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Fridays: The Best Of
Not SNL, but fascinating just the same
Loves: Sketch comedy, old TV shows, good satire
Likes: Melanie Chartoff, Andy Kaufman, SNL
Hates: Music rights issues, best-of collections
ABC's answer to Saturday Night Live, Fridays has never been a part of my pop culture history, outside of the incident with Andy Kaufman, which was recreated in Milos Forman's Man on the Moon. Aside from the show's brief three-year run, and the somewhat-meager post-show careers of most of the cast, the biggest reason why it is such a forgotten series is the lack of availability. Following the series' cancellation, a short stint on USA Network was the only chance to see the show, as it was never re-run again and never released on home video. This has long been blamed on one of the series' two biggest alumni, Larry David or Michael Richards, one of whom reportedly had a clause in their contract preventing the release. But following a 2012 reunion, the series has finally seen the light of day, in the form of a 16-episode best-of collection, and anyone born after 1965 can finally see how the show compares to its far-better-known inspiration.
David and Charles are probably the only members of the cast most people know, though Melanie Chartoff (the resident funny hottie) went on to an iconic turn as the principal on the underrated Parker Lewis Can't Lose, Bruce Mahler was memorable as the milquetoast Fackler in Police Academy and Mark Blankfield was all over TV (in addition to playing Blinkin in Robin Hood: Men in Tights.) But despite the talent involved, much of what makes up Fridays, at least in the beginning, is unimpressive. The attempts for laughs involve lots of silly faces, wild physicality and simply stupid concepts. Michael Richards may be the biggest perpetrator of this, with one of his recurring characters, Battle Boy, capable only of playing war in the backyard, shouting and acting like a maniac. Sadly this is a key aspect of many of his performances in the show.
But it wasn't just Richards, as one sketch, involving two old friends meeting at a bar, is made up entirely of the two guys spilling their drinks out of their mouths and all over themselves, again and again. Like so many SNL sketches, this show seemed to struggle with finding an ending for a sketch, even if it's going nowhere fast, which tends to be the case repeatedly in this set. The goofy pratfalls and simplistic laughs aren't the worst of it, as the show earned a reputation as an edgier alternative to SNL largely on a steady stream of drug references. With the way the audience responds to these mentions, or drug-fueled characters like Rastafarian chef Nat E. Dred and the manic Drugs R Us pharmacist, it's hard to blame the show for continuously tossing them in, especially when the crowd, for the most part, seems otherwise indifferent to the proceedings.
While this sort of pandering to the lowest-common-denominator is all over this series like a cheap suit, perhaps hitting its nadir with the monstrous mime who embarrassingly mugs, shouts and walks in an exceedingly ridiculous manner, when the series tries its hand at political satire, it is surprisingly skilled. Starting at the tail-end of Jimmy Carter's administration and covering the beginning of the Ronald Reagan presidency, the show went after both politicians hard, attacking Carter's inability to get anything done as President and Reagan's conservative politics. Part of the success was having solid impersonators on staff, especially John Roarke, whose Reagan may be the best in sketch history. For as much as SNL gets out of election season, they have never approached politics with the edge or creativity of Fridays, which gave us Altered Stateman, a parody of Altered States starring Reagan as a tripping politician who morphs into several other Presidents, and the epic Ronnie Horror Picture Show, a 17-minute parody of the classic cult film, complete with live musical numbers and Reagan as the iconic sweet transvestite. It's truly fascinating to watch as these dyed-in-the-wool liberals savage their own disappointing party and the ultra-conservative actor who followed.
Though the series does include segments similar to SNL, including short films (from filmmakers like Michael Nesmith and Tom Kramer, which are better than the stuff SNL was offering) and "Friday Edition" a weekly news segment (which was mostly terrible), Fridays stood out by experimenting. Sometimes it really didn't work (several sketches, like one with Billy Crystal as an old boxer, were legitimately dramatic and out of place, while many were just far too long), but when it landed, it was rather impressive. A sketch featuring sports play-by-play of a couple's collapsing relationship was brilliant (outside of the ending), while several meta sketches, including one where parents explain television to their child and another where the audience are made a part of the sketch, are examples of where taking risks works for the show. Then there's the Andy Kaufman incident, where he brought his special brand of humor to the show, resulting in a sketch falling apart in the middle, leading to a fist fight and a cut to commercial, which is either ingenious or predictable depending on your tastes, but since it's still legend some 30 years later, it certainly was some sort of a success. The main problem was, Kaufman was too well-known for his antics at this point, so the crowd just laughed at everything he did, killing the effect of his anti-comedy.
While being edgy was occasionally a plus, what always worked, to a degree that SNL really has never met to this day, is the complexity and creativity in the sets and camera work. For a live show, this series pushed the envelope in terms of setting the stage and shooting a scene, resulting in a truly impressive presentation that sometimes made up for everything else the scene was lacking. For instance the character of the pharmacist may have been just a lot of freaking out, but Blankfield performs some impressively choreographed stunt work, thanks to a well-crafted gliding ladder set-up. And the effort that went into the show's musical numbers, including an Iran-themed Marx brothers parody, resulted in the kind of production value rarely seen in sketch comedy, especially when performed live.
When you consider how often you can't watch an SNL sketch thanks to the use of a song, the wealth of musical performances on Fridays seemed tailor-made for edits in a home-video release, but for the most part, this set delivers, with songs from The Cars (in two episodes) KISS, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Devo, Pat Benetar and Dire Straits, plus the first U.S. television appearances by The Clash and The Stray Cats. A few performances were cut, but they include lesser lights like The Busboys, Steve Forbert and Sir Douglas Quintet. What is included is some great archival appearances, especially The Clash's four-song whirlwind, featuring "London Calling" and "Train in Vain." The range of special guests (a feature that only started half-way through the show's run) is also solid, with William Shatner (playing James T. Kirk playing William Shatner), Karen Allen, Valerie Harper and a surprisingly-good Tab Hunter.
There are a few good sketches here and there, like the amusingly direct solicitors sketch, where a pair of prostitutes go door to door, the satirical Moral Majority Variety Hour and the certainly-challenging men who hum sketch, but the best episode is probably number 49, with Harper as the host, and The Cars, performing "Shake it Up," as the musical guest. The lengthy show is built around an extremely awkward year-in-review version of "Friday Edition" (which suffers mainly due to the show's only non-original cast member, Rich Hall) but it also includes former guest stars Valerie Bertinelli, Shelley Duvall, Peter Fonda, Anthony Geary and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (sort of), as they half-heartedly reminisce about their appearance; a never-ending, but darkly funny sketch with Harper and a teddy bear, a brief moment with Kaufman and a music review segment with "mystery guest" Frank Zappa, where he basically insults everyone in popular music (and several of the people on the show.) Good luck trying to recreate something like this today. It's these, for lack of a better, less cliched term, punk-rock moments that place Fridays so firmly in its time and place, making this set a wonderful comedy artifact.
The 16 episodes in this collection arrive on five DVDs in a standard-width keepcase with two trays, along with a 24-page booklet (designed with art from the show's bumpers and third-season titles) that includes episode info and an introduction from co-creator John Moffitt. The discs feature static anamorphic widescreen menus (again based on series promo art) with options to play all the episodes or select a show. There are no subtitles, audio options or closed captioning.
Presented with full-frame transfers, these episodes certainly look their age, but their not particularly rough on the eyes. There were a number of different techniques at work in this show, from the expectedly soft video and slightly harsh (and oddly, at times, dull) colors of the studio cameras to the darkness of the filmed pieces, though there are no real noticeable issues, outside of a few random hairs on some film elements. Digital compression artifacts are not a concern either.
The audio is clean and free of distortion, though the production had a number of audio issues, resulting in some scenes featuring difficult dialogue. As you would expect from a series of this age, there's nothing dynamic about the Dolby Digital 2.0 tracks, though the music is solid throughout, delivering the acts' strong performances well.
Things get started with a nearly hour-long chat between the cast members, with an intro from Moffitt and head-writer Steve Adams acting as moderator. Though David and Maryedith Burrell didn't make it, the discussion is lively and informative, covering a variety of topics, including comparisons between Fridays and SNL, experiences with guest hosts (including one who got on their bad side,) how the were cast, the role of drug humor and the unbelievable Ted Koppel controversy. Though Burrell couldn't take part in the actors conversation, she shares her thoughts on the show in her own interview (13:34), where she talks about the difference between the West Coach and East Coast comedy mindset, her favorite sketches and experiences on the show and some thoughts about her fellow castmates.
The set-up is repeated for another hour-long discussion, this time with several of the writers from the show, including Larry Charles. The topics are somewhat the same, though from a writer's perspective, with great anecdotes about filming KISS without their make-up, the challenge of filming live and their favorite sketches. Combined with the actors' segment, there's not a lot eft uncovered.
The moment the show is best known for gets a bit of a review in "The Andy Kaufman Incident: What Really Happened," a 9:05 collection of interviews with Moffitt and the groups from before as they talk about the origins of the sketch, who knew what when and the reactions to the moment, from both inside and outside the show. One wonders a bit if everyone is being truthful about it all though, as there are some contradictions.
There's also a 5:33 automatic photo gallery, with plenty of on-set pictures and promotional art, some of which show some sketches that aren't included in this set. The on-disc extras wrap up with "Fridays on the News" (8:01) an archival news report about the show frm the local Eyewitness News. If you take your average bad local TV human-interest news story and take it back a few decades, shaving off a good deal of sophistication in the process, you'll end up with this silly look behind the scenes, which at least takes a look at the rehearsal for one scene between goofy interview clips.
Rounding out the extras is the 24-page booklet, which has extensive info about the episodes and some interesting pop art, but the airdates (which are listed on the discs) are missing here. It would have also been nice to know which episodes are on which disc, since that info isn't available anywhere in the set.
The Bottom Line
For much of this set, Fridays is an underwhelming, almost amateur experience, trading in over-the-top physical humor and easy drug references, but when it sunk its teeth into political satire, it came up with true comedy classics. But even when it doesn't work, it's intriguing to observe as a product of its time, especially when Kaufman was involved or when the show's great musical guests performed. The set looks and sounds fine for the show's age, and boasts a bunch of engaging bonus content, filling in the blanks for those new to the series. If you're a sketch-comedy or specifically an SNL fan, this is well worth a look to see a very different take on the genre, and a interesting bit of TV history.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Follow him on Twitter
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.