I'm not sure if he had this in mind, but releasing the complete early seasons of Saturday Night Live may have been the best thing producer Lorne Michaels could have done to bolster the reputation of his more recent casts. A golden haze has fallen over that original cast, based on the tremendous number of talented people within (Belushi, Aykroyd, Radner, Murray, Chase), the groundbreaking feel of those first seasons, and the fond memories of their explosively funny sketches.
The trouble with that theory is that we're remembering the original show on a highlight reel; it is easy (especially for those of us who were not yet old enough to watch) to think that every single sketch in every episode was a "Bass-O-Matic" or a "Samurai Delicatessen."
But the truth of the matter is, that simply wasn't the case. Most episodes have one or two great sketches, a couple of mediocre sketches, and a couple that are just head-scratchingly bad--just as today, or during the Will Farrell-Molly Shannon years, or during the Dana Carvey-Mike Myers years, or during the Eddie Murphy-Joe Piscopo years. These days, most viewers will watch a new episode and note that, while the Tina Fey-Sarah Palin opening was funny, those two sketches in the last half-hour were just awful, so the show, while funny, still isn't what it used to be. But now, as a better-informed SNL viewer, I know better. I've seen the "Scotch Tape Emporium" sketch. There's always been lousy stuff after 1am.
The Complete Fourth Season finds the show running at the height of its influence; this was Belushi and Aykroyd's final season with the Not Ready For Prime Time Players (though Murray, Radner, Curtain, and the rest stuck around for the wildly uneven fifth season). Belushi had starred in the previous summer's biggest smash, Animal House, and while he honored his contract, he was eyeing the door all season (an issue hilariously addressed in the season's first episode, with then-mayor Ed Koch). That's not to say he isn't terrific through the season--this is, after all, a year that includes his deservedly-immortal Liz Taylor impression. Aykroyd spent a good deal of the season perfecting his hilarious Jimmy Carter impression (and his Julia Child, whose blood-curdling kitchen accident is a season highlight), while Murray made a move to the "Weekend Update" anchor desk. Radner's Roseanne Rodannadanna made several appearances, as did "the Nerds" (particularly in a notorious sketch during the season opener, where Aykroyd displayed heretofore unseen amounts of "male cleavage" as a refrigerator repairman). The filmed "Mr. Bill" bits provided some laughs, while the "Schiller's Reel" short films usually did not. Meanwhile, the Olympia Diner ("Chee-burger, chee-burger, chee-burger; no fries, cheeps; no Coke, Pepsi"), the perpetually broke and drunk Knights of Columbus, and the Widettes (a family of people with huge posteriors) proved that bringing back a one-joke sketch ad nauseum is an SNL phenomena that has been with the show since the beginning.
Occasionally, in rifling through these full episodes, one will come across the rare "undiscovered gem", a genuinely funny or inventive sketch that hasn't been seen on the countless "Best of" DVDs. The season opens with a strange but charming tribute to old radio variety shows, while Carrie Fisher's episode features an elaborate parody of the old Frankie-and-Annette beach party movies, invaded by her Princess Leia. The Kate Jackson episode features a funny running bit with Belushi doing a turn as the network's desperate then-president, Fred Silveman, as well as Andy Kaufman's famed musical bongos performance. And there are always juicy throwaway jokes to be found in the "Weekend Update" segments, especially if you're fairly well-versed in the events of the late 1970s.
Much of the quality of each episode is dependant on the guest host. Steve Martin's show is a highlight, with the "wild and crazy" Festrunk brothers cruising a singles bar and a visit to the courtroom of "Theodoric of York, Medieval Judge." Another frequent guest host, Elliot Gould, fronts an enjoyable Christmas show, including a very funny parody of Mommie Dearest (then merely a best-selling book). Buck Henry hosts twice in the season (which means two hilarious Samurai sketches and two dark, wildly inappropriate, but undeniably funny appearances of pervert babysitter "Uncle Roy"), as does Michael Palin; his two shows, and that of fellow Python Eric Idle, are clearly imbued with some of the spirit of the hosts' other venture. Particularly Python-esque is the very funny maritime sketch, "The Raging Queen", though it runs an astonishing 15 minutes long (another sketch in the same episode runs 12 minutes, a trend that is seen more than once through this and upcoming seasons).
Less notable hosts include Fred Willard, who is often funny but not here; Walter Matthau, who gives a strange, rambling monologue about how he doesn't really fit in with the cast and spends the subsequent hour proving it; and, most of all, Milton Berle. Berle was pinpointed by just about everyone involved as one of the two worst hosts of the early years (the other being Louise Lasser from season 1), and it's easy to see why; the idea of mating Mr. Television with TV's new comedy sensation probably seemed like a good one (and the show starts well enough, with the boys doing a funny and affectionate tribute to Berle's old Texaco show), but the show goes off the rails during Berle's interminable, unfunny Vegas-style monologue, which manages to sum up the smug, smarmy, lazy comedy that the show was cooked up to put out of business.
Mention must be made of the music, of course. The season's big "get" was the booking of the Rolling Stones for season opener, but it must be noted (and this is coming from a Stones fan) that they boys sound just awful in their three numbers; Mick and Keith sound hoarse and exhausted, the arrangements are unenergetic, and the notoriously fickle 8H sound system has a particularly tinny quality in their performances. On the other hand, Jagger makes a surprise appearance with reggae artist Peter Tosh later in the season and sounds very good indeed. Van Morrison appears on the Steve Martin episode and is in fine voice, while the Grateful Dead (a group that's never done much for this reviewer) are mellow and marvelous. Some of the best music of the season is provided by Belushi and Aykroyd's Blues Brothers (who made their show debut late in season 3); the duo (and their all-star backing group) are musical guests on the Fisher episode and are simply electrifying.
Those of you who (like me) are collecting the series will be happy to know that the handsome, book-style packaging trend has been continued for season 4. The Nerds grace the cover, and the set's seven discs are packaged in a four-tray digipak, with two discs overlapping on three of the trays. Episodes are listed on the outsides of the fold-out digipak.
As with previous season, the folks at Universal do the best they can with the source materials, but much of it is in pretty rough shape. The image is a soft one, with occasional smearing and quite a bit of noise, particularly on graphics and hot whites. The filmed "Schiller's Reel" and "Mr. Bill" look even worse, their film image full of dirt and grain.
Sound is adequate, if not terribly impressive. The 2.0 mix is occasionally tinny, but does a fine job overall in capturing the live show's punchlines and performances. The track is clean and mostly free of any noticeable distortion.
As in previous years, extras are present but a little on the light side. First up is the "Today Show Interview with John Belushi" (02:13), taken from his appearance the summer before the season to promote Animal House. This is an interesting clip, looking ahead to his busy upcoming year, though frustratingly brief; I guess they spent the rest of the time talking about the movie. Next we have the "Today Show Interview With Gilda Radner" (05:04), from a little later in the show's run. There's a bit more meat here, as Radner talks about the evolution of the Roseanne Roseannadanna character, as well as her interactions with Barbara Walters after the "Baba Wawa" impression hit the air. Though brief, these interviews are a nice addition to the set.
Also included is the "Tomorrow Show Interview with Walter Williams" (04:45). Williams is the creator of the "Mr. Bill" sketches, but his interview is more than a little dull; the main value of this extra is to see Tom Snyder in his heydey, the better to appreciate Aykroyd's spot-on Snyder impression, which is seen several times over the course of the season.
There are plenty of very funny moments to be found in Saturday Night Live: The Complete Fourth Season--Murray's lounge singer Nick Rivers pops up, Belushi has several "but nooooooo!" commentaries, Radner does her drugged-out rock star Candy Stripe, and so on. It's certainly a must-own for comedy connoisseurs. But in light of the many dead sketches, bad short films, and occasional dud hosts, casual fans might find their money better-spent on one of the many compilation DVDs, which present the show as the tight, flawless, laugh-a-minute extravaganza that we all want to remember it as. Recommended.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.