3 July 2003 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
Even worse than you've been told it was
First, let's get that title sorted. Howard Cosell's ill-fated variety show was officially known as 'Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell', but this title was too long and unwieldy ... so the series was usually identified (on air and off) simply as 'Saturday Night Live'. It featured an annoying opening-credit sequence in which whispering voices persistently rearranged the title, like this: 'Saturday Night Live ... Live Saturday Night...' This terrible ABC-TV series ran for only a few weeks; ironically, almost straight away after its cancellation, another network (NBC) premiered an entirely unrelated series (with an almost totally different format) also named 'Saturday Night Live' ... which has run and run ever since.
Getting back to *this* SNL: somebody at ABC had the great idea of creating a series that would be, effectively, a reincarnation of the Ed Sullivan Show. Great idea, terrible execution. Howard Cosell seemed a good choice to inherit Sullivan's mantle: both men were seriously charisma-challenged and had no significant on-screen presence. But Ed Sullivan knew a great deal about show business, whereas Cosell's expertise was in sport.
Ed Sullivan was credited (not altogether accurately) with introducing the Beatles to America ... so, if Cosell was going to be the 'new' Ed Sullivan, he had to find a band that would be the 'new' Beatles. This turned out to be (wait for it) the Bay City Rollers, a good-looking young quintet with working-class Scots accents (much less comprehensible to Americans than the Beatles' Scouse accents were), who wore novelty haircuts and tartan-trimmed cozzies. (There is no Bay City in Scotland, but there are at least two Bay Cities in the USA: the Rollers cynically chose a name which they hoped would make them popular Stateside.) Usefully for 'Saturday Night Live', the Bay City Rollers' one big hit song was called 'Saturday Night' ... so, they were brought onto Cosell's show several times, whanging out this pop tune which did double-duty as a plug for Cosell's show. There was a blatantly obvious attempt to re-enact Beatlemania here: the opening episode of 'Saturday Night Live' packed its live studio audience with dozens of teenage girls waving tartan scarves and squealing on cue: allegedly these were the Rollers' fans in America, but it was obvious they'd all been hired for the occasion.
Over the (very brief) run of this series, Cosell seemed to go out of his way to get the worst acts possible. Ed Bluestone was a hack writer at National Lampoon who created that magazine's most infamous cover. ('If you don't buy this magazine, we'll kill this dog.') Bluestone had recently achieved a few TV bookings with a terribly unfunny stand-up routine about funerals ... so Cosell dutifully booked him on 'Saturday Night Live', doing a verbatim rendition of the same routine that had died on several other TV shows.
In the later episodes of this series, Cosell grew increasingly desperate and he decided to call in some chits from his connections in the sporting world. He brought in several of the New York Yankees to appear on his show in their uniforms, performing 'Heart' from the Broadway musical 'Damn Yankees'. Sounds like a good idea, except that none of the chosen Yankees were able to sing or dance ... so, they just sat on a bench and took turns croaking out individual lines of the lyric. Terrible!
This show died a well-deserved death. The *other* 'Saturday Night Live' (in a later time slot) premiered almost immediately after this one was cancelled: a coincidence which only adds to the confusion.