NBC’s Saturday Night Live is in its improbable 46th season. Throughout most of that time, it’s been shepherded by comedy legend Lorne Michaels. Mr. Michaels, who had been a relatively unknown comedy writer from Canada, convinced NBC to take some unused time on late Saturdays and feature a group of misfit comedians. The network thought no one would watch and let the group alone.
The result, of course, took pop culture by storm. It’s hard to remember the cultural impact that SNL had, but at one time every single one of its players were like royalty. SNL was mandatory water-cooler talk on Monday morning. Every sketch was quoted over and over. Every gesture, every catchphrase, was an instant part of the zeitgeist.
Making a show that incredibly popular was hard. And Mr. Michaels didn’t really want it to define the rest of his life. (Spoiler alert, it did anyway.) And so, in 1980s, Lorne Michaels left the show. The show did very poorly without him, but that’s not the subject of this article.
Lorne on his own
Mr. Michaels took a few years to produce movies and generally live a life free of the pressures of a weekly TV show. But, eventually, he craved a return to sketch comedy. SNL had bounced back a little by 1984, the result of an infusion of tried-and-true talent. But Lorne Michaels wanted to start fresh.
Mr. Michaels pitched a new show to NBC, which he ironically titled The New Show. Unlike SNL, it would be pre-recorded and only 60 minutes, but it promised the same kind of comedy.
It should have been a smash hit
Mr. Michaels brought a lot of the original SNL team to the new project, including writers Franken & Davis and stars Gilda Radner and Laraine Newman. He attracted several members of the acclaimed Second City comedy troupe, including legends like Buck Henry and Dave Thomas. He included performers who would later become legends, like Jeff Goldblum, Catherine O’Hara, and John Candy. The guest stars were already pop culture royalty, like Carrie Fisher, Steve Martin, Cyndi Lauper, and Teri Garr. Not only that, the show featured Maggie Wheeler before her turn on Friends and Joy Behar before The View. With this kind of talent it would be a sure hit, right?
NBC promised a better time slot than SNL, airing Fridays at 10. While this still wasn’t really prime time, it gave the show a day’s lead in mocking the events of the week. And, NBC was prepared to promote the show heavily as a partner to SNL rather than a competitor.
Every single aspect of The New Show screamed “instant success.”
So what happened?
The New Show lasted nine episodes in early 1984. It was literally the lowest rated show on the regular schedule at the time, although it should be noted that its 7.9 rating would have qualified it for top 10 status today.
The show was unceremoniously canceled. NBC lured Lorne Michaels back to helm SNL, which incorporated non-live segments into its runtime after Mr. Michaels returned. Much of the staff and some of the performers from The New Show returned to Studio 8H and SNL has never looked back. Most people promptly forgot that The New Show ever existed.
The internet, however, never forgets. Unfortunately there isn’t an encylopedic archive of the show available, you can watch a lot of it on YouTube, including this “best of” video. It appears to be the compilation that ran as the show’s mostly unwatched tenth episode back in 1984.
If you’ve been wondering why the phrase “Floont Artney, Private Eye” keeps rolling around in your head like some long-forgotten romantic tryst, you can finally watch that sketch as well as many others.
The New Show was actually good
Folks, this is good comedy. Yes, it’s 1980s sketch comedy and that means it’s going to seem a little creaky by today’s standards. But every single one of these performers was at the top of their game here. This was ground-breaking experimental stuff and without it, you’d never have had a lot of the sketch comedy that followed.
I remember watching some of this stuff when it first aired. These were the days before everyone had a VCR… I didn’t. So I watched it live and soaked it in. At the time I thought it was every bit as good as the stuff SNL was doing at that time. I liked both. And I didn’t understand why other people didn’t.
Maybe there just wasn’t room for two sketch comedy shows on a major network. I’m sure the producers of the similarly ill-fated Fridays would agree with that statement. Maybe the 1980s was already too rife with irreverent comedians, thanks to the success of SNL in the 1970s. The nascent Generation X looked not to irreverent comedy but dark irony for its culture, and The New Show didn’t deliver that.
Still, one imagines an alternate universe where The New Show took the reins from SNL, continuing to develop into an arbiter of pop culture and becoming the defining achievement in the career of Lorne Michaels. I suppose it wouldn’t be too different from this universe, except with a lot more free time on Saturday nights.
It wouldn’t be the last time
This wouldn’t be the last or only time that SNL alums would break away only to skulk back. But that’s a story for another day.