Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (July 26, 2013)
Given the enormous success that Saturday Night Live enjoyed virtually as soon as it debuted in 1975, it seems strange that it encountered no competition until Fridays hit the late-night scene in the spring of 1980. Perhaps some failed challengers did appear over that span and I simply don’t recall them, but I do know that Fridays became the only legitimate threat to SNL’s hegemony.
For a little while, at least. I was 13 back when the show started, so I don’t recall how well the series did in the ratings. As I remember, we did feel like Fridays put a jolt in SNL, perhaps because the latter went through growing pains in 1980. Fridays debuted just as SNL finished its fifth season, the final one with most of the original performers. The sixth SNL season came with a new cast, a new executive producer – and a lot of criticism. Many still regard Season Six of SNL as its worst.
As a kid, I probably still enjoyed SNL, but I think I liked Fridays more, and it did feel like a fresher, more creative endeavor. That was a long time ago, obviously, and I’ve seen virtually no episodes of Fridays since then, so I had no idea how accurate that view was or how well it might endure.
Until now, of course, as this five-DVD Best of Fridays set allows me to renew my acquaintance with the long-dead series. Best of delivers 16 episodes from across its two-year run. We start with Episode One (aired April 11, 1980) and go through Episode 50 (January 15, 1982).
At the series’ start, it featured musical guests but didn’t use celebrity hosts ala SNL. This changed halfway through Season Two, at which time guest hosts entered the picture. The first 10 episodes in this package come from the “no host era”.
Three of the episodes lack musical guests, but not because the programs themselves came sans bands. Episodes 21, 24 and 31 fail to present their original musical acts; those featured the Bus Boys, Steve Forbert and the Sir Douglas Quintet, respectively.
Why are those performers absent from the DVDs? I have no idea. One might assume rights issues affected their inclusion, but that would seem strange given that none of those acts seem like they could demand big bucks. As we’ll see, Best Of presents some major names; the DVD’s producers could afford them but not Sir Douglas?
Perplexing omissions aside, here’s the roster of Best of Fridays:
Episode 1 (April 11, 1980 – 44:48): Musical guest Kenny Loggins. If nothing else, I was happy to watch this show because of its opening. The first sequence shows the cast and crew as they “prepare” for the broadcast; SCTV made fun of this specific segment when they mocked the series later in 1980. While I understood that SCTV spoofed Fridays, I never realized they did so this literally.
I also think the series opens in a gutsy way, as it mocks the standard opening monologue. Cast member Michael Richards comes out and does an intentionally incompetent job. He barely talks, seems awkward and delivers a bad knock-knock joke. I don’t know if it’s particularly funny, but it’s creative.
After that, the show mostly goes downhill. Except for the mildly amusing “Muppet Hunt” sequence, the “newscast” lacks wit, and a sketch in which guys chat over drinks – and only talk with liquid in their mouths – is a one-joke premise with a lame notion at its core. It’s not atypical, as a number of other sketches come with a single bad concept that doesn’t go anywhere.
Sometimes the cast can redeem these elements, though. For instance, the sketch in which a plastic surgeon makes a guy look like Howdy Doody amuses solely due to Larry David’s over-the-top reading of “hello Mr. Doody! How are you, Mr. Doody?”
Those moments make E1 sporadically amusing, but the overall impact of the show remains lackluster at best. It doesn’t help that no one had the slightest clue how to end any of the sketches – they all just kind of die without any real conclusion.
Episode 3 (April 25, 1980 – 41:28): Musical guest The Clash. “Diner of the Living Dead” remains one of the series’ better-known sketches, but I think it’s emblematic of the show’s worst tendencies. It’s a fairly poor concept that goes for easy laughs without cleverness; it’s gross but not funny. Then there’s “Women Who Spit”, a skit that explores the titular concept and nothing more – it’s a pointless dud.
Two elements redeem E3. For one, we get four songs from the Clash – all from the then-current, still-awesome London Calling - and for another, Larry David saves the day when he appears. Maybe I’m viewing David through Seinfeld-colored glasses, but he’s easily the funniest thing about the series so far. His bit as a temp worker who acts as a lawyer is pretty funny. Too bad so much of the rest of the show stinks.
Episode 8 (June 6, 1980 – 48:05): Musical guest Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Seinfeld fans may get a kick from “Matzoi”, as Bruce Mahler’s “Rabbi Kimmelman” character offers a close precursor of the recurring “Rabbi Glickman” role he did on that series. It’s not an especially funny skit, but it has that foreshadowing thing going for it.
The two songs from Petty offer another boost; they’re not as great as the Clash, but they’re nice to have. Otherwise, we tend to see a lot of the series’ main weakness: a tendency toward easy laughs. Fridays got a reputation as a show that milked sex and drug gags for cheap humor, and that proves relentlessly evident in E8. It’s probably the weakest of the three found on this disc to date.
Episode 10 (June 27, 1980 – 45:19): Musical guest Graham Parker and the Rumour. Just like I believe Fridays had a reputation for simplistic sex/drugs humor, it also became known for a lot of great musical guests. I agree with that; after the lameness of Loggins, we’ve gotten one quality act after another, and that’ll continue through most of this package’s remaining episodes. If nothing else, we can usually count on Fridays to provide good music.
I’ll say this for E10: it’s more ambitious than its predecessor. It uses its first 12 and a half minutes on a parody of the then-upcoming Republican Presidential Convention. It’s not funny, but it’s daring to commit so much time to one segment.
E10 also goes kind of “meta”, as it uses a sketch about a little girl to break the fourth wall and open up various conceits; as with the opening, it doesn’t do much to amuse, but I’ll give it credit for some daring. The show also provides a Michael Richards character that may not be a direct precursor to Kramer but who bears more than a few similarities.
Episode 15 (September 19, 1980 – 36:47): Musical guest The Cars. E15 spotlights the biggest problem with Fridays: it boasts a generally good – and sometimes great – cast who often get let down by awful writing. Look at the opening sketch, a spoof of the Marx Brothers that plops them in Iran; the performers do well but the writing seems cheap and forgettable. A good performance of “Touch and Go” from the Cars helps redeem this episode, but otherwise, it’s pretty weak.
By the way, the DVD does not present the full episode. One could’ve guessed that from the running time – which is about 10 minutes shorter than usual – but I confirmed it when I found out the Cars did three songs, not just one. I’m not sure if any comedy got the boot as well.
Episode 19 (October 31, 1980 – 46:15): Musical guest Dire Straits. As much as I like Dire Straits – which is a fair amount- I don’t think they fare especially well here. They sound fine but don’t bring a lot of presence to the stage.
Nonetheless, they remain the highlight of this lackluster episode. Aired days before the 1980 Presidential Election, politics dominate the show, but not in a positive way. The series didn’t do social commentary well, so its political material tends to flop. Even a return from Mahler and David as the rabbis fizzles in this forgettable program.
Episode 20 (November 7, 1980 – 32:21): Musical guest Devo. Wow – 32 minutes, 21 seconds? As was the case with E15, it’s clear edits occurred here, but it’s less likely that musical omissions resulted in the abbreviated running time. It appears that one Devo song got the boot but that wouldn’t cause the show to be 15 or so minutes shorter than usual.
What we see brings on a feeling of déjà vu. The then-recent election takes up a lot of the program, and the other skits bring back recurring characters. None of them do much for me.
Episode 21 (November 14, 1980 – 37:49): Musical guest The Bus Boys (not on the DVD). Another shorter-than-expected show, though this time, the absence of the music seems to be the culprit; E21 drops three Bus Boys songs.
Unlike all the retread characters from E20, at least E21 tries something different, as “Star Wars Memories” combines The Empire Strikes Back with Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories. It’s not especially funny, though John Roarke does a good Woody impression – and there’s something bizarrely entertaining about the improbable sight of Larry David as Han Solo.
The rest of the show follows suit. We get scenarios/characters not yet seen – at least not in this package – but they don’t produce laughs. Though I thought the cast brought out strengths absent in the writing for earlier episodes, that doesn’t occur here; even David bombs as an obnoxious pro wrestler. I hoped Fridays would get better as it went along, but it seems to be declining. “The Brotherhood of Men Who Hum Between Words”? Seriously? Even the normally obsequious audience sounded like they couldn’t wait for that one to end.
Episode 23 (December 5, 1980 – 39:22): Musical guest Pat Benatar. E23 rebounds a bit, partly due to a decent return from Michael Richards’ “Dick” character, the semi-precursor to Kramer. Maryedith Burrell’s recurring bit as a reporter does okay as well. The creepy “transphibian” sketch loses points. Otherwise, it’s a flat show – and it drops one of Benatar’s performances.
Episode 24 (December 12, 1980 – 34:17): Musical guest Steve Forbert (not on the DVD). One of the series’ longer segments, “The Ronny Horror Show” – a spoof of Rocky Horror - gets points for ambition and production values, but it loses credit due to its lack of comedic imagination and ham-fisted politics.
Still, it’s an interesting experiment and helps make this a better than average show. The best skit comes from Larry David as a prisoner who negatively critiques a painting by his eight-year-old daughter; essentially David plays himself – or the character we’d later come to know – and it’s pretty funny.
Fridays got a well-deserved reputation as a refuge for easy drug jokes, and these approach their nadir with the lame Nat E. Dred sketch, which is nothing more than an excuse for a lot of gags about smoking pot. That misstep aside, at least E24 offers some positives.
Episode 31 (February 20, 1981 – 38:03): Guest host Andy Kaufman, musical guest Sir Douglas Quintet (not on the DVD). Here comes the series’ most famous – or infamous – episode. Indeed, when people remember Fridays, it’s usually because of this program.
Looking at the show now, it’s hard to believe it created so much controversy; Kaufman’s antics seem staged and not as anarchic as they appeared decades ago. That said, they’re pretty funny and easily a series highlight.
Coincidentally, E31 comes with a series low point: the perfectly dreadful “Moral Majority Comedy-Variety Hour”. This is one-dimensional, predictable “commentary” without a hint of insight or humor. The Kaufman stuff redeems this show and makes it better than it should’ve been.
Episode 32 (February 27, 1981 – 46:07): Guest host Billy Crystal, musical guest Randy Meisner and the Silverados. Sometimes Fridays feels like it existed for little reason other than to praise drugs and bash Ronald Reagan. E32 mixes the two with its parody of Altered States. Not surprisingly, this doesn’t work; it’s another tedious recitation of the same simple-minded gags. Well, at least it’s better than that awful “Moral Majority” bit.
Kaufman reappears here as the show reveals that the antics of E31 were staged. Of course, Kaufman pushes the envelope a bit more via his “apology”; it doesn’t do much for me. We don’t see much of Crystal, which is fine, as his main skit as an aging barkeep feels more like something from a bad one-man show than a good TV sketch.
Episode 39 (September 25, 1981 – 38:28): Guest host William Shatner, musical guest Kim Carnes. The concept that posits Shatner doesn’t arrive for the show and Captain Kirk takes his place goes nowhere, but Shatner turns into a more than capable guest host. Indeed, he makes humor out of a couple of lame skits and helps this become a better than usual episode. Even yet another bad Reagan sketch doesn’t hurt too much.
Episode 41 (October 16, 1981 – 39:23): Guest host Karen Allen, musical guest Stray Cats. Allen got the hosting gig due to her role in the then-current Raiders of the Lost Ark, so the presence of a Raiders spoof comes as no surprise. Alas, it’s pretty terrible. It goes on forever it produces nary a laugh along the way.
Another skit goes the meta route occasionally explored in earlier shows, as it displays a couple whose apartment comes with its own studio audience. It boasts a mildly clever concept that it milks for far too long. Nothing else flies here, so this winds up as a flat episode.
Episode 49 (January 8, 1982 – 52:35): Guest host Valerie Harper, musical guest the Cars. While not a classic, E49 shows a few glimmers of amusement, partially due to Rich Hall and his quirky sense of humor. Michael Richards also does a decent riff on Frank Zappa – though the skit peters out after a while – and Harper proves capable in her handful of appearances. It’s an up and down show but it comes with some good moments.
Episode 50 (January 15, 1982 – 44:57): Guest host Tab Hunter, musical guest Kiss. Best of finishes with a thud. The rabbi characters boasted some amusement at one point, but they long ago wore out their welcome, and their James Bond spoof flops. Rich Hall throws in a few minor chuckles, but overall there’s not much to recommend here –Kiss’s attempt to adapt to the 80s gives us the funniest part of the show.
Going into this set, I expected a lot of good music and a lot of bad comedy. That’s essentially what I got. The series occasionally provides funny moments, and it’s interesting to revisit Larry David and Michael Richards pre-Seinfeld, but despite the best efforts of an often capable cast, the laughs just aren’t there much of the time. The Best of Fridays has its high points but doesn’t come with enough of them to maintain interest.