Joke and Don’t Look Back

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:

Legalize marijuana
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.

“(You Got to Walk and) Don’t Look Back”/Peter Tosh with Mick Jagger (buy it here)

6 responses

  1. Yes. About the least funny skits were John Belushi and Gilda Radner which involved Belushi beating on her.

    About drugs: The funniest episode, bar none, on Barney Miller was the force accidentally dosed with hash. When re-run, predictably it was not shown. Fortunately, it just came out on DVD (third season).

  2. Today, you will never see a comic portraying himself as a drunk as was the case with Foster Brooks, and “Otis” on the “Andy Griffith Show.”

  3. Well, and on the music front, it’s funny how songs like “One Toke Over the Line” or “The Cover of the Rolling Stone” (with its reference to “Cocaine Katy”) were top 10 hits, but today, Kid Rock’s “Picture” and other pop hits get edited on radio to eliminate references to drugs.

  4. I think the Crawford sketch is hilarious. And I think you also miss the point. Radner isn’t portraying her as retarded but as traumitized by a lifetime of abuse by her twisted mother, Joan. And so what if she tapped into popular stereotypes of the retarded? Have you ever seen the Youtube series “Retarded Pokiceman” It’s a guy wioth Downs Syndrome playing a retarded cop and it’s hilarious. He knows exactly what he’s doing too. You remind me of a faculty advisor I once had at a college paper I was at. I used the word “moron” in a column and he went on to scold me on how “moron” was once used to describe the mentally retarded and how insensitive I was to use it because his son was mentally handicapped. So I changed it to “idiot”.

  5. I rarely respond to comments on posts this old, mostly because they’re usually put up months after the fact by people who come here via Google and won’t ever come back. But the one above is so spectacularly wrongheaded that I’m compelled to say something in my own defense.

    First, I didn’t say Radner was portraying Christina Crawford as retarded, but few people then or now would have recognized Radner’s portrayal as being anything else. There are other ways–more creative and humorous ones–to portray someone who’s “traumitized” by abuse. Earlier in the series, in another sketch where Radner played a different character in precisely the same way, it was clear that the girl is supposed to be retarded. My point is that the abuse the character receives (in both sketches) plays as cruel–but based on the tale of his college essay, I don’t think our commenter is wired to find cruelty anything other than funny.

    Also, I wouldn’t judge the cultural acceptability of anything by what’s on YouTube.

  6. I grew up with the original SNL and though I read that you never reply to posts this old (even older now) I must comment. I remember that character Gilda played never thought of her as “retarted”. Movies and TV never change, but they do get viewed differently with each new generation. Don’t blame the skit for that! I remember one skit with that character (she had a name in that skit, Colleen) where her parents (mom played by Kate Jackson I think) to her to a child therapist (played by Lorraine Newman as a child!) Though the Gilda character never spoke a word, she seemed to do odd things as her parents started to bicker (once part she sat on sofa upside down). She just seemed like an abused individual (not that it’s acceptable either). The therapist asked her to go to the toy box and get a mommy doll and she got a Barbie. Then she was told to get a daddy doll and she got a Ken. Then they asked her to get a Colleen doll… and she got a roll of scotch tape! I think that sums it up! She totally understood but felt like an object! That character was also similar to other Gilda characters like Emily Littella and the little Brownie girl, Judy Miller. No one in the 70’s saw “Colleen” and anything more than another twistedly funny Gilda Radner character!

    http://snltranscripts.jt.org/78/78m.phtml

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