NBC Universal Media/Getty Images
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.
Sorry, Astronaut Mike Dexter, but it seems like Tina Fey might not be orbiting into outer space with you anytime soon. The actress/writer/Golden Globes co-host extraordinaire — who is back on the big screen again now that her Emmy-winning comedy cult darling 30 Rock is off the air — has some qualifications when it comes to picking her movie roles, including her latest as Princeton admissions officer named Portia Nathan in the new comedy Admission.
"I look [at a script] and go, 'Am I believable as an admissions person? Yes," Fey said during an interview with Hollywood.com. "Am I believable as an astronaut? Perhaps not...we don't know."
RELATED: 'Admission' Pairs Tina Fey and Paul Rudd, Pop Culture Explodes
While Fey hasn't gotten on board for an all-female remake of The Right Stuff... yet, she certainly knows a thing or two about the often arduous process of considering and, sometimes, rejecting submissions. "It was actually something I related to a lot, specifically because of SNL," Fey said of being able to relate to her character in Admission.
"As one of the head writers of the show, I used to have to always read hundreds of writers submissions of people who wanted writing jobs. I remember how stressful it was. When you got a really bad one, you were almost relieved because it was a clear no." Fey noted that it was toughest when there were more than a few viable candidates and was forced to ask herself, "What one person's life are we gonna change? It's a really daunting position to be in."
Fey found herself in another familiar territory in Admission: being in an ultimately doomed with relationship with Michael Sheen, who played Wesley Snipes on 30 Rock, the man Liz Lemon didn't settle for, after all. ("It's meant to not be," as Fey put it). Lucky for Fey — and her character Portia, who is unceremoniously dumped by Sheen's snobby character Mark for another woman — Paul Rudd's charming character John Pressman, the headmaster of an alternative high school, comes into the picture.
RELATED: Tina Fey is 'Struggling' Now That '30 Rock is Done
Despite having similar friends and a similar Hollywood sensibility, Rudd and Fey had surprisingly never worked together until Admission. So what was the experience like for Fey? "He's the worst. He's awful. To be around. To look at. F**king not cool. Not funny," Fey joked, adding, "I cursed a little bit there, so you should bleep that."(Sorry Tina!)
Alright, so we had to ask her: what are her and her BFF Amy Poehler — who knocked their Golden Globes hosting gig out of the park — going to emcee next? "We are available for auto shows and boat shows." We're so there.
RELATED: Tina Fey Responds to Taylor Swift: 'It Was Just a Joke'
Check out the full interview with Tina Fey below, in which she also talks about her own application process to the University of Virginia, her thoughts on a new generation enjoying 30 Rock ("I would love that if there's a generation of nerds growing up watching 30 Rock the way that I watched Monty Python or SNL or SCTV"), and her advice for young, aspiring comedy stars and writers.
Admission opens in theaters nationwide on March 22.
[Photo credit: Focus Features]
So far, during the course of this column, we’ve examined the disappearances of child actors and Hollywood royalty; of great genre directors and television stars who were once household names. The causes of these disappearances have ranged from ill-advised career choices to the decision to purse a career in politics. Or, in the case of Sean Connery, it was less a disappearance and more a retirement after a long and legendary career. Today’s subject made a similar choice, but under tragic circumstances. Today we send a search party after Rick Moranis.
Why We Love Him
Moranis got his start on the Canadian sketch comedy television show SCTV. This landmark series was the launching pad for a veritable heap of renowned comedic talents. This list includes, but is by no means limited to, John Candy, Eugene Levy, Harold Ramis, Catherine O’Hara and Dave Thomas. Moranis and Thomas created a duo of characters known as the McKenzie Brothers who derived much of their humor from being overzealously Canadian. The characters proved to be so popular that they were given their own movie in 1983: Strange Brew.
The very next year, Moranis landed a role that would forever define him as a performer and would inform the vast majority of characters he would play from that point forward. He played Louis Tully, Sigourney Weaver’s hopelessly nerdy neighbor in Ghostbusters who has the grave misfortune of being turned into a demon dog. This nerdiness would translate well to his next major film role. In 1986, he was cast as Seymour Krelborn in Frank Oz’s film adaptation of the musical Little Shop of Horrors. His thick glasses and high-water trousers were his signature armor of dweebiness, and yet his haplessness and sincerity made him instantly likeable.
In 1987, Moranis was among the stunning ensemble cast of Mel Brooks’ Star Wars parody Spaceballs. He was comedic gold as the evil Dark Helmet and has some of the best lines in an already incredibly quotable film. He also proved just as charmingly hapless as a villain as he did as a hero. He would follow this by reprising his role as Louis in Ghostbusters II before portraying wacked-out professor Wayne Szalinski in Disney’s Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. By then, Moranis had made nerdiness an artform.
What Happened to Him?
In 1991, Rick Moranis’ beloved wife Anne, with whom he had two children, passed away from liver cancer. By this point in his life, he was already growing restless with the Hollywood system and found little reward in it. In addition, Rick was struggling to raise his two children on his own. As a result, he announced his retirement from acting in 1997. Moranis has not appeared in a live action film since.
Where He’s Been
He was offered the role of the governor in 2001’s Evolution, but deferred the role to his friend Dan Aykroyd. Between 1997 and 2001, all was quiet on the Moranis front. In 2003, he lent his voice to the Disney film Brother Bear. In fact, since his retirement, the only brief reappearances made by Moranis have been animated films for which he provided voice work. Evidently, his decision to retire was not one entered into lightly.
Rick has remained relatively off the cinematic grid since his retirement. Even with limiting himself to animated films, the last of those that he did was Brother Bear 2 in 2006. What is often most interesting about researching these MIA celebrities is finding that they have been dabbling in other artistic mediums or even entirely separate occupations. In the case of Rick Moranis, the new medium in which he decided to dabble was that of comedic country music. In 2005 he released an album entitled ‘’The Agoraphobic Cowboy.” I don’t think I’m alone in my hope that Rick Moranis will soon trade in his Stetson for a pair of suspenders and pocket protector and return to the big screen. The state of modern comedies could be greatly improved by his return…Zuul knows it couldn’t hurt.
A comedy special featuring clips from "SCTV Network," a series which ran from 1977-84 (first in syndication, then on NBC, and finally on Cinemax) and which satirized life at a TV station by spoofing the TV personalities and programs broadcast throughout the day.