SEASON OF THE WITCH: The Failure of SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE '80, Jean Doumanian & Charles Rocket; And How Eddie Murphy Saved the Show
Note: My main sources for this article
Miller, James A., and Tom Shales. Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live, as Told By Its Stars, Writers and Guests. Boston, MA: Back Bay, 2002. Print.
Hill, Doug, and Jeff Weingrad. Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live. New York: Beech Tree, 1986. Print.
Saturday Night's Children: Charles Rocket (1980-1981) | Splitsider
How Bad Can It Be? Case File #23: Saturday Night Live's aborted 1980-81 season. My World Of Flops · The A.V. Club
Rein, Richard K. "Charlie Rocket Blasts Off Amid the Turmoil of the 'Saturday Night Live' Massacres." People 15.11 (1981): n. pag. Web. 16 Feb. 2015. .
An American Icon
Last night, as we all know, was the 40th anniversary of an American icon -- Saturday Night Live. A sprawling, gigantic, three-and-a-half hour celebration of the 40 years of great comedy the show has given us. There's been nothing like it before or since -- Lorne Michaels big gamble paid off. Last night was special for a number of reasons, but one of the biggest was the return of Eddie Murphy to SNL after 30 years
In 1974, NBC Tonight Show host Johnny Carson requested that the weekend broadcasts of "Best of Carson" (officially known as The Weekend Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson) come to an end (back then, The Tonight Show was a 90-minute program), so that Carson could take two weeknights off and NBC would thus air those repeats on those nights rather than feed them to affiliates for broadcast on either Saturdays or Sundays. Given Carson's undisputed status as the dean of late-night television, NBC heard his request as an ultimatum, fearing he might use the issue as grounds to defect to either ABC or CBS. To fill the gap, the network drew up some ideas and brought in Dick Ebersol – a protégé of legendary ABC Sports president Roone Arledge – to develop a 90-minute late-night variety show. Ebersol's first order of business was hiring a young Canadian producer named Lorne Michaels to be the show-runner.
The original (1975–1980) repertory company was called the “Not Ready for Prime-Time Players.”
The first cast members were Second City alumni Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, and Gilda Radner and National Lampoon "Lemmings" alumnus Chevy Chase (whose trademark became his usual falls and opening spiel that cued the show's opening), Jane Curtin, Laraine Newman, and Garrett Morris. The original head writer was Michael O'Donoghue, a writer at National Lampoon who had worked alongside several cast members while directing The National Lampoon Radio Hour.
Michaels fought and cajoled network executives to accept his vision for the show, which was far removed from standard variety-show conventions (one executive, visiting a dress rehearsal, noticed that the band was in blue jeans and asked when their tuxedos would arrive). Before the show began Michaels had remarked that he knew what the "ingredients [of SNL] would be, but not the proportions", and that the show would have to "find itself" on-air. Indeed, the Not Ready for Primetime Players were hardly featured in the Premiere, but quickly became the focus of the show, with the guest host and musical act playing a secondary role.
Debuting on October 11, 1975, the show became an instant hit, thrusting the cast into instant stardom. Chase left the show during the second season and was replaced by the new and upcoming comic Bill Murray. Aykroyd and Belushi left the show after season four. In 1980 (after season five), Michaels—emotionally and physically exhausted—requested to put the show on hiatus for a year to give him time to pursue other ideas. Concerned that the show would be cancelled without him, Michaels suggested writers Al Franken, Tom Davis, and Jim Downey as his replacements. However, NBC president Fred Silverman disliked Franken and—after Franken performed "Limo for a Lame-O", a scathing critique of Silverman's presidency—Silverman was furious at Franken and blamed Michaels for approving the sketch. Unable to get the deal he wanted, Michaels chose to leave NBC for Paramount Pictures, intending to take his associate producer, Jean Doumanian, with him. Michaels later learned that Doumanian had been given his position at SNL after being recommended by her friend, NBC vice-president Barbara Gallagher. Michaels' departure led to most of the cast and writing staff leaving the show.
The Jean Doumanian Era (1980-81)
I never watched Jean's show. I didn't watch it when Dick was running it either. I never watched it that whole time. Not once. It would have been too painful. I didn't have anything to do with the show, so I didn't feel compromised. To walk away clean is at least to have your honor intact, and I felt I'd taken the honorable way out. - Lorne Michaels
According to Tom Shales' book Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live, Executive Producer Lorne Michaels cited burnout as the reason behind his desire to take a year off, and had been led to believe by NBC executives that the show would go on hiatus with him, and be ready to start fresh upon his return.
The Jean Doumanian Era -- all ten months of it -- marked the first but not last time Saturday Night Live's very survival was at stake. After five years of enormous and trend-setting popularity -- replete with break out stars, iconic characters, and now-classic sketches -- the show zapped back to square one in 1980 following the departures of Lorne Michaels, the cast he had assembled, and all the original writers.
Viewers may not have been immersed in the backstage politics, but they couldn't help noticing that the quality of the show plummeted. Many in the business thought Doumanian lacked the experience and expertise necessary for the job. She was further beset by skullduggery among staff members who wanted the usurper ousted from the throne almost the instant she assumed it.
NBC was doing badly in prime time, and within weeks of Doumanian's accession, Saturday Night Live was added to the network's list of gaping wounds requiring medical attention. An audience that expected to see fresh new Gildas, Belushis, Chevys, and Aykroyds refused to settle for the paltry replacements that initially dominated Doumanian's cast -- Charles Rocket, Denny Dillon, Gail Matthius, Ann Risley -- with notable passing on such then-unknown comics as Jim Carrey and John Goodman.
Saturday Night Live fell apart in less time than it took to come together five years earlier. The show still had no real competition in its time period -- "Our competition is sleep," as one cast member put it -- but its predicament was perhaps worse than if it had. Saturday Night Live was competing against the memory of itself. And losing. With its team of all-new writers and cast members, the show was plagued with problems from the start of the season and deemed a commercial disappointment, and suffered from competition with ABC's new weekend show, Fridays, budget cuts, and a lack of support that was promised to Doumanian from her staff and the network.
Doumanian & Rocket
Jean Doumanian's career has been a long and mostly successful one -- in a variety of areas, such as, music, film, television, and stage. Her time as head producer on SNL was by far the most tumultuous of her career.
The biggest mistake Doumanian made -- as seen above -- was choosing to openly acknowledge that they were living in the shadows of its previous regime. The first cold opening was called "Glory Days", and it tried to establish who the new cast members were like in relation to the original cast.
Doumanian eyed a tall, handsome, young hire from Maine named Charles Rocket, to be the next breakout star of the show -- he was promoted as a cross between Bill Murray and Chevy Chase.
Rocket was born in Bangor, Maine. He attended the Rhode Island School of Design in the late 1960s and was part of the Rhode Island underground culture scene in the 1970s that also included Talking Heads frontman David Byrne and film director Gus Van Sant.
Rocket appeared from time to time with his friend Dan Gosch as superheroes "Captain Packard" and his faithful sidekick "Lobo". In a RISD yearbook, the dynamic duo appeared in a photo at the Rhode Island State House with then-Governor Frank Licht. Rocket made several short films and fronted his band, the Fabulous Motels, on accordion (which he used in an SNL skit about a crazed criminal who uses an accordion to kill his dates and is killed himself by a bagpipe band). He later anchored the local news at Channel 12 WPRI and at KOAA-TV in Pueblo, Colorado under his own name, and WTVF Nashville under the name Charles Kennedy.
The comparisons with Chase were undeniable. Rocket was tapped to anchor Weekend Update, and was featured in more sketches than any other male cast member that season with the exception of Joe Piscopo. He impersonated President Ronald Reagan, as Chase had done with Ford. The only problem was, while Chase revolutionized the way we satirize the President -- Rocket's Reagan impression wasn't very good.
Saturday Night Live 80’s attempts at edginess tended to land with a dull thud. In a sketch devoted to a group of redneck Commie hunters, Piscopo asks Rocket how to spot a Communist if they aren’t demonstrating. Rocket replies, “Hell, Jim Bob, all you’ve got to do is shoot yourself a Jew or a nigger. Chances are better than even you’ll be shooting a Commie anywho.” That line is greeted by a good 10 seconds of toxic silence. Silence is deadly to live television comedy, but it’s absolutely excruciating when wedded to such an appalling lapse in comic judgment.
However, there was one area where Charles Rocket excelled at on SNL -- a pre-recorded part of Weekend Update called The Rocket Report -- an on-the-street mock news reports. This was first done by Rocket when he made short films, and a couple of them landed him straight news man jobs at local television stations. Before Lorne Michaels ultimately decided to leave SNL after season 5, he asked talent scout John Head to seek out potential new cast members, and Head returned with a tape of Rocket's news report spoofs. Then an associate producer, Jean Doumanian became an instant Rocket fan, and after Michaels decided to leave the show she hired him for the sixth season.
As you can see, Rocket's cool as ice, yet satirical attitude -- fits more of this style of comedy, rather than sketches and characters. Rocket is at ease with thinking on the fly and coming up with instant one-liners and quips. I'm not sure if Rocket invented this style of guerilla gonzo satire broadcast journalism -- but I do know you can find examples of Rocket Report type bits used in many comedy shows over the years -- The Tonight Show, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report -- as well as films like Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat. Now I'm not comparing what Rocket did to Borat, but nonetheless, his talent shines in The Rocket Report segments.
The Nail in the Coffin
Rocket's too-cool attitude ultimately proved to be his downfall, however. Faced with Joe Piscopo's rising airtime dominance and young Eddie Murphy's rising fame, Rocket's response was more competitive than collaborative according to Saturday Night, and his lone recurring character Phil Lively (who acts like a TV game show host in his personal life) and four celebrity impersonations (Prince Charles, David Rockefeller, Wild Kingdom host Marlin Perkins, and Ronald Reagan) didn't save him after the February 21, 1981 episode hosted by Dallas star Charlene Tilton.
The episode featured a parody of the famed "Who Shot J.R.?" story arc from the then-popular nighttime soap. During the show J. R. Ewing, played by Rocket, was shot in the chest by a sniper in the middle of a sketch. In the show's closing moments, as cast members gathered with the host to say good night, Tilton asked Rocket how he felt about being shot. In character, Rocket improvised, "Oh, man, it's the first time I've ever been shot in my life. I'd like to know who the fuck did it." There's currently no video available of the incident online, but as you can see from the image below -- it surprised everyone.
Due partially to the violation of broadcast standards, along with low ratings for both the series and the network in general and also due to constant barrage of negative press over the new cast, Doumanian and Rocket were soon fired (along with most of the writers and fellow cast members Gilbert Gottfried and Ann Risley). Joe Piscopo and Eddie Murphy were the only cast members to survive the axe, as new producer Dick Ebersol replaced Denny Dillon and Gail Matthius after one episode. Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live revealed that Rocket was particularly hostile toward Murphy and Piscopo, as Doumanian set him, Denny Dillon, and Gail Matthius up to be the show's biggest stars, only to receive mixed to negative reviews about their performances and be upstaged by Murphy and Piscopo.
In the years after his firing, Rocket appeared in a long list of TV series (including Miami Vice, Moonlighting, Murder, She Wrote, Wings, The X-Files, Star Trek: Voyager, 3rd Rock from the Sun, and Touched by an Angel) and films (Miracles, Earth Girls Are Easy, Dances with Wolves, Hocus Pocus, SNL film It's Pat, and as the kidnapper Nicholas Andre in Dumb & Dumber), cast most often in villainous roles. He also performed accordion on the 1982 B-52s album Mesopotamia and appeared in three music videos — Tom Petty's "Yer So Bad" (1989) and "King of the Hill" (1991, with Roger McGuinn) as well as The Refreshments' 1997 video for "Good Year." His final film role came with the 2003 LA mob-run poker thriller Shade.
Rocket's steady career as a television bit part regular and big-screen comedic foil ended when, on October 7, 2005, he was found dead of a slit throat in his home in Canterbury, Connecticut; his death was later ruled a suicide by the state medical examiner.
"I'm horrified," Chris Frantz of the Talking Heads told the Los Angeles Times after Rocket's death. "I know that Charlie had some pretty big disappointments in his life. The world of Hollywood movies and television can be pretty rough for a person."
Enter Eddie Murphy
Hopeless as the situation seemed, Doumanian actually had a tremendous secret weapon in her arsenal -- so secret that, sadly for her, even she didn't realize it. This was a young, brash cast member who spent most of the season in small, bit parts, except in the seventeenth-floor offices where he kept coworkers continuously entertained. He was not "a great white hope." Definitely great, however. His day would come, but not in time to save the very doomed Doumanian.
In September 1980, talent coordinator Neil Levy received a telephone call from 19-year old Eddie Murphy, who had begged the producer to "give him a shot" on the show, but was rejected since "the black cast member had already been chosen." Murphy pleaded with Levy that he had several siblings banking on him getting a spot on the show. Levy finally auditioned him, and recommended him to Doumanian.
As Levy spins it in Live From New York:
Jean had cast an actor named Robert Townsend to be "the black guy" on the show. And then this guy Eddie Murphy started calling me -- it sounded like from a pay phone -- and I told him, "I'm sorry, we're not auditioning anymore." But he called again the next day, and he would go into this whole thing about how he had eighteen brothers and sisters and they were counting on him to get this job. And he would call every day for about a week. And I finally decided I would use him as an extra.
So I brought him in for an audition, and he did a four-minute piece of him acting out three characters up in Harlem -- one guy was instigating the others to fight -- and it was absolutely brilliant. The timing, the characterizations -- talent was just shooting out of him. And I went, "Wow," and I took him in to Jean and I said, "Jean, you've got to see this." He did his audition for Jean, and she sent him out of the room and she said to me, "Well, he's good, but I like Robert Townsend better." And I went nuts, you know. I threatened to quit. At that point there were so many mistakes, I was actually heartbroken, because I'd been on the original show, and it went beyond mistakes for me. It was like there was a spirit that I knew that existed in that show and she had no idea what that was, and she was missing.
Another one of the show's writers at the time James Downey, also recalls Doumanian saying, "He's not ready."
Doumanian has a different account of how things happened -- first saying she didn't have the budget to hire Murphy as a cast member (probably true) so she hired him as a feature player. After the first two shows, according to her, she said to the administration that they HAD to make Murphy a cast member. She then goes on to say that she found out from Murphy that a network vice president was trying to tell him to leave the show and that he'd get him a sitcom on NBC. But Eddie wouldn't do it.
What develop's through Shales and Miller's interview narrative is that clearly the writers like Levy and Downey were not very fond of Doumanian. While their stories seem to all corroborate, Doumanian's doesn't. Levy recounts another time while planning a show, that she was five minutes short of the full run time and had nothing stored in the bag as a filler.
So I said, "Why don't you see if Eddie can do the monologue that he did for his audition?" And she said, "Oh no, that won't work." And then about a minute later, she said, "Why don't we get Eddie and he'll do the audition piece?" And they laughed in the booth, and I said, "Yeah, okay, great."
Eddie Murphy was finally promoted to a full cast member on January 24, 1981. In the video below, he talks about his promotion to full cast member, and swears that it will not go to his head.
Doumanian's fate was sealed on that night in late February 1981. "This woman was a trainwreck," said then NBC President and CEO Fred Silverman in the Shales book. "The shows were just not watchable." Doumanian, Gottfried, Risley, and Rocket were fired before the show returned from a month-long break.
Murphy was given chances and was a notable stand out on Weekend Update in Season 6. One of his most memorable Update appearances was in the video below. Murphy posits that Abraham Lincoln never actually signed the Emancipation Proclamation, so slavery is still technically legal, but only people who are currently watching Saturday Night Live know that. So to determine whether a black person has seen the show, Murphy suggests approaching him or her and saying, “Hey, you black Alabama porch monkey, come with me. I’m your master.” Murphy’s deadpan delivery of the line absolutely destroys, giving the show a transgressive kick it often strained for, but almost never achieved.
Put SNL To Sleep
The 11th episode ended up being the straw that broke the proverbial camel's back. Rocket slipped the word "fuck" into the closing segment. He steadfastly maintained that it was a slip, and Doumanian defended him. NBC was already on the verge of replacing Doumanian, however, and the incident was the catalyst in finding a quick replacement. Dick Ebersol was that replacement. He was flown in to watch the taping of the March 7, 1981 episode; Doumanian was fired the following Monday.
In his first week, Ebersol fired Gottfried, Risley, and Rocket, replacing them with Catherine O'Hara, Tim Kazurinsky, and Tony Rosato. At the end of the season, he would eliminate the rest of the 1980 cast except for Murphy and Piscopo.
The last episode of season 6 was delayed due to a change in producers; it was the first episode for producer Dick Ebersol, who brought in several new cast members: Robin Duke, Tim Kazurinsky, Tony Rosato, and featured players Laurie Metcalf and Emily Prager. Both Metcalf and Prager were not kept after this episode; in fact, Prager was credited but never appeared. It was also the last appearance for Denny Dillon and Gail Matthius, who were not kept for the following season.
After a season of doing just about everything wrong, Saturday Night Live finally did something right in the last episode of Season 6. It had Al Franken return to the Weekend Update desk alongside Chase to deliver a scathing monologue about how Saturday Night Live flew so spectacularly off the rails. Franken maintains that he has not been affiliated with SNL since the departure of Lorne Michaels.He also bashed the choice of both Jean Doumanian and Dick Ebersol, stating "No English-speaking person could do a worse job than Jean." Laurie Metcalf contributes a segment; it was her only contribution to the show. Emily Prager was slated to do a segment, but it was cut, and she did not appear at all.
The prickly, cantankerous future senator points out that Ebersol wasn’t being put in charge of Saturday Night Live because he was smart, funny, a comic innovator, or even someone with a reasonably good sense of humor. NBC wasn’t putting a renegade or a revolutionary at the helm of Saturday Night Live; it was installing a company man with solid commercial instincts who could be counted on to steer the wayward ship back in an unmistakably mainstream direction by emphasizing stars, catchphrases, recurring characters, and the dazzling charisma of Eddie Murphy (and, to a much lesser extent, Joe Piscopo). Depending on your perspective, Ebersol either saved the show at its low point or was merely a placeholder executive producer who kept it alive and profitable until Michaels could return and, after a similarly disastrous 1985-86 season, return it to its former glory.
The Franken monologue serves as a brilliant bit of satirical jujitsu. In a deft move, Franken attacked NBC and Saturday Night Live bosses past, present, and future and called for—no, pleaded—for a show that once meant so much to so many people to be put out of its misery for its own good, while simultaneously illustrating what made it so intermittently transcendent. He showed that in the right hands—i.e. the hands of people like himself, Al Franken, who returned as a writer and featured performer during the show’s second golden age in the late ’80s—the “tired old format” could, and would, sing again.
A Star is Born
The next season, on October 17, 1981 -- Eddie Murphy would finally get a chance to shine with "Mr. Robinson's Neighborhood" -- a watershed moment for Murphy and SNL.
As the AV Club notes:
Murphy conclusively announced his arrival as a major talent with a parody of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood in which Murphy plays a small-time street hustler who addresses the camera directly and talks in the soothing, familiar cadences of a children’s television host about decidedly kid-unfriendly topics. That intimacy proved crucial to Murphy’s ascent: Where his castmates struggled to connect, Murphy seemed to be talking directly to the audience, establishing a natural rapport with an audience desperate for a reason to laugh at a largely laugh-free season.
Reduced to its broad outlines, “Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood” is nothing more than Mr. Rogers in the hood, but Murphy adds a pleasing specificity and depth to the character. Though the sketch veered uncomfortably close to crude racial caricature, Murphy ensured that viewers were laughing with Mr. Robinson, not at him. Mr. Robinson wasn’t just a hustler on the make; he was funny, smart, and sly, radiating confidence bordering on cockiness. He was, in other words, an early incarnation of the quintessential Eddie Murphy character.
Some of his notable characters included a grown version of the Little Rascals character Buckwheat, impoverished but street-wise children's show host Mr. Robinson (a spoof of Fred Rogers, who found it amusing), and Gumby, a harshly cynical version of the animated character; Murphy's take on the latter character spawned one of SNL 's many catchphrases, "I'm Gumby, dammit!" Although Buckwheat was his most popular character, Murphy asked that he be retired because the actor grew tired of people asking him to "Do Buckwheat! Do Buckwheat!"; the character was assassinated on camera in front of 30 Rockefeller Plaza.
He was a smash hit, a superstar, but his fame didn’t insulate him from the realities of being a young, black guy in New York. Fellow cast members and writers at the time recall that, even when he was the biggest thing on the show, Murphy couldn’t hail himself a cab.
Even though Murphy “won’t talk to anybody about the show,” Chris Rock said. “He’s not bitter about it, he loves it… I think he does get pissed when they make fun of him,” like in the infamous sketch from the ‘90s in which David Spade pointed to a picture of Murphy and said, “Look, a falling star!” “Only because the show would have gotten canceled if he hadn’t been there,” Rock said. “There would be no show. So he deserves a pass on that aspect. The show would absolutely have gotten canceled. There were really no stars.”
Except one. “Eddie Murphy’s a star, man,” Rock said. “He’s probably the only guy of the SNL posse to embrace stardom—its Elvis.”
In an interview with Think Progress, Live From New York co-author James Andrew Miller about Murphy’s incredible run on the show:
I would put it this way. I would use four words: he saved the franchise. I think there are a lot of arguments to be made over who may have been the best cast member or the funniest cast member, but I think that 19-year-old Eddie Murphy hopped on Saturday Night Live at a time when its future was very uncertain. It was a time when it was without its godfather, Lorne Michaels. It was a time when there weren’t a lot of other standouts in the cast. I think some people had grown tired of it. There was no guarantees that this was going to go on… Many others played critical roles in SNL reaching 40 years on the air. But Eddie was vital.
It's a bit of a shame, Eddie Murphy's first SNL appearance in over 30 years was only 73 seconds and received disappointing reactions. To say Murphy's subsequent speech was awkwardly short would be an understatement, and when the monitors failed to segue to commercial or another montage, Murphy froze.
Nonetheless, it was the hiring of Murphy that would save Saturday Night Live -- without Murphy (with very strong support from Joe Piscopo), SNL would not have celebrated its 40th anniversary tonight -- welcoming Eddie Murphy back (who was kind of freaked out if you watched it) to 30 Rock for the first time in 30 years. Murphy received a standing ovation from the A-list celebrity crowd -- and for great reason. There was no one quite like Eddie Murphy. Of course, comparisons to Richard Pryor are obvious and he's a legend -- but Murphy did it more different and unique enough to be considered much more than a pale Pryor imitator. When Eddie Murphy is on, it's magic. When he's not, it can be quite ugly.
Sadly, for Doumanian & especially Rocket never recovered from the failure. Doumanian found success as a producer of Woody Allen films, but the damage done to her image is noticeable. It was a watershed moment in SNL's early history -- and, although SNL would struggle to gain its footing until the casting of Phil Hartman, Jon Lovitz, and Dana Carvey in 1986 -- the show has never really looked back since then.
A unique American institution -- and like a tremendous amount of comedy entertainment in our country -- was started by a Canadian.
December 11, 1982: One of Murphy's most notable moments was when he himself hosted the show. Murphy substituted for his 48 Hours co-star Nick Nolte after Nolte fell ill (Nolte became hungover following a night of partying at Studio 54). Murphy became the only person to have hosted the show while still a cast member. He controversially announced "Live from New York, it's the Eddie Murphy Show!" Murphy's hosting gig angered most of the cast and crew, particularly Joe Piscopo.
February 11, 1984: Now this is a treat -- in a Season 9 episode Robin Williams hosted episode, he and Murphy have the opportunity to do a deeply subversive sketch- an ignorant intellectual conversation about Blacks being flammable.
This was sadly the first and last time Robin Williams & Eddie Murphy would collaborate together.