Wednesday, September 29, 2010

SNL Mardi Gras Special

Tucked away on Season 2, Disc 8 of Saturday Night Live on DVD -- among Special Features -- is the SNL Mardi Gras Special, which was broadcast only once, on February 20, 1977, and never repeated. I had to see it again after all those years, to see how my fragmentary memories of the show tallied with what was broadcast.

Overall, except for the chaotic setting, it was much like any SNL show from that era. Some sketches worked, some didn't. Some things I didn't understand then, but do now. It's a lot funnier to hear John Belushi scream "Stella!" in the New Orleans night, while wearing a torn white t-shirt, if you've seen A Streetcar Named Desire, which I didn't until some years later. But even in 1977 I thought it outrageously funny for Belushi to impersonate Mussolini on a balcony facing a crowd of revelers, and even better to get the crowd to shout, "Duce! Duce!" As a high school kid I might have been unusual in my knowledge of World War II leaders.

I'm fairly certain I didn't really appreciate the music then, but I do now. Just how many songs are there about the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927? Quite a few, actually, and Randy Newman sung one of them ("Louisiana 1927") on the show, with full orchestration. Also featured was The New Leviathan Oriental Fox-Trot Orchestra doing "Rebecca Came Back From Mecca," which probably hasn't been on network television since (and maybe never before, though there's no telling what ended up on variety shows in the '50s). Would SNL have the nerve now to book any musical act that far outside the mainstream, even as a secondary act? I wouldn't know, but I suspect not.

Eric Idle had a memorably funny turn as well, at an empty outdoor cafe doing the old broadcaster-stuck-with-nothing-to-report bit: "Here, there's an atmosphere of almost unbelievable gaiety -- [glances around the empty outdoor cafe] and festivity. You can practically smell Mardi Gras here! The atmosphere, for four days, has been a feeling of Carnival, which was, uh, really here up to, uh, well, just a few short minutes ago, uh -- before you came over here.

"The place was literally packed with revelers, partymakers wearing beads and singing and dancing -- it was a real Carnival atmosphere, and we were all having a really, really fun, fun time -- up until a couple of moments ago. Literally, crowds of people were literally thronging these streets, literally hundreds of gay -- uh, happy -- folks were... lurking all over the place! What a pity, they've all gone..."
That goes on for a while, and toward the end Idle holds up a postcard of New Orleans during Mardi Gras, which he moves up and down to give the audience a sense of the vanished festivities.

Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live (1986), by Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad, details how difficult the New Orleans episode was for the SNL cast and crew, besides simply being a logistical nightmare. This 2008 article by Dave Walker of the Times-Picayune covers the subject well. The payoff, in terms of ratings at least, was mediocre. In a way, it's too bad that the concept of SNL broadcasting occasionally from other places died with that single show in 1977. Over the years, the show could have done other interesting things from other interesting places, had the New Orleans foray worked out differently.

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At 2:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your nephew (Robert) accused me of being the man leading the antler dance on this episode of SNL, working under the name Michael O'Donoghue. He was skeptical about my assertion that I was in North Carolina at the time. ANK


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