Weakened Update: William S. Burroughs Reads ‘Twilight’s Last Gleaming’ on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE

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Saturday Night Live, once a weekly must-see television event from coast to coast, had fallen on hard times following the transfer of executive producing power from series masthead Lorne Michaels (who would return to the show in 1985 and has been there ever since) to Jean Doumanian, a longtime associate producer for the show. Doumanian attempted to remake SNL to her personal specifications, including completely rebuilding the cast and altering the main stage sets, but the show suffered from a near-fatal lack of actual humor in lieu of taking constant jabs at topical jokes and skits that often came off as juvenile and offensive. Ratings fell, sponsors vanished, and NBC execs howled with rage. After twelve episodes Doumanian was let go from her executive producing post and replaced by Dick Ebersol, a young vice-president at the network who had initially conceived of SNL‘s creation with Michaels back in 1975.

Unaware of what direction to take the show now that it was under his control, Ebersol set out to repair the damage caused by Doumanian’s radical alterations – though she did do the show a great service when she cast up-and-coming comedian Eddie Murphy as a “featured player”; he later became the most popular member of the ensemble – by reestablishing connections to Saturday Night Live as it was when Michaels was in charge. One of the first things he did was rehire former head writer Michael O’Donoghue, whose pitch black “slash n’ burn” comedic styling had come to define SNL in its earlier years, in his old position but this time with greater creative control than ever before. O’Donoghue had long been convinced that the show was beyond saving and wanted to come back only to give it a “Viking funeral”. His reign began with the last episode of the sixth season on April 11, 1981 and would continue when SNL returned the following autumn.

O’Donoghue brought with him to the show two writers with cultural and humorous sensibilities very similar to his own whose presence at a network comedy-variety series could never have been thought possible in any alternate universe: Terry Southern, an acclaimed screenwriter (Dr. Strangelove, Easy Rider, Barbarella) and novelist (Blue Movie, Candy), and writer-director Nelson Lyon (The Telephone Book). Neither Southern or Lyon made much of an impact during their tenure on the writing staff, but it wasn’t like they needed the work or exposure.

Now fully-installed in his post by the beginning of the seventh season, O’Donoghue took it upon himself to steer the show into offbeat territory but was always at odds with Ebersol, who wanted SNL to be a solid comedy performer that wasn’t a lightning rod for controversy. It was O’Donoghue’s idea to bring in the punk rock band Fear to perform on the show’s Halloween special hosted by actor Donald Pleasance and reportedly allow a large group of their fans into the audience to form a mosh pit at the stage where Fear would be performing. Though the rowdy crowd got out of hand during Fear’s set the resulting damage was nowhere near as bad as the inevitable media blow-up made it out to be the next morning, but it was enough to tarnish O’Donoghue’s already shaky reputation with Ebersol and the NBC honchos.

The next week – November 7, 1981 – actress and supermodel Lauren Hutton was the host and Rick James was the musical guest. O’Donoghue wanted to bring in iconoclastic Beat Generation novelist William S. Burroughs for a show-ending spoken word performance of selections from his novels Naked Lunch and Nova Express that featured his character Dr. Benway. Ebersol approved Burroughs’ performance but was less than impressed when the reading, which was scheduled for four minutes of air time, ran two minutes over. He ordered O’Donoghue to cut those two minutes out when the show went live and the head writer appeared to acquiesce to Ebersol’s edict at first. When Burroughs took the stage for his reading he performed the full six minutes; as he recalled later O’Donoghue never told him to cut a thing because “once you are on live, what are they going to do? Cut in the middle?”

Though O’Donoghue’s latest refusal to abide by his decision rankled Ebersol Burroughs’ segment was warmly received by the studio audience. The writer lasted three more episodes before his continued clashes with the network for putting the kibosh on several ambitious sketches he had written and been promised would make it to air and Ebersol’s solidified confidence in his executive producer position resulted in O’Donoghue’s second and final departure from Saturday Night Live. His last episode as head writer aired on December 12, 1981 and was hosted by Bill Murray. Lorne Michaels brought O’Donoghue back to the staff when he resumed his post as SNL overlord now and forever prior to the start of the 1985-86 season, but that decision proved fruitless and the man known to millions as Mr. Mike would never again be associated with the show whose success he had been partially responsible for. O’Donoghue prospered as a screenwriter (Scrooged) and columnist for Spin magazine before dying of a cerebral hemorrhage on November 8, 1994. He was 54 years old.

I was originally going to post a rough-looking copy of the video of William S. Burroughs’ SNL appearance, which includes the Interzone short story “Twilight’s Last Gleaming”, with Japanese subtitles I found on YouTube. Luckily Hulu has a more improved version sans subs which is embed-friendly. Bear with the opening advertising. Do it for America.

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