Background[edit | edit source]
Dick Ebersol left "Saturday Night Live" after the 1984–85 season when NBC refused his request to shut the program down entirely for six months & 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 former producer Lorne Michaels.
The return of Lorne Michaels[edit | edit source]
In some ways, the job Michaels returned to was more challenging than the one he took on in 1975. 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.
Original writers Al Franken and Tom Davis returned as producers, and Jim Downey was appointed head writer. Fans & critics welcomed Michaels and many of the original producers and writers back, calling it a return to the show's roots.
1985-1986 cast[edit | edit source]
Lorne Michaels wanted a younger cast for the show.
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 (while Yvonne Hudson was the first black female cast member, she was never promoted to repertory player), Terry Sweeney, the first openly gay male cast member (and first openly gay male actor on American television) & Anthony Michael Hall, yet another fresh face from Hollywood (at 17 years old, he is SNL's youngest cast member overall & the only one who, at the time of his hiring, was under 18 years old), who had appeared with Quaid in "National Lampoon's Vacation" and starred in "The Breakfast Club" earlier that year.
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 anchor of the "Weekend Update".
Michaels later said about the 1985-1986 cast that "[p]erhaps I went too young." Franken said that "[y]ou couldn't do a Senate hearing [sketch] with Anthony Michael Hall, Robert Downey Jr., [or] Terry Sweeney. I mean, those guys aren't senators."
With the exceptions of Miller, Lovitz & Dunn, the new cast failed to connect with audiences; like season six, it was cited as one of the weakest and most humorless in the show's history.
The show's ratings were weak and some cast members did not expect the show to be renewed. NBC did briefly cancel "SNL" at the end of the 1985-1986 season, but Michaels asked for another season.
Michaels ended the last show of the season with a sketch in which the cast (playing themselves) get caught in a fire, and Michaels chooses to rescue only Jon Lovitz.
As the others try to escape the smoke and flames, the show asks: "WHO WILL SURVIVE?" and "WHO WILL PERISH?" and advises viewers to "TUNE IN OCTOBER 11th" as a question mark appears next to each name in the closing credits.
While the sketch satirized the common use in 1980s TV shows (such as "Dallas") of cliffhanger season endings, it also permitted Michaels to make many changes to the cast.
Show writer Robert Smigel later said, "Some of the cast members were kind of mad [about] that sketch. The ones who weren't Jon Lovitz."
Return to form[edit | edit source]
Of the entire cast, only Dunn, Lovitz, Miller & featured player A. Whitney Brown returned when the 1986-1987 season of "SNL" 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 & Kevin Nealon.
Although the new lineup contained some of the best actresses since the show's early seasons, there were some dramatic behind-the-scenes ego battles & tensions eventually forced out Dunn. Jackson has been critical of Hooks and especially Dunn, who was romantically involved with Michaels at the time
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, horrible dream" (just as "Dallas" had done a few weeks earlier).
NBC gave "SNL" only thirteen shows to turn it around, but the show rebounded almost immediately. With the new cast, SNL gained renewed popularity, but the 1987–1988 season 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; she died in May of that same year.
Steve Martin, Radner's close friend, was scheduled to host "SNL" that night, but instead of his planned monologue, he presented a sketch from the 1970s featuring himself and Radner dancing (Martin visibly teared up during the tribute).
Phil Hartman[edit | edit source]
The urbane, smooth-voiced Hartman became one of the show's longest-serving cast members. He had previously co-written Reubens' 1985 film, "Pee-wee's Big Adventure" and appeared on his popular Saturday morning show, "Pee-wee's Playhouse". He left the show in 1994.
Dana Carvey[edit | edit source]
Bolstered by strong scripts penned by the writing team, Dana Carvey's impression of George H. W. Bush 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.
Carvey's Bush impersonation was SNL's most sophisticated yet, and together with Hartman's send-up of President Ronald Reagan, they allowed for the most fruitful and successful period of political parody on "SNL."
Aykroyd 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 in the late 1980s 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.
Mike Myers[edit | edit source]
A major cast development came in the 1988-1989 season, 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, Myers introduced several classic characters during this era, including "Lothar of the Hill People" and ultra-pretentious German arts show host "Dieter."
Myers also formed a strong partnership with Carvey. Myers, together with Carvey, created and performed one of SNL's most popular recurring sketches, "Wayne's World". The sketch would 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.
Other events[edit | edit source]
Nora Dunn made headlines in 1990 when she (along with original musical guest Sinéad O'Connor) boycotted an episode which was hosted by comedian Andrew Dice Clay because they found his misogynistic humor offensive.
Then-cast member Jon Lovitz discussed Dunn's boycott of the show in detail during an episode of “The ABC’s of SNL” with director Kevin Smith:
"Anyway, it’s the [second to last episode of the season], and Nora, uh, you know, she caused a lot of trouble and she was very hard to get along with, so [SNL] wasn’t going to ask her back, anyway. And it’s the [second to] last show, and she goes to the press and says, I’m not doing this show. He’s against women, and I’m not doing it.
And this is how the press works, and I’m telling you, I’m on the inside of this. They don’t know this story. They don’t know she’s just doing it to get press. It’s her last hurrah. They’re not asking her back on the show."
After this incident, Dunn was fired from the show. The incident led to a series of ugly charges and counter-charges being lobbed between Lorne Michaels & Dunn.
Many supported Michaels, feeling that Dunn cared more about garnering publicity rather than standing up for women's rights, but others took Dunn's side and viewed Clay's appearance as an all-time low.
After the 1989-1990 season, Jon Lovitz left the show amicably 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 more quietly & without controversy, the Dunn/Clay incident seemed to be a sad forerunner for the turmoil which would dominate the show for much of the 1990s.