NEW YORK — I'm trying to make a list of things that are better than they ever were. It's the shortest list in the world. Even Twinkies don't taste quite the same (or so I'm told). Then there's "Saturday Night Live," which just completed its 10th season, and about the best that can be said for it is, yes, it has been worse.
Things looked promising at the beginning of the season, because the premiere had lots of bright, smart, funny stuff in it. But much of that was on film, and the whole notion of "live" combustion between gifted performers and cheeky material seemed gone. Once the season got rolling, the show lulled off into stasis.
People were still laughing on Monday mornings about Billy Crystal's Fernando character ("You look mahviluss") and about Martin Short's hilarious Ed Grimley, the ebullient top-knotted nerd, but the rest was dim. Harry Shearer, one of the most inventive writer-performers in the group, grew bored and disillusioned and left the show, although his face and name remain in the opening credits.
It now appears that other members of the cast have grown bored and disillusioned. NBC publicists are unable to promise that either Crystal or Short will be back next season. In fact, there is even the possibility that "Saturday Night Live" will not be back next season. Once a tremendously high-rated profit center for the network, the show's merely passable ratings now translate into only marginal profits. NBC seems bored with the show, too.
Howard Cosell emceed the last "SNL" of the season Saturday, and he did not look mahviluss, but he was mahviluss. He worked very hard and appeared in many of the sketches, some of which were funny. One gave Crystal a chance to do his bull's-eye Cosell impression, a joy to watch.
During commercial breaks, the studio audience saw Cosell being led from one sketch site to another and could see he was enjoying himself. But that's about all you could see. I hadn't visited "Saturday Night Live" in person since the last show done by the first generation (Belushi, Chase, Radner, Murray, Aykroyd) five years ago. The studio has been remodeled so that now neither the audience on the main floor nor those in the balcony has a clear view of the sketches performed, except on fuzzy-faced RCA monitors hung from the rafters.
It's like watching at home except you are in excruciating physical discomfort. The whole idea of having an audience present becomes senseless; the way the studio is set up, the audience feels too distanced to respond with much laughter even when the material really sparkles. Only the opening monologue, the music segments and part of the "SNL" mock newscast are visible to the crowd.
"Please get the name right this time, Howard," said rock star Greg Kihn to Cosell during a commercial break. "Greg Kihn, Greg Kihn," Cosell repeated aloud. Then, seeing he had some time left, he began to launch into a reminiscence: "Greg, you kids are in Studio 8-H. Way back in 1932. . . ." But this seminar on broadcast history was interrupted by the stage manager calling for quiet.
Among those in the studio audience were Rob Reiner, once of "All in the Family" and now director of films such as "Spinal Tap" and "The Sure Thing"; MTV veejay Martha Quinn, and Malcolm-Jamal Warner, who plays the son on "The Cosby Show." Joining this group at the wrap party after the show was Christopher Reeve, guest host during a previous week.
Even the party played stale, though. Jim Belushi gave long interviews to all-ears "Entertainment Tonight," Short still had not appeared as of 2 a.m., and a lot of people who had dressed ultra-funky stood around trying vainly to look fascinating. The triumphant Cosell was at a corner table with his wife, Emmy; one of his grandsons, and his good friend, sports honcho Sonny Werblin.
Also present was "SNL" executive producer Dick Ebersol, looking pouty and worried. The problem with Ebersol may be that he is more executive than producer. He once held a management position with NBC, and he doesn't have the healthy adversary relationship with the network that Lorne Michaels, the original producer, had. Ebersol apparently has been unable to galvanize the disparate egos and talents assembled to do the show. All he can produce is a show that just gets by, and even those days may be over.
"SNL" goes into reruns now, and its fate goes into the network decision mill. If they decide to dump the show, there isn't likely to be weeping in the streets. To kill "Saturday Night Live" is to kill a ghost.