Out of warm dormitories and into the cold show business world, Franken and Davis tried to get on television, but failed. "It's like people we get applications from who want to write for the show," Franken said. "They send us things, but they never consider what goes into a show. They don't know what we want. That's what happened to us when we started out, and it was just stupid of us to think that people were going to take things just because we liked them."
Franken and Davis did discover what people wanted. Their success came when they were still so young--Franken is 24, Davis 23--that comedians constantly caution them "not to burn out." Franken, sitting in his comfortable chair, was not disturbed. His only worry, he said, was when he would get a vacation from his writing job, not to relax, but to perform stand-up comedy.
A true "Saturday Night" fan will remember that Franken and Davis appeared on the show that was guest-hosted by Eliot Gould. They were dressed as Indians--Franken was an interviewer, and Davis was the head of the Bureau of White Man Affairs. The Indians had defeated white forces and won the West, and the whites were in the minority. Davis told Franken that the whites were occupying Wounded Stench, but that white men preferred to call it Jersey City. And Davis also revealed a white idiosyncrasy: they loved intertribal jokes, especially about the greasy Italian tribe.
The youth of the "Saturday Night" writing staff--the average age is 24--reflects the show's spirit. A recent skit featured the hands of President Ford, (played by Chase) futilely trying to roll a marijuana cigarette and forgetting whether to pour, lick and roll, or roll, lick and pour. "The humor on the show isn't ahead of its time," Franken said. "Most of the people here have been doing this kind of stuff for years. It's just that on TV you can't be as radical, so for TV it's new."
Chase, armed with a naive countenance and trim haircut, has excited the comedy world with his Ford skits. His athletic ability, coupled with Ford's athletic pursuits, adds a new dimension to political satire: physical comedy. Typical is the opening scene to the December 20th show. Chase, as Ford, climbs to the top of a 15-ft. Christmas tree. While cutting off the branches--Betty told him to trim it--he stumbles from the ladder and falls spectacularly to the wooden floor. As the crowd roars its approval, Chase lifts his head and yells, "Live from New York: It's Saturday Night!" The weekly fall has become Chase's trademark, and having a president with a reputation of clumsiness has all but shoved him into stardom.
"Weekend Update," Chase's mock news broadcast is the show's most popular skit. "It's the last thing we do," Franken said. "We throw it together around two in the afternoon on Saturday and add jokes throughout the day, right up to air time." Much of "Update" is direct satire of occurences of the previous week. On one newscast, Chase reported:
"This week, the FDA banned Red Dye #2, saying the red coloring agent is suspected of having cancer-causing qualities. Coincidentally, it was reported this week that Ronald Reagan revealed he was undergoing treatment for cancer of the hair."
Although Reagan and Ford are constantly ridiculed, they are far from alone.
The FCC announced today that for every Ford commercial run on television, a minute of an old Ronald Reagan film must be shown. As a result of this action, a spokesman for George Wallace responded by demanding equal time by showing one minute of "Ironside."
The writers often go a bit too far for the network, so an NBC censor reads the script before each show. "They've been pretty reasonable," Franken said. "Sometimes they cut things for really stupid reasons, but sometimes they let things through that I can't believe." He chuckled and added, "Like Wallace wheelchair jokes."
The show's most deadly enemy, Franken said, is not controversy, but expense. Production costs are close to $250,000 per show, extremely high for a late-night show. "Late-night advertising is worth less than prime-time. They were thinking about moving us to prime-time, and you can't really say how it would change the show. I have a feeling they won't do it."
"Saturday Night" fans will be disappointed to hear that NBC has scheduled only 11 live shows for the next six months, with reruns and other NBC features filling the lulls between. In one eight week period, however, seven live shows will go on the air. "That's going to be rough," Franken said. "When we did four in a row, the last show--I think it was with Dick Cavett hosting--came out pretty poor."
Like Cavett, most of the guest hosts are popular figures. Candice Bergen, Paul Simon, Lily Tomlin and Anthony Perkins have appeared, and Raquel Welch is scheduled for next Saturday. Tomorrow night, Ron Nessen, presidential press secretary, will make his show business debut.
Franken was traveling with the candidates in New Hampshire before the primary "just to see what politics are like." He was riding on the Ronald Reagan press but, following Reagan's campaign appearances at junior high schools. "They were asking him questions like, "Why are you running for President?'" Franken said, shaking his head. "So I asked him how he could be against decriminalization of marijuana and be against motorcycle helmet legislation because motorcycle helmets infringe of people's rights. Then the assistant press secretary threw me off the press bus. Reagan is just so bad."
The trip was a success, however, because Franken met Nessen and convinced him to host the show. "We're not selling out," Chase told People magazine. "Nessen is an interesting host. People are tired of seeing the same old craperoos, all the people you see on game and variety shows."
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