SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE: THE COMPLETE THIRD SEASON – DVD review

NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” has been hitting airwaves for over three decades. The Lorne Michaels creation has been criticized for losing its humor and edge over the past thirty-three years and while many today that enjoyed the early years could not name more than two or three current members of the “Not Ready for Prime Time Players,” the first few seasons were chocked full of many very talented comedians who would go on to find very good careers outside of the variety, sketch comedy show. Among those that began as part of the original cast of actors, Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris, Laraine Newman and Gilda Radner returned for the third season. They were joined by Tom Davis and Al Franken, whom were added during year two. For the third season, veteran funnyman Bill Murray joined the “Not Ready for Prime Time Players.”

Some of the sketches visited during the third season were carryover characters from the first two seasons or introduced during the 1977-1978 season. The ‘Wild and Crazy Guys’ Fustrunk Brothers featured Dan Aykroyd and Steve Martin and appeared twice during the third season. Aykroyd and Bill Murray were the ‘Ex-Police,’ two bad egg police officers who used their ex-police status for no good. The Weekend Update saw the first appearance by Al Franken’s Lester Crackfield and Don Novello’s Father Guido Sarducci. The familiar ‘Point-Counterpoint’ between Aykroyd and Jane Curtin was also introduced during the third season. Of course, who can forget the yell of “Cheeburga! Cheeburga!” during the Olympia Café by John Belushi. However, the “Blues Brothers” of Aykroyd and Belushi are easily the more memorable new characters introduced during the third season.

A number of popular sketches made their return during the third season as well. The always-popular “Weekend Update” found Dan Aykroyd joining Jane Curtin at the Weekend Update desk as co-anchor. Chevy Chase attempted to steal back his old job during a sketch on the show he hosted. His well-loved ‘Land Shark’ sketch made a return that week as well. Aykroyd and Curtin brought back their familiar ‘Coneheads’ during the season; characters that were always funny on television, but bombed miserably on the big screen. Billy Murray lent his talents as Nick the Lounge Singer for a couple of episodes, including the iconic moment where Nick Winters sings “Star Wars.” The sadly missed and incredibly talented John Belushi brought to life familiar characters such as Samurai Futaba and Steve Bushakis during the third season.

With Aykroyd, Belushi, Murray, Curtin and Radner on the card for the third season, SNL arguably had its best cast. Some could argue that Chevy Chase during the first season was an upgrade over Billy Murray, but I would argue against this as Murray was a far more varied and zany comedic actor that fit sketch comedy a little better than Chase did. Of course, most of this cast would stick together up until 1979, but I’ve always been of the mind that after Murray, Belushi and Aykroyd left SNL that things slowly went downhill. Sure, the likes of Eddie Murphy, Jon Lovitz, Dennis Miller, Phil Hartman, Dana Carvey, Mike Myers and Victoria Jackson are all notable and Chris Rock, Will Ferrell, Rob Schneider, Chris Farley, Adam Sandler and David Spade are familiar to today’s audiences, the ‘vintage’ crew was far edgier and funnier than anybody over the past two and a half decades.

This is a vintage season of “Saturday Night Live” and for fans of the show that would agree with me that the first five years were the ‘Golden Years of SNL,’ then this is a set of twenty episodes that should entertain you tremendously. There were so many funny actors and wonderful sketches, that well over half the content of this season seems classic. The show was also not afraid to push the boundaries of taste a little further than today’s neutered-feeling episodes. Sex, drugs and race were more prevalent during the early years of SNL and the content was funny and edgy. I’ve always enjoyed the older episodes of SNL because they weren’t afraid of breaking taboo for laughs.

Episodes

Episode 1
Host: Steve Martin
Musical Guest: Jackson Browne
Airdate: 24Sep77

Episode 2
Host: Madeline Kahn
Musical Guest: Taj Mahal
Special Guest: Barry Humphries as Dame Edna
Airdate: 08Oct77

Episode 3
Host: Hugh Hefner
Musical Guest: Libby Titus
Airdate: 15Oct77

Episode 4
Host: Charles Grodin
Musical Guest: Paul Simon & the Persuasions
Airdate: 29Oct77

Episode 5
Host: Ray Charles
Special Guest: Franklyn Jaye
Airdate: 12Nov77

Episode 6
Host: Buck Henry
Musical Guest: Leon Redbone
Airdate: 19Nov77

Episode 7
Host: Mary Kay Place
Musical Guest: Willie Nelson
Airdate: 10Dec77

Episode 8
Host: Miskel Spillman
Musical Guest: Elvis Costello
Airdate: 17Dec77

Episode 9
Host: Steve Martin
Musical Guest: The Dirt Band, Randy Newman
Airdate: 21Jan78

Episode 10
Host: Robert Klein
Musical Guest: Bonnie Raitt
Airdate: 28Jan78

Episode 11
Host: Chevy Chase
Musical Guest: Billy Joel
Airdate: 18Feb78

Episode 12
Host: O.J. Simpson
Musical Guest: Ashford & Simpson
Airdate: 25Feb78

Episode 13
Host: Art Garfunkel
Musical Guest: Stephen Bishop
Airdate: 11Mar78

Episode 14
Host: Jill Clayburgh
Musical Guest: Eddie Money
Airdate: 18Mar78

Episode 15
Host: Christopher Lee
Musical Guest: Meat Loaf
Special Guest: Richard Belzer
Airdate: 25Mar78

Episode 16
Host: Michael Palin
Musical Guest: Eugene Record
Airdate: 08Apr78

Episode 17
Host: Michael Sarrazin
Musical Guest: Keith Jarrett & Gravity
Airdate: 15Apr78

Episode 18
Host: Steve Martin
Musical Guest: The Blues Brothers
Airdate: 22Apr78

Episode 19
Host: Richard Dreyfuss
Musical Guest: Jimmy Buffett & Gary Tigerman
Airdate: 13May78

Episode 20
Host: Buck Henry
Musical Guest: Sun Ra
Airdate: 20May78

Hosts:

Contrary to popular belief, Steve Martin was never a regular cast member on Saturday night live. Sure, it may seem that the ‘wild and crazy guy’ was one of the SNL talent that used the show to catapult to fame, but Martin was only ever a host; and currently stands as the person who has hosted the show the most number of times with fourteen appearances. The third season of “Saturday Night Live” alone might be responsible for this misconception as Martin appeared as host three times in just one season and his ‘singing pharaoh’ skit is one of the true classic moments featuring Martin during his hosting duties. His re-occurring character of a Festrunk Brother and Czechoslovakian swinger was another staple of the third year where he acted opposite of Dan Aykroyd. The three appearances during this third season featured some of the more unusual monologues, but his appearances are easily among the highlights of this third season.

The third season was filled with a solid collection of hosts in addition to Martin. Another popular reoccurring host, Buck Henry, appeared twice. Unfortunately, I found myself skipping both Henry-hosted episodes as I fell into a trap and nearly watched the entire season and had to put an end to my madness. Ray Charles served as the only host during the third season to perform as both host and musical guest. Actors Charles Grodin, Madeline Kahn, Richard Dreyfuss, Christopher Lee, Michael Palin and comedian Robert Klein were among the more familiar hosts, as well as Season One alumnus Chevy Chase. Out of the more familiar hosts, I found the veteran horror actor Lee and Monty Python member Palin as two of my favorite hosts aside from Chase and Martin. Playboy entrepreneur Hugh Hefner was quite funny as well and sports star O.J. Simpson handled hosting duties once.

A number of lesser-known folk also handled hosting duties during year three. Miskel Spillman is a name that I would venture a guess that nearly nobody remembers. Spillman was the winner of the ‘Anyone Can Host’ contest that was advertised throughout the early part of the season and he was given her chance during Episode 8. Spillman’s episode was one of the edgier of the season with drug references and a bold song statement made by musical guest Elvis Costello. In addition to the funny old lady, an actress named Mary Kay Place helmed the Willie Nelson show. While Art Garfunkel is the other half of the musical duo Simon & Garfunkel, the singer didn’t have a very prominent career as an actor and he appears on the show in a non-musical role. Little known Jill Clayburgh and somebody named Michael Sarrazin also appear as guests. I didn’t watch the Sarrazin episode, so I’m not sure who this person is.

Musical Guests:

Part of the allure of “Saturday Night Live” is the musical performances. Artists typically perform two songs on the show. Many bands have become more prominent after appearing on the long-running television show and established artists use the skit-based show as a way of showcasing new singles and promoting new albums. The show does not just cater to the big stars. Many unfamiliar names have graced the late Saturday night airwaves and found their largest audience between the comedy skits of the ‘Not Ready for Prime Time Players.’ Over the years, SNL has found an ability to attract the largest names in the business. The first two years were not nearly as strong as the third and far more ‘superstars’ appeared on the show during its third year. Of course, the fourth year delivered an even larger collection of big names with the Grateful Dead, the Rolling Stones, and Gary Busey singing, but this third year was an improvement over the previous season.

The third season of “Saturday Night Live” featured a large wealth of musical talent. From the obscure and relatively unknown talents of songwriter Libby Titus to superstar Billy Joel and the legendary Ray Charles, the third season contained some very good performances. The names that should be familiar to practically everybody include Joel, Charles, Willie Nelson, Meat Loaf, Jimmy Buffett and Paul Simon. Eddie Money, Bonnie Raitt, Randy Newman, Elvis Costello, Jackson Browne and Ashford & Simpson should be other relatively familiar performances. The more obscure talent to take the SNL stage includes Titus, the Panama hat wearing Leon Redbone, Stephen Bishop, Chi-Lites lead vocalist Eugene Record and fellow Pennsylvanian Keith Jarrett. Sun Ra, Taj Mahal, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and SNL’s own the Blues Brothers completed the list of musicians that performed during the third season.

Out of the musical talent selected for this particular season, I enjoyed Ray Charles, Billy Joel and Jimmy Buffett the most. However, they are closer to personal favorites than other singers. I also enjoyed Willie Nelson, Eugene Record, Jackson Browne and Eddie Money’s performances. Some of the bigger names disappointed me. Elvis Costello, Bonnie Raitt, Paul Simon and Meat Loaf gave uninspired performances that did not particularly excite me. I skipped past the episodes featuring Sun Ra, Keith Garrett, Stephen Bishop and Ashford and Simpson. There is only so much time in a week to put towards reviewing these titles and I had to stop somewhere. I’m sure I’ll revisit the Ashford & Simpson episode just to see O.J. Simpson host.

For now, I’ll save my overview and wrap-up of the main body of the review until my ‘Closing Comments’ section. There is only so much space to spend on a review and this baby is already nearing the two thousand word mark. It’s off to discuss the technical portion of the seven disc review and briefly touch on the supplemental materials. Stick with me for my overall recommendation (if you can’t guess it already) at the end of this review. There isn’t too much longer to go. I promise, but next up are the obligatory paragraphs on the stuff that DVD die-hards care a great deal about. I know this review feels a bit long winded, but these things are rough to review and I thought I’d break things down into what goes together into making “Saturday Night Live” the cultural tent-pole that it has been for thirty-three years. So without further ado, here is the more ‘boring’ part of the review.

Video:

I haven’t watched “Saturday Night Live” for at least a couple seasons aside from the rare occurrence here and there. However, I do believe the episodes are now shown in widescreen-friendly high definition. However, back in 1977 and 1978, the concept of high definition television wasn’t even a thought. Color televisions were just becoming commonplace in American homes. The concept of preservation and using high-end cameras for television shows was also something not too prevalent in practice during the late Seventies either. Because of these shortcomings in technology, preservation and the simple age of thirty year old episodes, “Saturday Night Live: The Complete Third Season” is hardly a visual gem on DVD. The episodes are presented in 1.33:1 full screen and the coloring and definition of the picture quality is, for lack of a better word, ancient.

Each episode of “Saturday Night Live” appears as bad in quality as aged VHS recordings. Browns and other natural hues were dominant during the day and even the bright reds, greens and blues do not come across nearly as vivid as they looked when the show was filmed. While I have definitely seen far worse in the realm of three-decade-old television shows, SNL is not that well preserved. There is haziness around the edges that is the direct opposite problem of edge enhancement. It is called fuzziness. There are moments when detail is pretty good considering the age, but other times you will think you are watching an old VCR recording. Coloring is also dated and the prints used look awfully washed out due to Father Time. Source prints are generally clean, or as well as can be expected. You can’t really be hard on these old episodes, but please don’t expect a miracle.

Audio:

The audio for “Saturday Night Live” is presented in English Dolby Digital 2 channel monaural sound. The mono mix sounds about as dated as the visuals appear and while SNL is generally intelligible; it is pock-marked with clipping and shows the limited range of the source materials. You can hear some of the tape hiss from the source recordings when the sound spectrum starts to bump into the upper range. Dialogue is clean, but many of the background sounds become lost and forgotten with the limited channels and quality of the recordings for the show. As was the case with the visual presentation of the DVDs, you really cannot expect much from aged television footage from a live show that aired over thirty years ago. The technology we have today just wasn’t there and SNL was transmitted across the airwaves with just one channel of sound. Stereo television was not yet available and without a tremendous amount of remastering, this mono mix is the best we will ever have for the third season of “Saturday Night Live.”

Extras:

Two features are provided on the seven disc set. Additional Feature: Things We Did Last Summer (42:37) is a television special featuring the cast of “Saturday Night Live” as they give footage of what they ‘did last summer.’ The first dozen minutes of the feature finds Gilda Radner giving a fictitious tour of her fictitious apartment that is complete with an inflatable basketball court. Her overly-long skit is followed up by a performance by the Blues Brothers, which is a marked improvement over Radner. At the twenty minute mark, Bill Murray is found ‘somewhere in Pennsylvania’ driving around and looking to give up his job as an actor and becoming a ball player. This is a funny little skit with the affable Bill Murray. It takes about ten minutes, but Bill gets the home run, gives a speech and returns to comedy. The next segment finds Garrett Morris dressing up as a jockey and I’m not talking about disc jockey. This skit runs for just about five minutes and isn’t overly funny. Finally, Laraine Newman goes on a tropical vacation and they kill a huge centipede. Bill Murray and the Blues Brothers are the highlight of this feature. The John Belushi & Howard Shore Wardrobe Test(2:19) is far too brief, but finds Shore and Belushi trying on some ‘casual’ costumes. Some Trailersare also included.

Closing:

At the Olympia Café, you’d be hard pressed to get an egg unless they were out of cheeseburgers and with “Saturday Night Live: The Complete Third Season,” you won’t find too many bad eggs, but a few tasty cheeseburgers. With John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray and other notable cast members and hosts such as Steve Martin and Christopher Lee introducing the musical talents of artists like Billy Joel and Ray Charles, the 1976-1977 season of the long-running NBC series is one of the finest years of the show. After thirty some years, they have yet to recapture the magic of the first five years and this season is smack in the middle of the ‘Golden Years of SNL.’ The DVD release is marred with aged-looking visuals and audio, but the show was transmitted live at a time when color TVs were only becoming affordable and stereo television was not yet in common use. It is hard to ask for much in the way of pristine transfers and the DVD does its best with the supplied source materials. Forty-five minutes of supplemental material is provided, but the twenty solid episodes are reason enough to purchase this set. You’d be hard pressed to find a better variety show since the early days of SNL and thanks to DVD, you can revisit these episodes at any time.

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