When Saturday Night Live‘s first season finally came to DVD in 2006, it set a standard for how the shows should be released. The show has long kept itself going in the home video realm with performer best-ofs and themed releases, which is fine for the layman but not for the SNL completist. The release of that first season meant that the individual shows were going to be shown pretty much as is, and that trend has continued with the release of Saturday Night Live: The Complete Second Season.

The first season of Saturday Night Live was a work in progress, with the show not knowing which direction to take. By next season, SNL was firmly in control of its destiny. The Muppets decamped to Britain while Gary Weis filled the short-film spot vacated by Albert Brooks. The “Home Movies” segment saw an eventual spinoff in Mr. Bill. Chevy Chase left as Jane Curtin became “Weekend Update” anchor. Even the show’s name became established on March 26, 1977, dispensing with that NBC’s Saturday Night shit (although the change wouldn’t be fully reflected until the third season.)

SNL was strong enough during the show’s second season that Chevy Chase leaving didn’t hurt the show at all. Jane Curtin made for a decent replacement in the “Weekend Update” chair. Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner and John Belushi emerged as main draws. Newcomer Bill Murray would start off slow but would blend in with the rest of the cast by the end of the season. By eliminating the most obvious one-dimensional castmember, SNL displayed talent depth that would cement its place as destination programming for the next three seasons. The familiar guest hosts were starting to emerge – Buck Henry, Steve Martin, Elliott Gould, Candice Bergen – and the low-key familiarity would serve SNL well until everything changed in 1980.

The second season of Saturday Night Live reveals a show improving on its initial success. The average SNL episode from this season is uneven but not to the point where it becomes unwatchable. The writing is generally good, with more hosts able to carry the material than not. SNL even managed a few funny bits out of awkward hosts like Ralph Nader and Jodie Foster. Some of the recurring bits are boring – the Gary Weis films seem to improve only when Buck Henry’s in them – but “Mr. Mike’s Least-Loved Bedtime Tales” is still fun to watch thirty years later.

The musical guests are enjoyable overall, despite the too-heavy emphasis on folk rock and singer/songwriters at this point in SNL‘s history. There is the odd misfire, like Brian Wilson turning in a blah rendition of “Good Vibrations” and performing two other songs of little consequence. Performances by Frank Zappa, The Band, The Kinks and Chuck Berry stand out. Other memorable moments include a clip of the Rutles performing “I Must Be in Love” on Rutland Weekend Television and Joe Cocker and John Belushi appearing on stage together, on the same show yet.

The audiovisual quality of SNL‘s second season episodes is about the same as when they first aired. The shows are for the most part intact, give or take the usual “is this the live show or a rerun version” fiddling-around common to Saturday Night Live. The bumpers are still mostly absent, but they add almost nothing to the show aside from nice photography. The only things I object to in this set are the Broadway Video/SNL Studios/NBC Enterprises credit logos at the end of each episode, since they’re not necessary to begin with and cut into the original credits often.

Extras have never been a strong point with SNL releases. There are two average audio-only dress-rehearsal sketches, “Susie & Shari” and a Farbers sketch entitled “New Kid.” The Andy Kaufman screen test is a little better, with Kaufman deadpanning “MacArthur Park” as a poem and doing basic Kaufman schtick.

The inclusion of the Mardi Gras special makes up for the lameness of the other extras. Aired February 20, 1977 as part of the bran tub of specials that NBC termed The Big Event, “Live from Mardi Gras” was a misfire. Saturday Night Live couldn’t contain the general rowdiness of Mardi Gras into a ninety-minute show. Buck Henry and Jane Curtin covered empty space where the Bacchus parade should have been – it allegedly got held up when a partygoer was run over by a float, forcing Lorne and company to fill like crazy.

As a stand-alone show, the Mardi Gras special isn’t as bad as it’s made out to be – the sketches themselves are average with more than a few technical flubs, but the show ends up being a superior train-wreck. A sleep-deprived and rushed-on-air Penny Marshall mouths something and then claps at nothing at particular before she realizes she’s on air, while Jane Curtin and Buck Henry have doubloons and Mardi Gras beads thrown at them throughout the broadcast. I can understand why the Mardi Gras special was shunted to the scrap heap of SNL history, but SNL has done far worse shows. Considering everything went pear-shaped behind the scenes, the show is still recognizable as an SNL episode.

Overall, Saturday Night Live: The Complete Second Season is quite the package for both old-school SNL fans and for fans of sketch comedy. I can’t see all thirty-three seasons given a box set – can you imagine? – but hopefully sales will be strong enough that the third to fifth seasons of SNL will be given their just due. Hopefully the third season box set will include more ephemeral SNL-related material, since Lorne Michaels and NBC seem to like sitting on piles of it.

The Upside: Twenty-two full episodes. Music clearances must have been a bitch.

The Downside: The extras would have been paltry if not for the Mardi Gras special. Also, “subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing” seems to be Universal’s euphemism for “closed captioned.”

On the Side: Considering how slick SNL has become, it’s a bit disorienting to watch five minutes of Candice Bergen and the SNL cast skating around the rink near Rockefeller Center in one episode. Nowadays, the valuable time between 12:50 and 1:00 AM is spent on sketches like “The Out-of-Breath Jogger from 19X2.”

Grade: B+


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