It's conceivable, though unlikely, that one of "SNL's" original cast members might've have taken a walk over something he or she found offensive (though John Belushi plainly had no use for the company's women), except that they were all more or less of a like mind, energetic, anarchic, dedicated to overthrowing the Establishment. They may have been naive--how far will a rock 'n' roll ethos get you in the world of Realpolitik ? But they had a kind of free-for-all joie de vivre; if someone wanted to bow out for a week over a sensitive issue, the likelihood is that there'd be beer and pizza and maybe a welcoming toke waiting in the office for the dissident's return. After all, in those days, who could take offense at someone who took exception? But things have changed over the years. An "SNL" insider observed last year: "(The show) doesn't address itself to being funny anymore. It has some obscure system of laughter that's inbred and non-humorous. An unfunny vibration permeates the show."
When Clay came on last week, the vibration became a sonic boom. Even if his routine was stripped down to its mainframe by the censors, you heard enough to get the message. Unless you consider his lame comeback to a heckler a paradigm of devastating wit, you knew that this was no new rival to Lenny Bruce or Richard Pryor, as some, including his agent, have maintained.
It was strictly a one-note samba. A drag on a cigarette and a strip-show one-liner. Dead in the eyes. It was hard to focus on Clay however because the "SNL" cast kept throwing in the distraction of its discomfiture, not about Clay, but about Dunn.
In an opening segment, when Jon Lovitz's Satan showed Clay around the set, we saw a pair of female legs sticking out from under a battered amplifier. "That was Nora Dunn," Lovitz said. The audience howled and your stomach sank. That prop wasn't built in 20 minutes. The company had gambled that the audience wouldn't consider Dunn's action a gesture of courage and conscience, but of spoilsport pique.
The company gambled right, and took heart. "We're all feeling uptight because . . . Stepfanie Kramer has left 'Hunter,' " said Dennis Miller, disingenuously. "I've decided to protest by giving a lackluster performance," said Jan Hooks, with a grin. But "All the protests won't make Andrew Dice Clay go away." Whitney Brown came on as an uptight Planned Parenthood spokesman in a suit claiming that Clay's terms were unsuitable. "For 'honey pot' we think a better phrase is 'the vertical smile.' " The implication was that Dunn was some kind of censorious Republican schoolmarm.
"I've expressed my protest by appearing in only three sketches," said Kevin Nealon. "I only meant for you to like me." Then that kiss-of-death grin.
Long before the show dribbled to its pitiable end, several things became clear. If you knew that one of the classic uses of comedy was to make experience manageable, this troupe, working in the comedy \o7 Zeitgeist \f7 of 1990, had made it irrelevant. Dunn never said that Clay shouldn't appear. She just didn't want to dignify his presence with her own. What was most shocking was that for years she had been part of a family of performers that prided itself on iconoclasm, but the moment someone in their midst expressed personal conviction, she was expelled. Her epitaph was writ in sarcasm.
The Village Voice's comedy critic Laurie Stone summed up the trend in a conversation last year when she said, "Comedians like Clay and Sam Kinison are hyped by their promoters as dangerous and risky when in fact they're conventional--they're telling the audience what it already believes. The true radical bucks the power position. The comedians who're really funny never align themselves with power."
Clay's act was deflected not by censorship but by the sleazy undertone of treachery from a new variant on Ezra Pound's "generation of the uncomfortable and smug." And in most of the media coverage of the event, when you saw few give Dunn any credence, you had to realize that in 1990 America, the entertainment media had become a sacred institution that looked on dissent as sacrilege. Last year, when "Saturday Nightly Live" celebrated its 15th anniversary, a lot of people knew it had long ago become a mediocrity. Last Saturday, it became a disgrace.