Whether you love it or hate it these days, it's still tough to compete against Saturday Night Live. Although the show certainly has seen much better and much funnier days, you still can't knock it off its perch after all these years.
The powers that be that created Fridays, an L.A.-filmed series that ran for three seasons on ABC in the early 1980s, swear up and down that they weren't out to challenge SNL, especially since it was bleeding to death on the side of the road at the time, after its acclaimed original cast had departed. The Fridays gang felt there was enough success out there for both shows.
Cast member Melanie Chartoff, whom you could consider the Tina Fey of Fridays, says, “A topical variety show about the news was not a new form. It was a very popular form. It was popular back on That Was the Week That Was [in the 1960s], and I think ABC just felt there was room for more of that on late-night television.”
Now with The Best of Fridays, which is coming to DVD and Blu-ray on Aug. 6 through Shout! Factory, you can relive a transitional period in comedy when ABC tried to create its version of SNL, with a West Coast sensibility.
Fridays had been in the works since 1978, when SNL was at its peak and was a much harder target to hit.
“We didn't want to compete with Saturday Night Live at all,” says Fridays cast member Mark Blankfield. “We wanted more emphasis on writing skits with a beginning, middle and end, and more complete characters. SNL had some great stuff but a lot of the sketches were one-note. We never avoided the comparisons. It was the white elephant in the room. We paid attention to preconceived ideas about us.”
The Fridays cast was an eclectic ensemble of newcomers. As Chartoff recalls, “They wanted relative unknowns. They didn't want names. They wanted all of us to get discovered together.”
There wasn't a clear breakout star among the cast, although Michael Richards eventually would get loud cheers from the audience during the opening credits, Blankfield would move on to several major studio comedies and Larry David and Larry Charles (respectively co-creator of Seinfeld and director of Borat and Bruno) had major potential, although it took a long time for those breakthroughs to happen.
“They had a big lull after Fridays,” producer John Moffitt says. “Larry David said he was so worried that he'd be homeless that he looked around various side streets in New York where he could live. He found a place, like, on 46th Street where there was a big updraft of heat underneath a grate. He planned the whole thing out, that's how unsure of himself he was after Fridays.”
Michael Richards tells L.A. Weekly via email that Fridays was “my first real paying job as a comic actor. Some of the stuff I did on Fridays was a start for characters I developed later on.” As far as the lessons he took with him from his Fridays beginnings to the Seinfeld big time, Richards says he learned to “just commit to the material no matter how goofy it is and you're 75% there. Talent will give you another 10%, so 85% isn't bad.”
“Michael was wonderful on the show,” Chartoff says. “And Larry David was distinguishing himself as a writer, but I also think he was a very good character comedian. Larry was a very sweet guy. We were like brother and sister then — he didn't have that misanthropic Curb Your Enthusiasm persona we all know now.”
Fridays was often a mix of political and slapstick humor. Two of the show's most ambitious sketches were “A Night in Tehran,” where Groucho Marx takes over as the president of Iran, and “The Ronnie Horror Show,” a parody of the midnight cult classic, with Reagan and his cronies provide the transvestite musical fun.
On the other end of the spectrum, you had skits like “Aquatopia,” in which a group of fish people try to get along above water, as well as a routine where the Three Stooges form a punk band and Curly goes nuts on cocaine. (Fridays had a lot of drug humor, some of which was funny and some of which fell pretty flat unless you thought the word “joint” was instantly hilarious.)
The cast of Fridays really threw themselves into their slapstick performances, and some of them were so over-the-top that practically every member of the cast had to go to the hospital at least once from mishaps. (During one skit, cast member Bruce Mahler accidentally blow-torched his face.) “Nobody really got hurt that badly, but that was the intensity and hunger for ratings we had,” Chartoff says.
Another Fridays forte was skits that broke the fourth wall. Kurt Vonnegut's son Steve was a writer on Fridays, and he wrote many of the sketches that broke the fourth wall, such as one in which David and Chartoff move into an apartment that comes with a live audience.
This leads us to the infamous Andy Kaufman incident, which for years was a Rashomon event with conflicting stories as to what really happened. For those unfamiliar with Kaufman lore, he broke out of a sketch by refusing to say his lines, and a faux fight broke out on the air between him and the show's director, Jack Burns; it all looked pretty convincing if you didn't know it was all a performance.
Just about everyone in the cast was informed that something going to happen during the show; they just didn't know what it would be or when. Cast member Blankfield remembers thinking, “This is great, this is live television. We're going to take a chance with an unscripted event.”
He adds, “I think it was Buster Keaton who said, 'Slipping on a banana peel is funny; what's not funny is having the banana peel visible, then you don't slip on it.' That's a harder laugh to get, and that's what we put ourselves into. We set up the premise, we broke the fourth wall, then the actors were no longer the characters, they're themselves. A perfect Andy Kaufman moment. Andy played to the stupefication and consternation of an audience, whereas most comics play a laugh.”
It certainly got Fridays a lot of press. Chartoff says, “In my opinion, it was kind of desperate. But it certainly got us on the map. It was always horrifying to me when our mistakes got us so much attention! I had the confidence enough to feel our good stuff would get us noticed.”
Even though Lorne Michaels had already left SNL in disgust at the beginning of the decade, he was not happy with Fridays, and it caused a rift with his manager, Bernie Brillstein. Brillstein represented Moffitt and his partner, the late Bill Lee, and got them their deal at ABC, but contrary to what Michaels believed, Brillstein did not create Fridays or own the show.
Moffitt also had a relationship with Michaels, and because of Fridays they didn't speak for three years. “We never thought it was going to be such a bitter thing, and I don't think Bernie did, either,” Moffitt says.
Thankfully, Fridays didn't cause a rupture with another Brillstein client, Jim Henson. On one episode, the news portion of Fridays, “The Friday Edition,” did a story on “The Great Muppet Hunt,” where people were clubbing Muppets on the beach for their fur. Moffitt says Brillstein told him, “Jim will never approve this. But you know what? Jim's going to London next week! If you're going to do it, do it when he's away!”
As you dig deeper into The Best of Fridays, you can feel the progress the show makes. The skits get progressively tighter and funnier. “I think the writers figured out how to write for us, and they learned how to write to our strengths,” Chartoff says. “By the third year, I think we'd hit our stride.”
Blankfield also feels that by the third season, viewers were watching and enjoying Fridays on its own terms. “In the short three seasons we had, people said, 'You know what? It's a good show. It's not a rip-off, it's a good show on its own merit.'”
But by that point, it was too late. In April 1982, ABC finally lowered the boom on Fridays after 73 episodes. “We never had the security of a 26-week pickup,” Chartoff says. “They always renewed us in increments of six and 13 episodes. We were always auditioning for ABC, so we never actually relaxed or had the sense of a secure series.”
As it turns out, Fridays wasn't finally defeated by SNL but by Nightline, which flourished during the Iran hostage crisis, and by Dallas, which was the hottest show on TV at the time. “Today Fridays would be considered a big hit because the primetime audiences have eroded so much today,” Moffitt says.
“I think the overall body of work was interesting,” he adds. “I think there's some brilliant moments, and I think it was a good alternative to SNL. We stumbled at times, we may not have been great, but I think we hit more than we failed.”
“At the time, every Friday was a gift, and we were one of the last live shows,” Blankfield says. “What goes live on TV now except sporting events? There's something about the immediacy of, 'This is live, anything can happen,' and you have to live with the unexpected.”
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