Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Saturday Night Live: "Mardi Gras Special"

Premiered February 20, 1977.

For this review, we depart from our usual summary-review format.  Because that wouldn't be fair to this special.

We're both huge fans of the "original cast" era of Saturday Night Live.  This Mardi Gras special was broadcast once and never re-shown on television.  This gave it a legendary status among fans of SNL.

Part of the allure of SNL is that "anything can happen" on live tv.  But cast members and hosts have rarely gone off script, nor have any major on-air accidents occurred.  In the Mardi Gras special, just about anything that could have happened did happen, and the result was mixed at best.  This special only aired once and was unavailable until the recent DVD release of the series.

What works:

Dan Aykroyd begins the festivities, doing his perfect impression of Jimmy Carter.  When the camera pans out, we see he's sitting on the back of the equestrian Andrew Jackson statue, located in Jackson Square!

Instead of the usual "Live from New York", Aykroyd/Carter exclaims "Live from Mardi Gras, it's Saturday Night!"

After the cold-opening, Randy Newman sings his song "Louisiana 1927".  It's about the Great Mississipi Flood of 1927, but the song (sadly) gained new currency after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005. Newman later performs another Lousiana-centric song called "The Kingfish", about Gov. Huey Long.

Jane Curtin and Buck Henry had the thankless task of covering the Bacchus Parade, surrounded by thousands of drunken revelers.  They did the best they could, under difficult circumstances, with writers composing jokes on the fly, projectiles being hurled at them by the crowd and the parade running way behind schedule.

We get a scene featuring guest Penny Marshall and recurring SNL characters Sherry the stewardess (Laraine Newman) and Rhonda Weiss (Gilda Radner) looking to meet guys.  The guys they meet are members of the Wild Bees Motorcyle Club!

Garret Morris performs a K-Telesque commercial for an album called "Garrett Morris Sings Fats Domino".

Baba Wawa (Radner) interviews Henry Winkler, who was very famous at the time for his role as Fonzie on Happy Days.  In a humorous exchange, Winkler seems confused about where his personality ends and Fonzie's begins.  Winkler served as King of the Bacchus Parade during Mardi Gras '77.

Eric Idle reports on the Mardi Gras festivities being held at a local restaurant.  Unfortunately, the party has ended and emptied out by the time Idle goes on the air!

Awkward (presumed) ad-libbing at its finest
SNL's resident filmmaker Gary Weis gives us two short films that capture the spirit of New Orleans.

The New Leviathan Oriental Foxtrot Orchestra performs a nice, 1920s flavored performance of the song "Rebecca Came Back From Mecca".

Paul Shaffer (then part of SNL's house band) sings "The Antler Dance"...

You've gotta love Paul Shaffer's "groovy" 70s shirt!
...while Michael "Mr. Mike" O'Donoghue does the Antler Dance on a balcony in the French Quarter.  Many in the crowd below O'Donoghue attempt to do the Antler Dance as well.

"Put your hands on your head, like a big ol' moose
Keep your elbows high, and your legs real loose
Groove around the floor, kinda leap and prance
Shake your middle just a little, and you're doing the Antler Dance!
Well, well, well, the Antler Dance!
Emily Litella (Radner) confuses the words "liver" and "river" while interviewing a riverboat captain.

New Orleans Mayor Moon Landrieu gives native son Garret Morris the "Combination To The City".  In the background, a random masked man approaches them before he's restrained by security.  Kind of creepy

In a bizarre (but funny) sketch, Weekend Update anchor Laraine Newman interviews people who are celebrating "Mouse Sunday".  This involves taping white mice over their eyes!

The high point for us was John Belushi's reenactment of the "Stella!" scene from A Streetcar Named Desire, with unexpected results.  Belushi's Brando impression was great as always, plus Streetcar was set in New Orleans, giving it extra resonance.


I won't spoil it, but the absolute best joke of the whole special comes from Jane Curtin at the very end.

While they "work", most of the above aren't exactly hilarious.  

What doesn't work?
Just about everything else.  Don't get us wrong, it's interesting to watch a live broadcast struggle to keep from falling apart.  But the rest of the show isn't very funny or entertaining. 

I've always loved Aykroyd's impression of Tom Snyder.  But the sketch where Snyder investigates topless & bottomless strip clubs starts out well, but goes on forever, to no effect.

Tom Snyder (Aykroyd) interview a stripper named Velocity (Cindy Williams).
While I like Randy Newman's music, this show has too much Newman.  Four songs in a 90-minute special is about two too many.  This was done because Newman's theater location was the most stable spot they had to work with and served as "home base" for the chaotic production.

The show's coverage of the Apollo Ball is hampered by bad camera work and sound.  Plus, Cindy Williams was lost in the crowd outside when they first cut to the ball, and poor Penny Marshall seems uncertain of how to cover for Williams' absence.

Belushi's "reenactment" of Mussolini's speech seems pointless, all build-up with little pay-off.  And the drunken crowd chanting "Duce! Duce!" is a bit ... unsettling.

Belushi as Moussolini.
Bill Murray portrays legendary New Orleans pirate Jean Lafitte, in a one-joke sketch.  Lafitte doesn't like to be called a pirate.  He proceeds to shoot everyone who calls him a pirate, it gets old fast.

Don't call Lafitte a pirate.
This isn't a great special, but if you're a fan of Classic SNL, you owe it to yourself to watch it.  This special can be found as a bonus feature of Satuday Night Live:The Complete Second Season (disc 8, to be exact).

The cast and everyone who worked behind the scenes deserves an A for effort, but this special is no lost classic.

J.A. Morris and RigbyMel's rating:

2 and a half King Cakes.


Geoff Callahan, PI said...

I remember watching it during the original broadcast. It did not leave any particular impression, possibly because it wasn't rebroadcast. No chance to memorize anything if you only see it once.

It never works to take comedy skit shows or even talk shows out of their usual context. Take for instance, the episode of the olde Letterman done in Los Angeles. Pointless. Not funny.

Even sitcom "clip shows" are better in my view.

J.A. Morris said...

Thanks for stopping by "Geoff"!

It's a shame it didn't work,SNL had plans to do a show live from an Olympic venue at one point. Still hasn't happened.

Linda Weinmunson said...

I actually saw the episode when it aired. I live in New Orleans, where we always feel like the red-headed step-child of Uncle Sam, so we always like to watch things that put us in the national spotlight. It was really hysterical to see Jane Curtain and Buck Henry squirm the whole show especially when it was apparent that the parade was not going to make it in time for the show. Anyone probably could have told them that it was a bad idea to try and get the Baccus parade in the show as it almost never showed up on time back in the day. It was a singular experience to witness THE most unique SNL ever. And it was the only Sunday Night Live ever produced!