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Over the almost 50 years of Saturday Night Live, there have been plenty of seasons that were good (more than most casual observers would like to admit) and bad (some spectacularly so). There was, though, only one 1984: quite possibly the strangest season in the history of the show.
With Eddie Murphy completely gone to pursue his superstar movie career and the second most recognizable cast member, Joe Piscopo, having worn out his welcome after the 1983 - '84 season, executive producer Dick Ebersol was left without a star. The remaining cast members, including a young Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Jim Belushi, had never quite fit in with the show and were largely dissatisfied with the way that they had been treated. Many people figured that Murphy leaving would finally signal the death knell for SNL.
Righting a Wrong
Instead of trying to develop another young talent like Murphy, Ebersol turned to more established comedians, including one who had almost been part of the original SNL cast. By 1984, Billy Crystal was already a well known entertainer after his stint on the sitcom Soap and his numerous talk show appearances where he imitated celebrities like boxer Mohammed Ali, but in 1974 Crystal had been cut from the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players on the eve of the show's debut. Why that happened depends largely on who tells the story, but whatever the case, when Chevy Chase, Gilda Radner, John Belushi, and Dan Aykroyd rocketed to fame, Crystal wasn’t with them. Nor was he offered the spot that went to Bill Murray when Chase left after the first season. Ten years later, Crystal was finally being given the chance to right what he considered a wrong.
The Rest of the Gang
Along with Crystal, Ebersol brought in Martin Short, who had already been a cast member of Canada's SCTV (which launched the careers of John Candy, Rick Moranis, and Catherine O'Hara), as well as Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer, fresh off their success in This Is Spinal Tap. Rich Hall, who had been part of an ensemble HBO comedy show called Not Necessarily the News, and Pamela Stephenson, who had been on the British precursor (Not the Nine O'clock News) of Hall's HBO show rounded out the new cast members. It was an odd turn of events considering that Crystal hosted SNL twice the season before he joined the cast, while Guest and Shearer had made a guest appearance as part of Spinal Tap.
Crystal, Short, and Guest wasted little time putting their stamp on the creative vacuum that they walked into. Ebersol was by all accounts a very good network executive, but he was not a comedian and didn’t come from a creative background. By the season opener, Crystal was already doing his Fernando Lamas impression ("You look mah-velous!") and Short had brought his Ed Grimley character with him from SCTV. By the third show, Crystal and Guest had worked up a breakout routine with their characters Willie and Frankie, who would continuously one-up each other with pain-inducing practices ("I hate it when that happens"). The show never missed a chance to exploit the new popular sketches — a hallmark of the Ebersol era — with Crystal doing his Fernando so frequently that the character almost deserved a separate credit in the opening theme.
More than any season before or since, the show relied on pre-taped segments, with Guest, Shearer, and Short preferring to work that way. While it went against the grain of SNL, some of the short films, particularly Shearer and Short playing aspiring male synchronized swimmers and Guest and Crystal portraying aged Negro League baseball stars were as good as anything that the show had produced.
Perhaps the best remembered episode of the season is the one hosted by wrestler Hulk Hogan and Mr. T to promote the first Wrestlemania. In the most famous segment, the pair appears with Crystal on his "Fernando Hideaway" sketch and can't keep a straight face. While Murphy returned to host and the Beatles' Ringo Starr took a turn, the other hosts included figures like Jesse Jackson, Howard Cosell, and Bob Uecker. The first show of the season didn't even have a host.
Additionally, there was little continuity with the show's fake news segment — called "Saturday Night News" instead of "Weekend Update" — with the show's host sometimes doing the anchoring and real newscaster Edwin Newman sitting in once before Guest finally took over midway through the season.
In stark contrast to the hosts, the seasons musical guests were a who's who of mid-80s pop, with acts like The Thompson Twins, Billy Ocean, Bryan Adams, and super-groups The Honey Drippers (featuring Robert Plant), and Power Station (featuring Robert Palmer) all making appearances.
When an industry-wide writers' strike halted production in early March 1985, the show didn’t return from the forced hiatus. The abbreviated season ended after just 17 episodes. NBC was unhappy with spiraling production costs and Ebersol was unhappy with his creative staff. Shearer had quit the show in January citing creative differences ("I was creative and they were different," he said later). Short and Guest didn't want to keep doing a live show. Louis-Dreyfus and Belushi (along with fellow holdover Mary Gross) had been used so little throughout the season that they wanted out. Crystal, enjoying the biggest success of his career, was seemingly the only one who wanted it to continue.
Ebersol demanded a retooling, wanting to change the format to a completely taped show and with possibly a fixed rotation of guest hosts (his ideas for the rotation included Piscopo and David Letterman). Instead, NBC briefly canceled the show. After rethinking things, the network's executives decided that they would agree to give SNL another chance… if its original creator, Lorne Michaels, would take back over.
Then and Now
Eventually, Michaels agreed to return to the show and retained none of the cast or writers from the previous season. Taking a page from Ebersol's book, Michaels tried to use established actors like Randy Quaid and Anthony Michael Hall (along with Robert Downey Jr. and Joan Cusack) to re-launch the show… which very nearly did lead to the show being canceled permanently. It wasn't until the following season when Michaels entrusted SNL to virtual unknowns like Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman, Victoria Jackson, Jon Lovitz, Jan Hooks, and Dennis Miller that the show started the run that finally established it as the institution it has become.
The goodwill that the show had gained from Crystal, Short and Guest's lone season helped carry it through Michaels' disastrous first season back. Thirty years later, the 1984 - '85 season remains an oddly alluring anomaly in the long comedic history of SNL.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is filled — and I mean jam-packed — with genre-bending, action-heavy, sportily tense and relentlessly sinuous, sky-high-concept and maniacally bonkers stuff. Polygonal mayhem that aims, and impressively so, to top the Marvel lot in ideas, deconstructing every thriller staple from government corruption to talking computers to odd couple agents gone rogue. But oddly enough, the moment in the Cap sequel that I find most arresting several weeks after seeing the film is our peaceful reunion with Steve Rogers, trotting merrily around the Washington Monument as the sun rises on our nation's capital.
The scene is shot from far overhead, a low pulse/high spirits Chris Evans reduced to a shapeless blur as he repeatedly (but politely!) laps fellow jogger and veteran Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie)... and yet it might be the closest we feel to Cap throughout the movie.
The Winter Soldier has a lot to worry about in the delivery of its content. Managing a plot as ambitious and multifaceted as its own, with themes as grand as the scope of the American mentality — as represented by Steve Rogers, raised in the good old days of gee-golly-jingoism — it doesn't always have the faculties to devote to humanizing its central troupe. Cap isn't left hollow, but his battles with the dark cloud of contemporary skepticism play more like an intriguing Socratic discussion than an emotional arc. Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow, a character who ran circles around her Avengers co-players in flavor, feels a bit shortchanged in that department here (in her closest thing to a starring role yet, no less).
Mackie's Falcon, a regular joe who is roped into the calamity thanks largely to his willingness to chat with a fellow runner — a rare skill, honestly — is less of a problem. He doesn't have much to do, but he does it all well enough. Dynamic though he may be, Mackie keeps things bridled as Cap's ad-hoc sidekick, playing up the along-for-the-ride shtick rather than going full (or even half) superhero. We might want more from him, knowing just how fun he can be, but it's a sating dose. The real hunger is for more in the way of Black Widow, Cap, and — perhaps most of all — the titular villain.
Still, these palpable holes pierce through a film that gets plenty right. As elegantly as Joe Johnston did the Spielberg thing back in 2011, Joe and Anthony Russo take on the ballots of post-innocence. They aren't afraid to get wild and weird, taking The Winter Soldier through valleys that feel unprecedented in superhero cinema. We're grateful for the invention here — for Robert Redford's buttoned-up Tom Clancy villain, for the directors' aggressive tunneling through a wide underworld of subterranean corruption, and especially for one scene in an army bunker that amounts to the most charmingly bats**t crazy reveal in any Marvel movie yet. We might be most grateful, though, for a new take on Nick Fury; here, the franchise gives Samuel L. Jackson his best material by a mile.
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But in the absence of definitive work done in our heroing couple, a pair rich in fibers but relegated to broad strokes and easy quips in this turn, most of it amounts to a fairly good spy thriller, not an ace-in-the-whole neo-superhero masterpiece... which, justly or otherwise, is what we've come to expect and demand from these things.
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Ruben Fleischer’s first film, Zombieland, was a triumph of genre-bending comedy and his latest, 30 Minutes or Less seems poised to carry on that same tradition. In preparation for the crime comedy’s release this week, I thought it appropriate to discuss another bank heist comedy of which you’ve probably never have heard: 1990’s Quick Change starring Bill Murray.
Quick Change is the story of a clown who walks into a bank; the punch line being that he’s there to rob the place. He and his crew manage to evade capture and walk away scot-free. This sets off a series of unfortunate, and undeniably whacky, events that make getting from one side of town to the other into an epic journey. As a dogged police detective gets wind of their trail, the trio of thieves tries hard to survive the perilous hazards…of the big city at night.
Quick Change is an amazing film and remains largely unseen even among Bill Murray fans. For the life of me, I cannot figure out why this movie is so overlooked. Murray is at his very best with his snide, acerbic one-liners and general distaste for all humanity. He is anchored by a charming Geena Davis and a completely unhinged Randy Quaid; yes, this movie is so good it even makes Randy Quaid bearable. The three of them provide a hilarious mixture of reactions to a number of ridiculous situations. With a cast like this, it allows for the movie to be just as character-driven as it is a madcap comedy of errors. The script is wonderfully clever and the pacing is airtight.
What’s really special about Quick Change, apart from everything else mentioned, is its supporting cast and cameos. In addition to Murray, Davis, and Quaid, we get Jason Robards as the detective hot on their heels. Robards is one of my father’s favorite actors; frankly he’s probably a favorite actor of many of our dads. He has this grizzled, weathered, Wild West quality that centers the zaniness and grounds the plot. We also get a hysterically funny performance from Tony Shaloub as a cab driver with no clue as to what’s going on; arguably making him as much in the know as anyone else in the film. Phil Hartman, Stanley Tucci, and Kurtwood Smith all turn up as well making for an intensely well rounded cast.
If the trailers for 30 Minutes or Less are any indication, the two films have a lot in common. They both center on a group of hapless thieves—but while the boys in 30 Minutes or Less are hapless in the arena of committing the actual robbery, the protagonists in Quick Change display their ineptitude in the far more simple task of getting to an airport. The irony of course being that they are crafty enough to execute the perfect heist, but ill-suited to negotiate the streets of New York. In both films, the comedy comes from unbridled absurdity. If the idea of criminals in ape costumes blowing up a teddy bear to make a point seemed as absurd as it gets, wait until you see two men bicycle jousting in the projects; one of Quick Change’s most memorable scenes.
Another similarity 30 Minutes or Less and Quick Change appear to share is their pacing. The title of Fleischer’s film alone succeeds in establishing a ticking clock to drive the rest of the narrative. In Quick Change, our anti-heroes race against time to make their flight and dodge any law enforcement figure they come across. Taking Zombieland as precedent, I would imagine 30 Minutes or Less will race along at a break-neck clip. Similarly, Quick Change seems to reach its finale in the blink of an eye. As to cameos, given the fact that Quick Change star Bill Murray was the epic surprise guest star of Zombieland, I can only imagine who might show up in 30 Minutes or Less.
Though it may be hard to find, Quick Change is a film well worth your time and the effort required to obtain it. Before you run off to the multiplex this weekend to see a farce about the world’s worst crooks, prepare your visual palate by watching a farce about some of the world’s best crooks…who are also the world’s worst tourists.
Read our review of 30 Minutes or Less!