Over the years, I have received sympathy for missing the opportunity to work on the original incarnation of Saturday Night Live. There are a lot of reasons I turned the job down, some of them revealing the less admirable attributes of my character, the retrospectively most foolish of those reasons being that I did not think the series was going to last.
Those reasons aside – both foolish and embarrassing – there was another reason for saying “No” to Lorne Michaels’ invitation to move to New York and join, and, it was insinuated, even head up, the writing staff of Saturday Night Live.
And I did not realize it until recently, when I was being interviewed on a podcast and I heard myself enunciate it, confirming my long-standing belief that I do not know what I think until I hear what I say.
The best reason for my not writing on Saturday Night Live:
I was temperamentally unsuited for the job.
This insight occurred to me when I was explaining to my podcast interviewer Brian something most people probably already know, which is that, on Saturday Night Live, the sketches are all written in one day.
They pitch ideas on Monday. The ideas that are approved are written, in a marathon session between Monday night and Tuesday night. Rehearsals begin on Wednesday, so, except for minor polishes and adjustments, that Monday-Tuesday period is basically it for the writing.
Why was I ill-suited for that unavoidably breakneck-speed writing process? Do you remember yesterday’s post?
I parse syllables.
That is all you need to know.
For the first time – during that podcast – I realized how excruciatingly frustrating it would have been for me, watching a performance one of my sketches, and suddenly aware of a writing change that would make what I was looking at immeasurably better.
There I am, witnessing an imperfect version of my work unfolding in front of me, and I can’t do anything about it!
This morning, on one of my now “Thursday Walks”, my mind unencumbered because nothing happens on my Thursday walks, I imagined, with alarming clarity, the following scenario:
It is 1975. I am on the writing staff of Saturday Night Live. The cast is performing the show’s pre-“Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night” sketch written by yours truly, for the first and only time.
The sketch’s premise?
It is five minutes before “Armageddon.” An asteroid is hurtling towards Earth, its colliding impact certain to blow the planet to smithereens.
An engineer – played by Dan Aykroyd – has over the years, been sneaking spaceship parts home and constructing an “Escape Vehicle” in his garage, as he explains it, “Just in case.”
And here we are – “Mr. Prescient.” The world is coming to an end, and he is the only person who’s prepared for it.
It is now time to make their move. Aykroyd assembles his household – his wife (played by Jane Curtin), their two teenaged children (played by John Belushi and Gilda Radner), their voluptuous Swedish au pair (played by a voluptuous Swedish “extra”) and an unobtrusive lodger, renting an apartment in their basement.
The confident patriarch is about to push the button and fly the family to safety. He pushes the button. There is a recognizable “Click.” No flames emerging from the bottom of the spacecraft, and no “Lift-off.”
The father is perplexed by this mysterious “failure to launch.” He makes furious adjustments, each met by a progressively nerve-rattling,
The wife sardonically – “Nice try, Einstein” – berates her husband’s futility. In his defense, he explains, “I’m a “Mechanical Engineer. I constructed the tail.”
Explaining that she is “handy around the house”, the wife volunteers to try, her suggestion garnering misogynistic retorts from her flying failure of a husband. Supported by a “Well I could hardly do worse” rationale, the wife assumes the “Command Position”, and she gives it a shot.
The teenaged boy is afforded his turn to start the spaceship. (“He reads a lot of Kurt Vonnegut.”)
Followed by the teenaged daughter, because “What have we got to lose?”
They are now officially going backwards.
It is thirty seconds to “Kablooey!”
The confessions being to pour out – emotional unburdenings before their inevitable demise.
The husband admits to an affair with the voluptuous Swedish au pair. The wife confesses to an affair with the husband’s brother, pointing triumphantly to their son and revealing,
“Jeremy is not yours!”
The son (Belushi) blurts, “Oh yeah? Well that’s nothing!” His older sister calls out, “Jeremy!” and he immediately goes silent. Surreptitiously, they reach out for each other’s hand, exchanging a revelatory squeeze.
“None of that matter anymore,” laments the father, “because we cannot get this fakakta spaceship off the ground.”
Out of the shadows, the till-then silent lodger, his face deeply buried in a book, speaks up.
“I can do it.”
The camera closes in on the lodger, revealing the face of that week’s SNL “Guest Host” –
“Mercury Seven” astronaut John Glenn.
Who, of course, does exactly what is necessary, saving everyone from destruction.
As the sketch is unfolding prior to the “Surprise Reveal”, I am standing behind the cameras beside Lorne, who watches the proceedings on the monitor. Suddenly, it hits me.
“Oh, my God! It’s not ‘I can do it.” It’s “I think I can do it”!
Lorne immediately “Shushes” me, as I had blurted my illumination while the show was being performed.
“I need him to change that line!” I exclaim, my voice now under control, in volume, if not in intensity.
Without thinking about it, I make a distinct move towards the stage, intending, in my moment of unscheduled insanity, to interrupt the performance, and whisper the improved version of the line into John Glenn’s ear so he can do it right, and not close to right but not right enough.
Lorne immediately grabs me, preventing me from stepping in front of the cameras, simultaneously whisper-shouting,
“What are you doing?”
“I thought of a better version of the line!”
To which he replies, encapsulating the reason I could never have worked on Saturday Night Live,
“You idiot! It’s too late!”
Dissolve Forward, and I am at the SNL after-party, nursing a Heineken, mumbling, “‘I think I can do it.’ Why didn’t I think of that before?”
I fantasize an emboldened “alternate Earl”, at the strategic moment, eluding Lorne’s control, walking directly onto the stage, and, to the surprise of both the audience and the actors, first, sincerely apologizing, and then explaining my intrusion, insisting that the line about to be delivered be replaced by the better version of the line before allowing them to continue with the performance.
That might actually have been funny, a “Breaking the ‘Fourth Wall’” interruption by an obsessed comedy writer, determined at all costs to get everything “exactly right.”
A “Memorable Television Moment”, perhaps. The problem was, what would I have done the following week,
When the same situation happened again?