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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.
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When we last left our heroes, they had conquered all opponents in the 74th Annual Hunger Games, returned home to their newly refurbished living quarters in District 12, and fallen haplessly to the cannibalism of PTSD. And now we're back! Hitching our wagons once again to laconic Katniss Everdeen and her sweet-natured, just-for-the-camera boyfriend Peeta Mellark as they gear up for a second go at the Capitol's killing fields.
But hold your horses — there's a good hour and a half before we step back into the arena. However, the time spent with Katniss and Peeta before the announcement that they'll be competing again for the ceremonial Quarter Quell does not drag. In fact, it's got some of the film franchise's most interesting commentary about celebrity, reality television, and the media so far, well outweighing the merit of The Hunger Games' satire on the subject matter by having Katniss struggle with her responsibilities as Panem's idol. Does she abide by the command of status quo, delighting in the public's applause for her and keeping them complacently saturated with her smiles and curtsies? Or does Katniss hold three fingers high in opposition to the machine into which she has been thrown? It's a quarrel that the real Jennifer Lawrence would handle with a castigation of the media and a joke about sandwiches, or something... but her stakes are, admittedly, much lower. Harvey Weinstein isn't threatening to kill her secret boyfriend.
Through this chapter, Katniss also grapples with a more personal warfare: her devotion to Gale (despite her inability to commit to the idea of love) and her family, her complicated, moralistic affection for Peeta, her remorse over losing Rue, and her agonizing desire to flee the eye of the public and the Capitol. Oftentimes, Katniss' depression and guilty conscience transcends the bounds of sappy. Her soap opera scenes with a soot-covered Gale really push the limits, saved if only by the undeniable grace and charisma of star Lawrence at every step along the way of this film. So it's sappy, but never too sappy.
In fact, Catching Fire is a masterpiece of pushing limits as far as they'll extend before the point of diminishing returns. Director Francis Lawrence maintains an ambiance that lends to emotional investment but never imposes too much realism as to drip into territories of grit. All of Catching Fire lives in a dreamlike state, a stark contrast to Hunger Games' guttural, grimacing quality that robbed it of the life force Suzanne Collins pumped into her first novel.
Once we get to the thunderdome, our engines are effectively revved for the "fun part." Katniss, Peeta, and their array of allies and enemies traverse a nightmare course that seems perfectly suited for a videogame spin-off. At this point, we've spent just enough time with the secondary characters to grow a bit fond of them — deliberately obnoxious Finnick, jarringly provocative Johanna, offbeat geeks Beedee and Wiress — but not quite enough to dissolve the mystery surrounding any of them or their true intentions (which become more and more enigmatic as the film progresses). We only need adhere to Katniss and Peeta once tossed in the pit of doom that is the 75th Hunger Games arena, but finding real characters in the other tributes makes for a far more fun round of extreme manhunt.
But Catching Fire doesn't vie for anything particularly grand. It entertains and engages, having fun with and anchoring weight to its characters and circumstances, but stays within the expected confines of what a Hunger Games movie can be. It's a good one, but without shooting for succinctly interesting or surprising work with Katniss and her relationships or taking a stab at anything but the obvious in terms of sending up the militant tyrannical autocracy, it never even closes in on the possibility of being a great one.
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It's an age-old question that's plagued the masses for centuries: can men be funny? Like, really actually funny? Ellie Kemper, The Office star and just one of the many fabulous funny (ginger!) women that control the female-dominated comedy world, mused prophetically about the subject for GQ this month. And, well, it's fabulous. Fans of satire will appreciate her deft ability to look at the oft-posed question ("are women funny?") by flipping the quandary onto men in order to highlight its absurdity. Here are our 5 favorite moments.
1.) "Why do they even try? my 7-year-old self would wonder as I watched Alan Alda flounder helplessly through yet another failed rerun of M*A*S*H. Why is every single Korean-lady extra so much funnier than he is?"
2.) "From Madeleine Albright to Kate Upton to Sinead O'Connor, so sue me, women just make me laugh. And I'm not talking about the kind of sweet, sexy laughter that I use when I am trying to butt someone in line; I am talking about the loud, snorting, disgusting laughter that essentially explodes out of me when I have fully and completely given myself over to yet another zinger flung by Barbara Piasecka Johnson."
3.) "Please don't think that I am arguing that all men are humorless. There are some extremely acceptable male comedians out there: Joel Osteen, Abraham Lincoln, the man who played Phil Spector in HBO's Phil Spector. ... Has any one of those men ever uttered anything even close to the zings that fly swiftly, sharply, and uproariously from [comic strip star] Cathy's chocolate-loving mouth? Game over."
4.) "Guys, do you want to know a secret? You don't have to be funny in order to attract us. Believe us, between your scalps and your calves, you've already got us. Your narrow, decrescendoing hips, and your soft, very hairy thighs leave us breathless. The truth is, there is no evolutionary cause for you to have to be funny. And precisely because your ancestors, and your ancestors' grandparents, and your ancestors' grandparents' grandparents, and so on and so on, had no procreative need to cultivate a sense of humor and performance, you literally do not have it in your DNA."
5.) "We women, with our sumptuous breasts and our shapely hips, have to be funny in order literally to survive. Our curves render us useless for just about anything except cracking wise and quip-firing. Sometimes our breasts are so big that we actually can't move; we have no choice but to sit very still in one place and come up with joke after joke. Sometimes—though rare—our hips are so wide, that we physically cannot fit through the exit door of the comedy club that our office co-workers dragged us to after happy hour. So the only option available to us is to stay inside the comedy club, absorbing comedy act after comedy act, and in so doing, completing the full transformation from comedy student to comedy master."
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Jeopardy! whiz ends 74-game streak
Jeopardy! whiz Ken Jennings' 74-game winning streak came to an end in an anti-climactic episode televised Tuesday on ABC, but the computer software engineer from Salt Lake City has something to write home about: $2,520,700 in winnings. Rumors of Jennings' loss circulated on the Internet yesterday after video clips of the episode, which was taped in September, were leaked. Jennings' downfall started when he blew two Daily Double questions and then got stumped in the Final Jeopardy round. The answer in the Business & Industry category was: Most of this firm's 70,000 seasonal white-collar employees work only four months a year. Contestant Nancy Zerg, a California real estate agent, had the correct reply: "What is H&R Block?" But Jennings guessed Federal Express as a shocked audience gasped in unison. The final score was Jennings $8,799 to Zerg's $14,001. But Jennings, who gave more than 2,700 correct responses during his stint on Jeopardy!, said getting use to the post game show life has been difficult. "I miss it quite a bit," Jennings told The Associated Press. "It didn't really hit me that that was going to be the hard part. I thought the hard part would be the loss." During his Jeopardy! reign, Jennings' average daily haul was $34,063.51, but the show benefited, too. Ratings were up 22 percent over the same period last season.
Sheryl Crow stalker acquitted
After deliberating for about three hours Tuesday, a jury found 38-year-old Ambrose Kappos not guilty of stalking singer Sheryl Crow for 15 months, the AP reports. Kappos was accused of stalking Crow from July 2002 until his Oct. 6, 2003, arrest at a concert hall in New York City where the singer was appearing. During that time, he also visited the singer's sister in Tennessee and her father in Missouri. Kappos told reporters outside the court he was "delusional" when he thought he was communicating telepathically with Crow and blamed two unhappy marriages, an infatuation with the singer and other emotional difficulties for creating the "perfect storm" psychologically.
CBS takes November sweeps
With one day to go, CBS claimed a November sweeps victory among viewers aged 18 to 49, while ABC and NBC were fighting for second. November is one of the four sweeps month where Nielsen Media Research ratings are used to set local advertising rates. According to Nielsen, CBS won the week, averaging 13.9 million viewers, followed by ABC with 11.1 million, NBC with 10 million, Fox with 7.5 million, the WB with 3.9 million, and UPN with 3.4 million. For the week of Nov. 22-28, the top 5 shows, their networks and viewerships: Desperate Housewives, ABC, 27.2 million; CSI: Crime Scene Investigation Thanksgiving Special, CBS, 24.4 million; CSI: Miami, CBS, 22.1 million; Without a Trace Thanksgiving Special, CBS, 19.8 million; and Two and a Half Men, CBS, 18.9 million.
Bill Maher fights ex-girlfriend's lawsuit
HBO's Real Time host Bill Maher is asking for the dismissal of a $9 million palimony lawsuit against him, claiming he never promised to marry and support his ex-girlfriend Nancy "Coco" Johnsen, the AP reports. "He never supported her financially, and he never promised to support her or to purchase any house for her," said the filing, calling Maher "a confirmed bachelor, and a very public one at that." In her lawsuit, the former model and flight attendant claimed Maher, who began his relationship with Johnsen in 2003, convinced her to quit her job and promised marriage, children and a house but became "verbally abusive" once she did. The relationship ended in May.
Sundance unveils film premieres
The Sundance Film Festival has announced dozens of films that will premiere in January at what has become the leading U.S. showcase for independent movies. This year's festival will feature 120 films with 87 world premieres and 19 U.S. premieres, including: Happy Endings, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, Tom Arnold and Lisa Kudrow; The Matador, featuring Pierce Brosnan; Loverboy starring Sandra Bullock; Upside of Anger with Kevin Costner; The Jacket with Adrien Brody and Keira Knightley; Game 6 with Michael Keaton and Bebe Neuwirth; and The Ballad of Jack and Rose, starring Daniel Day-Lewis. The festival, backed by actor Robert Redford's Sundance Institute, kicks off for 10 days on Jan. 20.
Drake sweeps British indie awards
Mike Leigh's Vera Drake, a moving portrayal of a back-street abortionist in 1950s London, cleaned up at the British Independent Film Awards Tuesday, taking six awards, including best film and best director, Reuters reports. Drake's stars Imelda Staunton and Phil Davis also took the top prizes in the acting categories. This makes the second win for the indie film this year, after snagging the Golden Lion for best film at the Venice Film Festival in September.
Soap actor David Bailey dies
Soap star David Bailey, who played the ruthless Alistair Crane on NBC's Passions, died in an accidental drowning at the age of 71, the AP reports. Bailey was spotted submerged in his apartment pool in Los Angeles on Nov. 25. According to an investigator's report, Bailey swam almost daily. An autopsy performed Sunday determined drowning was the cause of death. Bailey joined the Passions cast in September, finally giving a face to Alistair Crane, who had only been heard via speaker phone since the program debuted in 1999. He also portrayed Russ Matthews on Another World as well as Alan Spaulding on Guiding Light, Ben Forrest on As The World Turns and Teddy Malcolm on Ryan's Hope.
Opera singer Pavarotti to retire
Opera legend Luciano Pavarotti said he plans on retiring after he completes a 40-city tour. In an interview with Reuters, the tenor, known as "The king of the high C's," said he will bring down the curtain on a 43-year career with an international tour taking him from the Balkans to Buenos Aires via London, Paris and New York. "The tour is long but I never perform like a rock star night after night. I shall do a maximum of two or three concerts a month," he said of his global finale. When pressed, Pavarotti could not put a date on when the tour will end or where. "I don't know. When they are finished, I am finished."
Lucas donates cash to California university
Star Wars creator George Lucas has donated $100,000 to California State University, Long Beach, for film department scholarships as well as repairing equipment damaged in a heavy rain storm, the AP reports. Although Lucas attended the University of Southern California, close friend director Steven Spielberg is a Cal State Long Beach alum.
Kit Bowen contributed to this report.