Saturday, October 17, 2009

Dr. Loomis Comes to Saturday Night Live

In the past 34 years, there have been only three occasions when NBC's Saturday Night Live presented an original show on Halloween Night, the two most recent being 1987 with host Dabney Coleman and 1992 with Catherine O'Hara headlining. (Halloween falls on a Saturday this year; we'll have to wait and see if that will be a skip week, or if they'll take the occasion to do a clip show.) If there is a live show for Halloween 2009, it will undoubtedly pale in comparison to the first SNL that fell upon the most frightening night of the calendar.

The year was 1981, and the host was Dr. Loomis himself, Donald Pleasence. The sequel Halloween II had just opened in theaters the day before, but in addition to plugging his new movie, Pleasence was a more than appropriate choice. After all, it was Halloween night, and he - along with Jamie Lee Curtis - were the two performers who had become synonymous with the holiday in the minds of young, hip moviegoers. Given that, plus his appearance in over a dozen macabre features over his career, made him well-suited for the occasion. Besides, a March 1978 telecast hosted by Christopher Lee was (and remains) one of the highest-rated shows of the series. Could lightning strike twice?

In Fall of 1981, SNL was in desperate need of some lightning - fast. The show had just b
arely survived the first year after Lorne Michael's initial stint as guiding force. Producer Jean Doumanian had shepherded a disastrous 1980-81 season that most SNL connoisseurs agree was easily the series' worst (and the worst episode is widely regarded as the one hosted by, sadly, Malcolm MacDowell, who said the week spent in prep for the show was the bleakest of his career). To set the show aright, NBC fired her and placed producer Dick Ebersol at the helm, who was determined to keep the show from imminent cancellation. Ebersol was smart enough to know that he did not know comedy, and certainly not the cutting-edge humor that made SNL required watching during its first five years. He reached back into the early days of the show and brought former writer and performer Michael O'Donoghue to bring some direction to the faltering show.

O'Donoghue was the first person to ever speak on an episode of SNL, appearing with John Belushi in the classic "English Lesson" sketch ("Repeat after me; I would like to feed your fingertips to the wolverines.") Viewers had also made his "Mr. Mike's Least-Loved Bedtime Storie
s" a popular feature, in which beloved characters from children's stories suffer hideous fates; The Little Engine That Could dies of a heart attack, Brer Rabbit is skinned alive (Mr. Mike courteously described how his ears were pulled away from the skull). His flair for the morbid was an outlet for his brooding personality, and a release from the migraines which were a constant companion. Although given to rages and extreme behavior, he was widely considered a genius who had crafted some of the show's finest moments. He left in 1978 to pursue a Hollywood career that never materialized, and was willing to return to old stomping grounds. The cast was both apprehensive and excited.

O'Donoghue hit 30 Rockefeller Center with the force of a Tasmanian Devil; screaming, scolding, berating, even committing acts of destruction in the office. (Catherine O'Hara was to have joined the cast that Fall, but was so appalled by his behavior that she quit on the spot.) His shock and awe tactics were meant to destroy so that he could build back up again. And whereas his grisliest notions had to at least pass through a higher authority during the 70s, now he was given free reign. And that set the scene for the calamitous, chaotic and oddly compelling night of television that was Halloween 1981.

Most recollections of the telecast cite the musical guest - the punk band Fear - as the reason for the controversy. The band was offered the musical guest spot on the insistence of John Belushi, who later had to offer up himself for a cameo appearance to keep the band and its mosh pit slamdancers on the air. What resulted was a broadcast out of control, as Fear played two sets, the second set abruptly fading into a commercial when the crowd began to trash the studio. Some of this footage remains, but seems to be periodically struck from the interweb. While it lasts, you can see the band's second set here.

However, there are very few accounts of the sketches on the show, which must rank among the most gruesome the show has ever produced. They include --

- A song from cast member Christine Ebersole (later to win Tonys for the Broadway musicals 42nd Street and Grey Gardens) in which she sings the country ballad "I Killed My Husband Last Night," all the while mopping up blood from around his corpse;

- A sketch in which Pleasence graphically amputates the leg of fellow British soldier Tim Kazurinsky;

- A short film about pumpkin carving, accompanied by gore effects and blood-curdling screams on the soundtrack;

- The sketch for which I have the clearest memory; Tony Rosato plays talk radio host Vic Salukin, who challenges his listeners to call in and scare him. After a handful of failed attempts, Pleasence phones in and relates a long, menacing narrative of how he intends to come to the studio and murder Salukin, the camera pulling in on the telephone speaker as he speaks. As the camera pulls out again, Pleasence breaks character, laughing "Did I get you, Vic?"...and in an effect worthy of Savini, we see that an axe is lodged in Vic's head, which is cascading gore. The audience reaction? Abject silence.

And those are just sketches that made it to air. Cut before showtime were: a restaurant sketch in which Pleasence is surreptitiously draining his dinner date of blood, siphoning it off into a wine glass and drinking it; a sketch portraying Ron and Nancy Reagan as cannibals, feasting upon Jane Fonda; and one of the most infamous unproduced sketches in the history of SNL; "The Good Excuse." In it, Pleasence would have played the manager of a Nazi death camp on trial for WWII atrocities. While questioned by prosecution, Pleasence demurs that he has a "good excuse" for killing hundreds of thousands of Jews in his camp, and after whispering it to both the prosecution and the judge, is allowed to go free. Care to guess what the reaction to that would have been, gentle reader? And of course, that last one came from the mind of Michael O'Donoghue.

In the days that followed, Fear was banned from ever appearing on SNL again, and the Donald
Pleasence episode was pulled, never to re-air on either NBC or syndication. While I'm sure that bootlegs exist, 1981 was pre-VCR, and Lorne Michaels and his attorneys hold very tight reigns on their franchise, so finding the footage could prove tricky. Donoghue was contrite for a very brief time, but was back two weeks later with the sketch "Nick the Knock," in which fairy Mary Gross tells a gentle tale to doltish harlequin Joe Piscopo...until he ends it with the line, "Now I'm going to EAT YOUR SPINE!," grabs the fairy, and chews it to a bloody pulp. Ah, memories.

I've long thought that, if Michaels had his druthers, he would release the most graphic, ghoulish moments from SNL on one DVD, taking the sketches above along with such classics as "Head Wound Harry" and Dan Ackroyd's exsanguinating Julia Child. I'll bet horror fiends would buy it in handfuls; right? Saturday Night Live is a cultural institution entering its 35th year, and it's time for it to embrace some of the more radical moments in its storied of which happened when Dr. Loomis came to town. And I don't mean Haddonfield.


Wings1295 said...

Interesting. Never saw it, but I think I would like to.

Max the drunken severed head said...

A wonderful read--thanks for reviving my dim memories of this GREAT SNL episode!

Pax Romano said...

I do not recall this episode at all...sounds like it would be a great find if it ever finds it's way to tape/dvd.

Concerning Michael O'Donoghue; do you recall when he sang, "Cancer for Christmas" - would have been SNL back in the 70's, he was one dark dude...

Ivan said...

Thanks for this blast from the past:
I remember seeing this episode of SNL--the folks had gone to a party and left me with the electronic babysitter. I really liked that O'Donoghue "era"--the jokes weren't so much funny as sicker than sick. Which was nice.
Keep up the good work,

senski said...

Thanks to all for your comments and support! There was very little about this telecast on the interweb - hopefully this fills up the void a bit...

BryanG said...

As you might know, that episode is available for sale, sort of on the "gray market". I watched it recently and thought it was very well done. As for Nick the Knock, that one was a little over the top for me! I found myself wondering what Piscopo and Gross had ever done to somebody to get stuck with that sketch...