Saturday Night Live has always been a show with peaks and valleys. It's tough to put out a consistently funny 90 minute program every week (makes you wonder why they don't trim it down to 60 minutes a week, but that's another story).
Just as some episodes are more successful than others, some seasons are more successful than others. I haven't watched the show in years as I don't have a TV (or a life, I go to bed early now that I'm middle-aged), so I can't comment on any season past 2001, but I do know a thing or two about the show's early years.
SNL got off to an experimental, flawed, but decent start in 1975. Its breakout star, Chevy Chase, left the show after the first season to pursue bigger and better things (how did that work out?) and the program matured and got even funnier. However, by Season 5, John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd had left, and the show had pretty much “jumped the shark” - becoming a mediocre version of its first 4 years.
SNL's executive producer, Lorne Michaels, had tired of the show and wanted to either end it or put it on a brief hiatus to retool it. NBC didn't want to cancel it and didn't want to wait either, so they replaced Michaels with the show's assistant producer (the person who booked the bands for the show), Jean Doumanian. (Al Franken was the likely successor but ruined his chances after insulting NBC president Fred Silverman in a Weekend Update segment).
Michaels felt betrayed, and his cast and writers left the program in a show of support for him. Doumanian's task was to quickly find a new cast and new crew of writers for Saturday Night Live '80, the sixth season of SNL. Upon doing so, she declared that the new show would be “at least as good as the old one.”
The sixth season of SNL is widely considered to be one of the worst seasons in the show's history.
The following clip is the opening of the very first episode of Season 6. Frequent host of the old SNL, Elliott Gould, does a send-up of Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice as he introduces the new cast...
The opening skit jokes about the new cast members being similar to the old cast members, but as it turned out, it wasn't just humor.
A big part of the problem, I thought, with the “new” SNL was that they didn't let the cast members be themselves; they tried molding them into people they weren't. That's what I told Season 6 cast member Ann Risley (who calls herself Anna Risley now). “They tried to make me into Jane Curtin,” she agreed during our phone conversation. Ann(a) then asked why I wanted to interview her as she's now the owner/instructor of an improv comedy school in Tucson, Arizona - not San Francisco. In Oprah mode, I told her that some people had a lot of success on SNL, but their lives didn't exactly turn out so well (think John Belushi and Chris Farley). I told her that she didn't have success on the show, but it sounds like her life worked out. She paused, said okay, told me she'd call me back the next Thursday morning for an interview, and never did.
The SNL '80 cast (from left to right): Dennie Dillon, Charles Rocket, Ann Risley, Joe Piscopo, Gail Matthius, and Gilbert Gottfried. (Eddie Murphy started out as a featured player and was promoted to cast member status later in the season.) Prior to SNL Joe Piscopo was a cast member of Madhouse Brigade, a short-lived, terrible comedy improv show on New York's WPIX television station. The only decent cast member of Madhouse Brigade besides Joe was Dan Resin (TV's Ty-D-Bowl Man and Dr. Beeper in Caddyshack). It's ironic that Charles Rocket didn't fare well in his Weekend Update post as he had previously been a real-life news anchor for several TV stations. Ann Risley (born in Madison, Wisconsin) had small roles in 3 Woody Allen movies before joining Saturday Night Live. Actually, doesn't she look like she was born in Madison, Wisconsin and had small roles in 3 Woody Allen movies before joining Saturday Night Live? She does, doesn't she?
As you'll see in these next few clips, Season 6 wasn't all bad...
Here's Charles Rocket in one of his “Rocket Report” segments (these went a lot better than his “Weekend Update” segments). Rocket was being groomed to be the new show's breakout star. After he was fired from SNL (for uttering the F-word on Episode 11) he made some TV and movie appearances, but his career never really recovered from being the poster boy for SNL's disastrous Season 6. He committed suicide in 2005.
Despite its flaws, Doumanian's SNL had more of a New York feel to it than the Lorne Michaels version (and definitely more than Dick Ebersol's version – more about him later).
Gilbert Gottfried, a successful comedian and voice-over artist, was a cast member of the 1980 show. Here he is in a skit with guest host Ray Sharkey (who passed away in 1993)...
This was Eddie Murphy's first speaking appearance on SNL. (His popular “Mr. Robinson's Neighborhood” skit, which featured him as a shady version of Mr. Rogers living in the ghetto, debuted near the end of Season 6.)
The Gavonne Family (with guest host Sally Kellerman)
Here's Charles Rocket and Gail Matthius in “The Livelys”. Dennie Dillon plays Gilbert Gottfried's wife in this skit. I emailed Ms. Dillon and she called me up, we talked for a while, then she said she'd call me back the next Friday for an interview. Instead she emailed me claiming she had some deadlines to meet and would get back to me the next week. She never did. Ms. Dillon teaches improv comedy and has her own art studio in the New York City-Ulster County areas of the Empire State.
Dying to be Heard
Lonely Old Lady (with Ellen Burstyn)
For Episode 7 featuring Karen Black, it looked like SNL '80 had turned a corner. The guest host was surprisingly good, the audience was enthusiastic, and just about the whole show was well done. Here are three skits from it...
Patient Thoughts (with featured player Yvonne Hudson and the voice of Gilbert Gottfried)
Mona Lisa in Love
SNL Action Dolls
Sadly, episodes 8, 9, 10, and 11 were disasters, so any momentum the show developed had disappeared, and things were starting to look bleak as far as it remaining on the air. (Fridays, a newly-launched, critically-panned ripoff of SNL filmed in Los Angeles was actually getting better ratings.)
Here's the opening of Episode 12 with Bill Murray. As it turned out, this would be the last episode Jean Doumanian produced as she was fired, along with most of the cast, soon after it aired. The opening works well as therapy for the cast (and viewers) and is pretty funny, too.
The Bill Murray episode continued to go well after the opening. As a matter of fact, Episode 7 featuring Karen Black and it were probably the only good episodes of Season 6. Here's arguably the best skit of the season, Script in Development:
SNL was put on hiatus and revamped by new producer Dick Ebersol (who had conceived of the show with Lorne Michaels). Some new cast members (Tim Kazurinsky, Tony Rosato, Robin Duke, Christine Ebersole, Mary Gross and maybe one or two others I forgot) were hired to pretty much be support for Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo. Ebersol openly admitted the focus of the new show was to be on its two biggest stars, and the ratings improved as the show's content improved (slightly - it still wasn't as good as the Lorne Michaels version).
Murphy left the show during season 9 and Piscopo left the show after Season 9, so Ebersol replaced the cast with big (for Saturday late night) names like Billy Crystal (who almost made the original cast in 1975), Martin Short (from SCTV), and Christopher Guest (Nigel in This is Spinal Tap).
In 1985 Lorne Michaels returned as producer of SNL for its eleventh season, and the Season 6 crew must have felt some amount of schadenfreude. His first year back after a five year hiatus was met with big expectations - and the show bombed. Why, the show hadn't been this bad since... Season 6! SNL was only renewed after Michaels practically begged NBC to give it one more chance. The opening of Season 12 began with Madonna reading a “press release” from NBC stating that Season 11 of the show had been just a bad dream. Luckily, Season 12 turned out to be a critical and commercial hit for SNL, and ushered in its second golden age with cast members like Dana Carvey and Phil Hartman.
As I recall the show took a creative nosedive in 1994, but has rebounded time and again. So, in retrospect, the Season 6 cast of SNL have, to a certain degree, been somewhat vindicated.
The original cast from Season 1 had virtually no expectations of them and slowly developed something great. Granted, Jean Doumanian was probably the wrong person to head the ship of the “new' SNL, but without all that pressure the original cast never had to endure, the show might have gotten on track eventually. (Personally, I don't think Dick Ebersol was the right producer either).
Here's Gilbert Gottfried's take on Season 6 when The Onion asked him what it was like to be on the “lost” season of SNL:
It was really weird, because it was right after the original cast was gone and Lorne Michaels was gone. It became a news event. "How dare they think they can continue Saturday Night Live without the faces we are used to?" And nowadays, it seems like the cast changes in between commercial breaks. In a way, I felt like we were the sacrificial lambs to make it okay. We were kind of on a suicide mission. There were constantly articles about it saying, "Oh, its just a disaster waiting to happen." Granted, I'll never hide the fact that the show was awful. All of the sides of the press said that the show sucked. But I always felt the press never knew what to say, because they were saying, "Well, we don't know who these people are." And I felt like, "Did anybody know who any of the Saturday Night Live cast members were before they became Saturday Night Live cast members?" They were already saying it was bad before it even aired. That was the strangest part. For a year, just preparing, putting the show together, there were constantly articles about it. I have always said that now Saturday Night Live is beyond funny or unfunny—it's just a restaurant in a good location.
And on a similar note, here's an SF Herald Flashback from a 2004 Society Page column:
Gene’s TV Memories: This is a new addition to the Society Page and I hope you’ll like it (heck, maybe you could even identify with it.) Like most people, I grew up watching too much television -- and I’ll bet you did, too. Some of you out there are probably denying it, but I don’t buy it.
Anyway, I thought I’d use this space to relive some TV memories of my youth -- the good, the bad, and the ugly. Oh, and the irrelevant, too; like what I’m writing about this month: a show called Number 96. I don’t know why I’ve been thinking about this show lately. Maybe because I can identify with it (it was supposed to be successful but never amounted to anything.)
This program had Fred Silverman’s M.O. all over it. For those of you who don’t know who Fred (or Freddy) Silverman is, he was a TV programmer known as “The Man With the Golden Gut” -- because of his instinct for what TV shows would be ratings hits. His network career started off at CBS, where he stunned network execs (and viewers) by axing popular shows like Green Acres and The Beverly Hillbillies because they were watched by folks in Alabama and Louisiana, not by people in New York and California, who generally had more money to buy things advertised on the shows’ commercials. At CBS he replaced these shows with intelligent, quality ones aimed at a more urban (and urbane) audience. Shows like Mary Tyler Moore, Bob Newhart, All in the Family, The Jeffersons, M*A*S*H, etc. I used to watch the CBS Saturday night lineup featuring these shows, and let me tell you, that was quality entertainment.
Bored commanding over the Tiffany Network’s huge ratings dominance, Freddy wanted a challenge. So in 1975 he left for ABC (which had trailed miserably behind CBS and NBC in the ratings race for nearly 25 years), soon turning it into the number one rated network with shows like Welcome Back, Kotter and Charlie’s Angels. He made a ratings king out of ABC with what became known as jiggle shows -- shows where the plots enabled scantily clad beautiful women to run around, jump up and down, and generally jiggle their ample bosoms before millions of viewers -- whether it was Suzanne Somers, Farrah Fawcett, Jacqueline Smith, Cheryl Tiegs, Tanya Roberts or whoever -- ABC could have been called TNA. Remember, this was the late ‘70’s, before every home had 500 channels and 24 hour pornography. Watching babes in bikinis in the background of a Love Boat episode was a big deal to the average male back then.
But it wasn’t just jiggle shows that made Freddy’s ABC so successful. Remember, he had the Golden Gut, and hence, the Midas Touch. When he came to ABC he convinced Garry Marshall to switch the focus of the series from the bland Richie Cunningham to THE FONZ, which shot the show’s numbers through the roof, making it the number one rated show on TV.
Then he got Marshall to spin off a series based on a Happy Days episode which featured two ditzy chicks on it. Yes, that show was Laverne and Shirley, which soon surpassed its parent show for the number one ratings crown, only to be overtaken eventually by another Silverman pick Three’s Company (based on a British sitcom called Man of the House.) Every time one of the characters delivered a punchline of a sexual nature (which was all the time), the studio audience would let out a big “Woooe!!!!!!” I used to imagine that along with flashing signs that read “Applause” and “Laugh”, the studio audience was also shown one that read “Woooe”. Anyway, it was a smash hit. If you looked at all these ABC shows like Starsky and Hutch, Fantasy Island, etc., they all appealed to a younger, hipper audience than what Freddie was aiming for at CBS.
In 1978, NBC hired him for a million dollars a year to rescue it from the ratings cellar. But man, talk about ‘when you’re hot you’re hot, when you’re not you’re not’...
Freddy immediately started flooding NBC’s schedule with ABC-style idiotic shows like Supertrain and Pink Lady and Jeff. Supertrain was a heavily hyped cross between The Love Boat and a cop show, kind of a fluffier version of the movie Silver Streak starring Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor. It took place on a nuclear powered train so big it had a swimming pool and took up two rails. Anyway, it lost half its audience the second week it was on the air and continued to lose viewers until it got the sack a few weeks later. Supertrain commonly used washed-up celebrities like Peter Lawford and Steve Lawrence as guest stars, just like The Love Boat did.
Pink Lady and Jeff was a variety show featuring this extremely untalented Japanese hot chick singing duo (who couldn’t speak English and were big in the Land of the Rising Sun but unknown here) teamed up with this awful Catskills-style stand-up comic named Jeff Altman (who is still trying to make it in show biz -- you’ll see him pop up in beer commercials and similar fare once in a while.) Commonly regarded by TV critics as one of the worst shows ever, it got the ax after a few weeks.
Pink Lady and Jeff
Besides Silverman’s programs not being very good (or any good), a lot of the shows had trouble finding an audience because the audience had trouble finding the shows. Apparently he thought all of America read Variety so he shifted the nights and time slots for programs constantly. And if a show didn’t score big ratings on its premiere, he’d cancel it a week later.
Another reason for Freddy’s troubles at NBC was just plain ol’ bad luck. Silverman had his hopes up for a youth oriented sitcom called Brothers and Sisters (a toned-down Animal House rip-off about frats and sororities) which he planned to debut right after Super Bowl XIII. As you know, the Super Bowl is the TV event of the year -- the ratings jackpot. Whereas the World Series and the NBA Finals divide their audience over seven game playoffs, the Super Bowl is a one game showdown that has all of America glued to their sets.
And Super Sunday on January 21, 1979 was no exception. As expected, Super Bowl XIII placed a dominant number 1 in the Nielsen Ratings, but Brothers and Sisters placed a distant number 35! The network was promoting the hell out of Brothers and Sisters day and night (even buying ad time to promote it on non NBC stations as I recall), it was RIGHT AFTER the game, and the show lost almost all of the Super Bowl lead-in audience! This was unheard of in television history! And it happened to the show that Silverman was promoting as the smash hit NBC so desperately needed.
Then the biggie: NBC paid a phenomenal amount of money to air the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow -- a sure fire ratings bonanza. But then, a few months before the Olympics, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, prompting then-President Jimmy Carter to boycott U.S. participation in the games. So instead of dominating the ratings that summer, NBC was forced to air reruns of its low-rated programs. The Olympics debacle, network infighting, and savage criticism of low-rated shows (like Hello Larry) prompted Silverman to tell a stockholders’ conference, “If NBC had Dallas, whoever shot J.R. would have missed.”
ABC was using Silverman’s hits there to spin off new series that also ended up becoming hits (like Three’s Company spawning The Ropers.) Silverman wanted to do the same for his new network, but at one point NBC didn’t even have a show in the Top 20! So he had to spin off shows from programs that weren’t even popular (like B.J. and the Bear spawning The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo.)
Think of it. Not even one show in the Top 20. And this was before Fox, UPN, the WB, and everyone having cable. There were only three networks!
Prime Time was a disaster for NBC, but at least they were still the king of late night. Well, even that was looking bad. 1980 was the scariest year for NBC’s late night programming ever. Johnny Carson, NBC’s then biggest star, almost left The Tonight Show around this time, but Freddy managed to hang on to him. They gave him more money, trimmed the show from 90 minutes to 60 and Johnny showed up, like, maybe once a week to host it. Then Saturday Night Live creator/producer Lorne Michaels left the show. An entirely new cast was selected by new producer Jean Doumanian, who botched everything she possibly could and 1980 went down as the worst season in the show’s history. Ratings for it plummeted and the show didn’t recover until Silverman was long gone from NBC.
Adding insult to injury, The Today Show, which used to eat its competition for breakfast, continued to lose ground to ABC’s Good Morning, America.
Silverman did manage to place a few hits, though, like Diff’rent Strokes (a family sitcom starring former California Gubernatorial hopeful Gary Coleman, the troubled Todd Bridges, and the late Dana Plato) and Real People (the genesis of “reality shows” that even Silverman regrets having started), but as 1980 rolled along, it looked like Freddy’s Golden Gut had let him down. He was doing about as well at NBC as the Soviets were doing in Afghanistan. Saturday Night Live even had skits with John Belushi portraying Silverman as a double agent secretly working for ABC. The irony is that whatever show Freddy placed on NBC got its ass kicked by a hit show he had already placed on ABC. Silverman was kicking his own ass!
Sometimes you had to wonder if this was the same Fred Silverman who enjoyed so much success at CBS and NBC. Maybe the Saturday Night Live skit was true after all. ABC’s slogan for its fall schedule was “Still the One” (only the number one network got to use “one” in their slogan.) CBS had “Turn us on, we’ll turn you on”.
Silverman unveiled NBC’s new slogan: “Proud as a Peacock”. (He brought back the “This program is brought to you in living color” peacock logo that NBC used in the ‘60’s to inform viewers that their shows were no longer in black and white.) The slogan (and new updated version of the old peacock logo) soon became a national joke, being viciously lampooned on NBC shows like SNL and Tonight. If you listened to the “NBC, Proud as a Peacock!” jingle the network played, it sounded as if the singers were embarrassed singing it. The agency NBC hired to write and sing the “Proud as a Peacock” jingle (Joey Levine Crushing Enterprises) wrote a satire of it called “Loud as a Peacock” that managed to get out (rumor has it that Don Imus almost got fired for playing it on his radio show.) Go to tvland.com if you want to read it.
So where does Number 96 fall into all of this? Why single out this show when I could write about any number of Freddy’s NBC bombs – like Whodunnit? (a 30 minute murder mystery where guest stars like Eric Estrada and Jack Klugman played characters getting whacked and the studio audience would try to guess who the killer was.) Well, I don’t know, but I’ll try to figure it out.
Number 96 was another highly hyped NBC show that went absolutely nowhere. Billed as “The Series They Tried To Ban In Australia!”, it was an hour long sitcom with an unknown cast, except (maybe) for Greg Mullavey, who played the husband on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and Ellen Travolta, who had a famous last name thanks to her brother John.
The U.S. show was an hour long sitcom, but Down Under Number 96 was a prime time soap opera that received plenty of controversy, and huge ratings, most likely due to its penchant for full frontal nudity of men and women, lots of sex scenes, and TV’s first openly gay character not played for laughs. Though a smash hit, the Aussie producers wanted to make it even more successful by killing off some of the show’s less popular characters with a plot-line involving a bomb going off in the apartment complex (Number 96 Paddington in Sydney.) This backfired when they got carried away and killed off some popular characters as well. The show began a ratings nosedive, finally ending its 6 year run in 1978.
I remember Thanksgiving 1980, watching a football game on NBC with my dad’s side of the family at my grandmother’s apartment in Queens. A promo for the American Number 96 came on that showed an attractive woman in a bikini, sitting in a hot tub, seductively telling the camera about how wonderful her husband is. Then she smirked and said something like, “That’s him over there” and it cut to a guy making out with another woman (a nice thing to watch with your Irish Catholic grandmother.)
Anyway, like I said, NBC kept hyping the soon-to-be-aired program, insinuating it was sexier than anything Silverman had placed on ABC. This American Number 96 didn’t have a plot-line involving a bomb -- to use football terminology, this show was THE BOMB, the Hail Mary Pass -- it was Silverman’s last desperate attempt at a smash hit (hell, even a minor hit) he needed to keep his job. This was a year after the sinful ‘70’s, and the show took place at a swinging singles apartment complex (Number 96 Pacific Way in Southern California), so viewers were supposed to excitedly tune in to see the sexcapades.
But they never did.
This next paragraph (taken from jumptheshark.com) really sums it up:
"The end of NBC’s 1980-81 season was the lowest point in the network’s history. Every new show it had come up with had bombed and even the ratings of its returning shows like Little House on the Prairie were starting to crumble. Every week it had survived, Number 96 was NBC’s lowest rated show. Out of curiosity I had turned it on in the hopes of seeing the sitcom equivalent of a 30 minute car crash but I was SHOCKED to find the show pretty funny! The details of one episode I saw escape me twenty years later but I remember one of the guys was trying to impress a woman in his high rise apartment building by hanging outside her window holding a sign that read “Please forgive me!” or something. What I will never forget was the LACK of advertisements. Nowadays even the lowest rated show on TV is packed with ads so this may be hard to believe. The show’s ratings were so low, NBC couldn’t even GIVE AWAY this show’s slots. NBC’s overall ratings had dropped so low, it couldn’t guarantee advertisers decent “make good” slots later in the season when advertisers saw that no one was seeing their ads, so advertisers simply pulled out every last one of them. NBC filled these empty minutes with promos for their other 1980 season catastrophes while local slots were filled with public service announcements. I hoped that maybe the show could make an end of the season rush at the ratings (god knows it wouldn’t have taken much to be a NBC hit that season) but NBC pulled the plug on Number 96 the very next week."
So, despite a highly publicized premiere on December 10, 1980, Number 96 disappeared from television on January 2, 1981. Maybe because it was so hyped then and now it’s so forgotten, maybe because on paper it should have worked but failed miserably, well, maybe that’s why, if I had to use a television show as a symbol for my life, in my darker moments I’d be tempted to use Number 96.
His victories in the ratings war at CBS and ABC a distant memory, NBC had become Silverman’s Waterloo (or Soviet Afghanistan). Not only had he not taken NBC from last place to first place in the Nielsen Ratings, audience share for the network during his tenure had actually hit an all time low. NBC affiliates were defecting in mass for the other two networks. In 1981 Fred Silverman was replaced as head of NBC programming by Grant Tinker, ex-husband of Mary Tyler Moore and the producer of her critically praised and high rated classic sitcom Silverman placed on CBS a decade earlier. Tinker nurtured shows like Cheers and St. Elsewhere that were critically acclaimed, weathering the initial low ratings and standing by them until they became hits. Critically praised programs like Family Ties and The Cosby Show were soon all over NBC’s schedule and the network became the ratings leader.
Ironically, Silverman’s most successful NBC show was one that premiered with little fanfare. Apparently he never expected this show to be very successful. He never hyped it the way he hyped Supertrain or Number 96. It just quietly went on the air, received tremendous critical praise, slowly developed a large dedicated audience, set a record for most Emmy nominations in TV history, and lasted six years after he left NBC. It was called Hill Street Blues.
His programming days behind him, Silverman became a successful TV producer with Perry Mason starring Raymond Burr, In the Heat of the Night starring Carroll O’ Connor, Jake and the Fatman starring William Conrad, and Diagnosis: Murder starring Dick Van Dyke. (The first three stars died so when Dick goes I don’t know what Freddy is going to do.)
There was a time, in 1980, when I was a 15 year old kid, and thought that before 2004 rolled around, I’d be sitting at the desk old Freddy boy used to sit at, an hour from my Long Island home, at 30 Rockefeller in Manhattan, where NBC is, making all the big programming decisions.
But, like most dreams, it got canceled. Canceled like one of NBC’s flop shows from 1980. I had high hopes for that dream, but it met the same fate as Number 96. It met the same fate as Supertrain. It met the same fate as Pink Lady and Jeff. It met the same fate as Brothers and Sisters. It met -- okay, you get the point. Actually, I wish I knew how to end this column. I wish I knew why I even wrote it in the first place. Turn it off.
Promofor Number 96
Promo for Pink Lady and Jeff
Supertrain being plugged on The Today Show
Diff'rent Strokes and Hello Larry promo
Promo for WhoDunnit?
Promo for Brothers and Sisters
Promo for some other sleazy NBC show I forgot about
(put on right after Little House on the Prairie?????)
Interview with Fred Silverman
Remember in last issue's Society Page when I wrote about that Office Depot “Depot Time!” TV commercial that I really hated?
No? Well, apparently they took it off the air right after I wrote about it. The Herald was on a hiatus when this commercial was played, but I really hated it, too. It was for the New York Times, and was a real horror. It could be called “Night of the Living Blue State Voters” (the guys in this thing look like they would enjoy watching “Sex and the City”more than the girls in it)...
Flashback Song 1989: Martin Gore... oh, excuse me... Martin L. Gore, lead singer of Depeche Mode... who put out a solo EP titled Counterfeit. Here's the semi-hit, Compulsion...
Look what somebody threw out. I was going to take it home so I wouldn't be so lonely, but I took the train into the city that day instead of driving, so we won't be hooking up.
And on a similar note, remember Rachael Clegg – the music journalist from the UK who wrote for the Herald in its waning print days? Well, she's put out a calendar with pictures of her watching motorcycle racing while in the nude! Here's some info about it...
Thanks to April Yang who got me in to see Curse of the Starving Class, Sam Shepard's 1976 play which was performed this summer at Stanford University. I asked its director, Rush Rehm, why that was the play they selected to produce, and he said:
We wanted to do Shepard, a great American playwright and a writer with strong connections to California and the West (our symposium this year, connected to the production, was entitled "Shepard and the American West'). The play offers terrific acting challenges, even in the small roles, and one that fit the company we've assembled. More importantly, at least in my view, Curse of the Starving Class is Shepard's best play. It offers an extraordinary combination of humor (people forget how brilliantly funny Shepard can be), realism and absurdism. It deals with the classic American themes of the breakdown of family, the American dream as a dangerous illusion, self-inflation of male ego, especially in the patriarchal father, alcoholism, the myth of the frontier and the West, and the list goes on. As in other of Shepard's "big" plays, Curse reveals a deep sense of the tragic lying underneath the noise of everyday life. Finally the play holds an extraordinary relevance today, especially in terms of our contemporary economic situation--the collapse of the housing market, the bull shit of "development" for its own sake, phony loans, personal debt, the shady dealings of banks and financial institutions that run over the little man, exposing a system that promises one thing and delivers its opposite, the sense of powerlessness before corporations, and the interweaving of those larger forces with individual weakness and foolhardiness. Although not everyone's cup of tea, Curse of the Starving Class strikes me as an American classic, a great play about this country. Like any "classic," Curse deserves the title because it proves to be continually timely.
Wow, if Mr. Rehm is correct, then the American Dream of making money - by preaching that the American Dream doesn't exist - lives on!
Arthur Miller would be proud.
See you next time.###