I am collecting the early seasons of Saturday Night Live on DVD, and I’m currently working my way through season 4 (1978-1979). Apart from showcasing classic comedy bits and musical performances by some of the most important stars of the age, these old episodes of SNL are cultural artifacts that illuminate their times, and they can also illuminate ours.
The episode of January 27, 1979, does this in several ways. A sketch based on Christina Crawford’s then-newly published memoir Mommie Dearest features Jane Curtin as Joan Crawford and Gilda Radner as Christina, although Gilda makes Christina into a clumsy, vacantly staring target for verbal and physical abuse. The character is the same one Gilda played occasionally in other sketches, and today, we’d recognize her as someone who is mentally retarded. As a result, the abuse she takes comes across as cruel. Similarly, a “Weekend Update” bit has Bill Murray interviewing Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes (John Belushi) and his wife (Gilda), just after Hayes was dismissed for punching an opposing player during a game. As they talk, the couple plays checkers and tells Murray how much they are enjoying Woody’s retirement—until Mrs. Hayes wins the game. Woody promptly smacks her in the face and throws her over the table, then continues to whale on her as Murray ends the interview. Saturday Night Live was famed for being a boys’ club, although characters played by Curtin and Laraine Newman were never subject to the sort of abuse Gilda’s characters frequently suffered (and somebody could probably get a master’s degree explaining why). It might have seemed funny in the late 70s, but today, it just doesn’t.
But the biggest indicator of how times have changed involves the show’s musical guest, reggae star Peter Tosh. At the moment of his apperance, Tosh was enjoying his biggest success in the States with the hit single “(You Gotta Walk and) Don’t Look Back,” featuring Mick Jagger, who makes a cameo to sing it with him. Later in the show, Tosh returns to sing “Bush Doctor,” which features the following lyrics:
Down here in Jamaica
It can build up your failing economy
Eliminate the slavish mentality
There’ll be no more illegal humiliation
And no more police interrogation
“Bush Doctor,” while not as explicit as Tosh’s better-known song “Legalize It,” makes an argument for the medical and social benefits of marijuana in clear, understandable (albeit Jamaican-accented) English.
Nothing in our culture is more dead or further gone than the explicit depictions—celebrations—of drug use that were so frequent on SNL back in the day. (Another sketch on the episode features Belushi as Studio 54 owner Steve Rubell, his face covered in white powder after a cocaine bust. At the end of the sketch, he’s seen eating a powdered-sugar donut, but by then, the joke’s already been made.) Something like “Bush Doctor” could maybe get on a cable music video show today, but never on a cultural institution like SNL. Here’s Tosh performing it at the Montreux Jazz Festival about six months after his appearance on Saturday Night Live:
We think of television in bygone days as a medium on which expression was restricted, and that today’s TV is much more open. But the differences between 1979 and today are not exclusively in the degree of expression permitted; they often involve what’s permitted at all. Today, we’re more circumspect about how we portray the mentally retarded, and we don’t tolerate the depictions of violence against women that used to get big laffs on TV. Our attitudes toward drug use have become downright puritanical. You’ll see jokes about the retarded and about spousal abuse before you’ll see somebody singing for the legalization of ganjaweed on network TV anytime soon.