, a strong cast was brought in, which included Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman, Kevin Nealon, Jan Hooks, and Victoria Jackson. This cast would develop great chemistry, leading the show into one of its best eras, while the 1985-86 season became a distant memory.
1994-95 – The Overpopulated Wasteland
In the mid-’90s, the cast of SNL was getting huge. Long-time cast members like Kevin Nealon and Mike Myers were sharing the stage with Adam Sandler, Chris Farley, and David Spade, and it was difficult to find airtime for everyone. One cast member, Jay Mohr, acknowledged this by writing a book about his SNL experience called Gasping For Airtime. Going into the season, Janeane Garofalo and Chris Elliott were added to the cast, only exacerbating the problem of how to get everyone involved. The show was torn between old and new, and it was too crowded to get anyone other than the big stars (Sandler, Farley) a great deal of work. The result was a show that lacked a cohesive identity.
As the season rolled on, and negative reviews poured in, it became clear that big changes were going to be made. The show would reference the impending shake-up with The Polar Bear Sketch, the final skit of of the 1994-95 season. In this sketch, a series of cast members jumps into a cage with a Polar Bear, quickly ending their life in the process. Mohr, Sandler, Farley, and Tim Meadows all jump in, with Norm Macdonald being the last one standing. Of course, Meadows would end up returning the next season, and would eventually stay with the cast until 2000. At the time, however, no one was safe.
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As with 1985-86, the biggest bright spot of an otherwise dull season was a newcomer at the Update desk. This time, it was Norm Macdonald, whose ultra-dry, sardonic humor quickly found a following. Macdonald would be one of few cast members to survive the off-season overhaul (Spade, Molly Shannon, and Mark McKinney were the others). The following year, Will Ferrell, Cheri Oteri, Darrell Hammond, and Chris Kattan were brought in, and the show would once again get its comedic groove back.
If there’s one thing we’ve learned from this, it’s that SNL tends to cycle through good and bad eras as cast members are shuffled in and out. Still, with the show’s knack for finding extraordinary talent, it’s hard to keep it down for long.