History of Saturday Night Live (1985–1990)

History of Saturday Night Live (1985–1990)

The late eighties

Dick Ebersol left the show after the 1984-85 season, when the network refused his request to shut the program down entirely for six months and shift much of the material onto tape, not live broadcast. Once again, NBC briefly considered cancelling the show, but programming head Brandon Tartikoff (who was something of an "SNL" fan) decided to continue the show and re-hire erstwhile producer Lorne Michaels.

The prodigal son returns

In some ways the job Michaels returned to was more challenging than the one he took on in 1975. For starters, Michaels' "golden boy" reputation was somewhat tarnished. His most recent effort, the previous season's "The New Show" confused critics and was ignored by audiences. Also, the 1984-1985 season had been a critical and ratings hit, generating memorable characters and stand-out performers. However, Michaels would not be the only member of the old guard to return: original writers Al Franken and Tom Davis would return as producers, and Jim Downey would be head writer. Fans and critics welcomed Michaels and many of the original producers and writers back, calling it a return to the show's roots.

1985-1986 cast

Michaels opted to follow Ebersol's lead from the previous season, hiring a mixture of established and younger actors for his ensemble. He hired Academy Award nominee Randy Quaid, best known for his work in "The Last Detail" and "National Lampoon's Vacation", as well as Joan Cusack and Robert Downey Jr. Milestones included the first black female regular, Danitra Vance (a young woman named Yvonne Hudson had been a featured player in 1980 and appeared in uncredited bit parts from 1978 to 1980), Terry Sweeney, the first openly gay cast member, and Anthony Michael Hall, yet another fresh face from Hollywood, who appeared with Quaid in "Vacation" and starred in "The Breakfast Club" earlier that year. At 17, he was the youngest cast member ever. Rounding out the cast were unknowns: stand-up comedians Dennis Miller and Damon Wayans and improv comedians Nora Dunn and Jon Lovitz. Don Novello, another member of the old guard, would also return as his popular Father Guido Sarducci character. Miller, who performed in relatively few sketches (and even fewer as the years went by), became known for bringing his stand-up wit to "Weekend Update," becoming the most memorable anchor since Chevy Chase back in 1975.

With the exceptions of Miller, Lovitz, and Dunn, the new cast failed to connect with audiences. Michaels' gamble on a young, "brat pack" approach may have made the show seem more hip, but many of the regulars were better actors than comedians. Michaels angered most of his cast by ending the season with a sketch in which the cast (playing themselves) get caught in a fire, and Michaels chooses to rescue only Lovitz (who had connected with audiences due in part to his popular characters the Master Thespian and the Pathological Liar with the catchphrase "that's the ticket!"). The writing staff, composed of newcomers and veterans from the first five seasons had failed to collaborate with the new talent as they had during Michaels' first tenure. At the end of the 1985-1986 season NBC briefly canceled "SNL", but eventually opted to give Michaels six episodes in the fall to turn things around.

Return to form

Of the entire cast, only Dunn, Lovitz, and Miller returned when the 1986-1987 season rolled around. For his next crop of regulars, Michaels returned to his original tactic of assembling a strong ensemble of relative unknowns, led by Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman, Jan Hooks, Victoria Jackson, and Kevin Nealon. Although the new lineup contained some of the best actresses since the show's early seasons, there were reportedly some dramatic behind-the-scenes ego battles, and tensions eventually forced out Nora Dunn. Victoria Jackson has been highly critical of Hooks and especially Dunn, who was romantically involved with Michaels at the time.Fact|date=February 2007

The first show of the 1986-1987 season opened with Madonna, host of the previous season opener, telling the audience that the entire 1985-1986 season had been a "horrible dream," just as "Dallas" had done a few weeks earlier (marking the second time J.R. Ewing and company were parodied during a tumultuous time on "SNL"). Audiences were thrilled, NBC gave "SNL" only thirteen shows to turn it around, but the show rebounded almost immediately. Michaels pulled out all the stops that season, producing some of the best shows ever (in particular, shows 4-6 with Sam Kinison / Lou Reed; Robin Williams / Paul Simon; Chevy Chase, Steve Martin, Martin Short/ Randy Newman).

With the new cast, "SNL" began to revive and gain renewed popularity thanks to Michaels' inspired casting decisions, vastly improved writing and increasingly on-target political satire and pop culture parodies. Sadly, one of the best seasons, 1987-1988, was cut short by a writers' strike. Gilda Radner had been penciled in to host the season finale that spring, but by 1989 her cancer had returned and she died within the year.

Phil Hartman

The urbane, smooth-voiced Hartman became one of the show's longest-serving cast members. Hartman had originally worked as a graphic designer; among his credits is the band logo for Poco and the cover of the hit 1975 album "America's Greatest Hits." Turning to theatre, he became a member of The Groundlings, where he met Paul Reubens, which led to him co-writing Reubens' cult 1985 film "Pee-Wee's Big Adventure" and appearing on his popular Saturday morning show "Pee-Wee's Playhouse". When he left "SNL" in 1994, he and Kevin Nealon were the longest-serving cast members in the show's history (eight seasons), surpassed only by Tim Meadows and Darrell Hammond (in his thirteenth season)

Notable recurring sketches and characters from 1986-1990

The shows throughout the 1986-1990 period featured some of the best-loved recurring sketches and characters in "SNL" history, including pathological liar Tommy Flanagan (Lovitz), the Sweeney Sisters (Dunn and Hooks as a low-rent vocal duo), and the speech-impaired trio of Frankenstein (Hartman), Tonto (Lovitz), and Tarzan (Nealon), as well as Toonces the Driving Cat (a sketch featuring a Victoria Jackson character who owns a cat that can drive a car), Lovitz's otherworldly Mephistopheles (complete with Halloween devil costume and plastic trident) and the Schwarzenegger-like Austrian bodybuilders Hans and Franz (Carvey and Nealon). Carvey also gained renown for his scowling, ultra-conservative "Church Lady" character, and even more so for his brilliant impersonation of U.S. Vice-President and eventual President George H. W. Bush.

Dana Carvey

Bolstered by strong scripts penned by the writing team, Carvey's Bush impression was a notable advance on earlier ventures in this vein, and helped set a new benchmark for this aspect of the show's political satire. "SNL's" strongest period of political parody before this was the 1976-1979 era, when Dan Aykroyd appeared frequently as both former U.S. President Richard Nixon (alongside John Belushi as Henry Kissinger), and then current President Jimmy Carter. While Aykroyd's impersonations marked successful efforts to bring well-known political figures to life on the show, the only other well-remembered political impersonation from "SNL's" 1970s period (or any other period before the 1986-1987 season) was Chevy Chase's slapstick parody of President Gerald Ford. Chase's impersonation of Ford was popular with audiences, but made no attempt to create an accurate impression of Ford's character or essay any in-depth political satire — his sketches simply lampooned Ford's renowned clumsiness and consisted of Chase falling down a lot.

Carvey's Bush impersonation was "SNL's" most sophisticated yet, and together with Hartman's hilarious send-up of President Ronald Reagan, they allowed for the most fruitful and successful period of political parody on "SNL." Aykroyd himself often returned in guest appearances on the show throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s to impersonate Republican primary candidate Bob Dole, while Jon Lovitz appeared frequently in late '80s episodes as Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis. Carvey's appearances as President Bush grew so popular that the former President himself made a cameo appearance in 1994 when Carvey hosted the show, lightheartedly taking Dana to task.

Mike Myers

A major cast development came in 1988-1989, with the mid-season recruitment of young Canadian comic Mike Myers, who, like many cast members ever since 1975, had been recruited from the Second City stage show. A versatile and inventive comedian with a gift for accents and a lifelong love of Monty Python and British comedy, he introduced several classic characters during this era, including "Lothar of the Hill People" and ultra-pretentious German arts show host "Dieter". He also formed a strong partnership with Carvey, which revisited the magic of the classic Aykroyd-Belushi pairing. Beginning almost upon his arrival on the show, Myers, together with Carvey, created and performed one of "SNL's" most popular and successful recurring sketches ever, "Wayne's World". The sketch would go on to inspire two successful spin-off movies in 1992 and 1993, which in turn led to a plethora of screen comedies inspired by or based on "SNL" sketches throughout the 1990s.

The Andrew Dice Clay hosted episode

In Spring, 1990 proved to be a rocky finale for one of the show's most underrated cast members. Nora Dunn boycotted a show hosted by extremely controversial comedian Andrew Dice Clay. NBC fired her and a series of ugly charges and counter-charges were lobbied between Lorne Michaels and Dunn. Many felt that Dunn cared more about garnering publicity than standing up for women's rights, but others took her side and viewed Clay's appearance as an all-time low. After the 1989-1990 season, Jon Lovitz left the show with the intent of focusing on a film career.

These departures marked the first incidents of turnover on the show in nearly half a decade. While Lovitz's departure happened relatively quietly and without controversy, the Dunn/Clay incident seemed to be a sad harbinger for the turmoil which would mark much of the 1990s.

Season breakdown

1985-1986 season

Opening montage

This season also had two opening montages. The first lasted only four episodes, and--like the 1984 season--opened with a picture of the Statue of Liberty covered in scaffolding (the statue was under renovation that year in preparation for its centennial celebration). It then showed various still images of New York bordered with several triangular lines and post-card like decorations. Starting with the Tom Hanks/Sade episode on December 14, 1985, a new opening montage seemed to tell a story of sorts of a limo driving through New York, and eventually passing each cast member. At the end, the limo would approach 30 Rockefeller Plaza, and that particular weeks' host would then emerge from the backseat. Another version of the second montage exists that shows a plane landing just before the limo leaves the airport. The music during this opener would be used for almost a decade, with a slight change in 1994, and finally being replaced entirely for the 1995 season.

Cast

* Joan Cusack
* Robert Downey Jr.
* Nora Dunn
* Anthony Michael Hall
* Jon Lovitz
* Dennis Miller
* Randy Quaid
* Terry Sweeney
* Danitra Vance"Featuring"
* A. Whitney Brown (debut: February 22, 1986)
* Al Franken (debut: March 22, 1986)
* Don Novello
* Dan Vitale (final: February 8, 1986)
* Damon Wayans (final: March 15, 1986)

Notes

* Wayans is fired on March 15, 1986, (he was sick of the way the show treated him and camped up a "straight" character so that Lorne Michaels would fire him) However he was invited to perform a stand-up routine in the Season Finale episode later that May. Vitale, a little-used featured player who also served as a staff writer, is also pink-slipped at mid-season.
* At season's end Cusack, Downey, Hall, Quaid, and Sweeney are all axed. Danitra Vance quits because of her limited roles. Although each had his/her funny moments (Sweeney's Nancy Reagan impression was especially popular), the cast never seemed to come together as a cohesive unit.
* This season included the only "SNL" episode (unless one counts the "Who Shot C.R.?" episode from years earlier) to actually feature a continuing narrative thread linking the sketches together. In the opening sketch of an episode hosted by George Wendt, the cast is informed that NBC is turning the show over to respected director Francis Ford Coppola, in a bid for greater artistic merit. A brilliant director of feature films, Coppola turns out to be an incompetent TV director, resulting in a running gag in which each sketch is ruined in various ways by Coppola's bumbling. The cast finally quits in the final sketch when Anthony Michael Hall is injured in a war-sketch after Coppola decides to use real bullets to increase the sketch's sense of realism. During the closing credits, Wendt realizes just how much damage Coppola has done to "SNL's" reputation: the former producers of the show (actually played by Franken & Davis) have chosen to tend bar rather than continue watching Coppola's travesty.

1986-1987 season

Opening montage

This montage was used for two seasons, and is basically just video footage of each cast member racing the clock to get to what appears to be a casual night club.

Cast

* Dana Carvey
* Nora Dunn
* Phil Hartman
* Jan Hooks
* Victoria Jackson
* Jon Lovitz
* Dennis Miller"Featuring"
* A. Whitney Brown
* Kevin Nealon

Notes

* This season provides a major cast overhaul which restores the show to critical acclaim and watercooler value. All players introduced in this season become long-running cast members and/or major stars. Even the middle ranked Kevin Nealon remains in the cast for 9 seasons, one of the longest-running stints for any cast member (he's bumped up to contract in the 1987-1988 season).

1987-1988 season

Opening montage

Same montage as the 1986 season with only two noticeable changes: 1) Kevin Nealon is added to full-fledged cast member status in the credits and 2) The host/musical guest photos shown during the montage and bumpers are now in black and white.

Cast

* Dana Carvey
* Nora Dunn
* Phil Hartman
* Jan Hooks
* Victoria Jackson
* Jon Lovitz
* Dennis Miller
* Kevin Nealon"Featuring"
* A. Whitney Brown
* Al Franken

Notes

* This season is trimmed to only 13 episodes due to a writers' strike. It is the one of the three shortest SNL seasons, 1980-1981 and 2007-2008 being the others.

1988-1989 season

Opening montage

This montage was also used for two seasons, and is just video footage with a light greenish-blue tint, of the cast members "caught" engaging in different tasks around areas of New York, intermingled with various footage of the city. During this season, the now-familiar "Saturday Night Live" circular logo appears for the first time.

Cast

* Dana Carvey
* Nora Dunn
* Phil Hartman
* Jan Hooks
* Victoria Jackson
* Jon Lovitz
* Dennis Miller
* Kevin Nealon"Featuring"
* A. Whitney Brown
* Al Franken
* Mike Myers (debut: January 21, 1989)
* Ben Stiller (debut: February 25, 1989)

Notes

* Ben Stiller and Mike Myers go on to become major film stars, but by very different routes. Myers remains on "SNL" for 6 years, as an increasingly popular attraction, while Stiller is fired in Spring 1989, and becomes a big draw by the late 1990s.

1989-1990 season

This season included "SNL"'s 15th anniversary special. Highly self-referential, this special was introduced by a sketch in which Garrett Morris tries to convince Chevy Chase not to introduce the show with one of his trademarked pratfalls, which he had done regularly in the show's first season. (Chase does the fall, but with a helmet; just prior to the fall, Chase passes behind a large prop column, and after the fall, "Chase" hobbles into a prop door and closes it for no thematic-related reason, only to re-emerge a moment later, remove his helmet, and utter the opening line. This makes is seem likely that a stuntman, his identity obscured by the helmet, actually did the fall, while Chase passed through the "column" to the backstage, ready to re-emerge after the stuntman's fall.) Tom Hanks' opening monologue poked fun at opening monologues (hinting at a future change in the trend, as the monologue would more and more often be less of a monologue and more of a sketch), while Buck Henry performed a monologue dealing with Steve Martin's inability to perform live (as Martin wailed uncontrollably in the background). The special also poked fun at the publicized fact that Eddie Murphy had refused to appear; he was instead represented by "Eddie Murphy's Entourage." And a tribute to Gilda Radner was edited to make it appear as if Radner was watching from the audience.

Opening montage

Same montage as the 1988 season with little notable changes, except that every episode in 1990 has a '15' in the center of the circle logo, commemorating the 15th anniversary of the show, and the final shot of a glam woman before crossfading to the establishing shot on home base was trimmed.

Cast

* Dana Carvey
* Nora Dunn
* Phil Hartman
* Jan Hooks
* Victoria Jackson
* Jon Lovitz
* Dennis Miller
* Mike Myers
* Kevin Nealon"Featuring"
* A. Whitney Brown
* Al Franken

Notes

* Myers is bumped up to contract player at the start of this season.
* The Last three episodes of season 15 mark the on-screen debut of two 90's SNL cast members Rob Schneider and David Spade, although both of them are uncredited extras.
* This season has the first real cast turmoil in nearly five years, as Lovitz quit suddenly between seasons to gain more film roles, and Dunn is fired after boycotting the show hosted by Andrew Dice Clay.


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