by L. WAYNE HICKS
The farewell of Seinfeld, arguably the best sitcom ever, proved momentous for another reason. The 1998 final episode served as a reunion of sorts for four cast members from Fridays.
That episode reunited Melanie Chartoff and Bruce Mahler, who previously had made notable guest appearances on Seinfeld, with Larry David and Michael Richards, respectively the co-creator and co-star of the show.
For a brief time in the early 1980s, as the Carter administration gave way to the Reagan era, Chartoff, Mahler, David and Richards were part of an industrious ensemble on Fridays, along with Darrow Igus, Mark Blankfield, his wife Brandis Kemp, John Roarke and Maryedith Burrell. Known primarily for two things - as a copy of Saturday Night Live and for a riotous appearance by Andy Kaufman - Fridays was so much more than that.
While it often resorted to lowbrow humor and cheap, drug-oriented jokes, Fridays offered a surreal 70 minutes (later expanded to 90 minutes) of TV. The show gave punk and new wave bands an audience before mainstream America. And routines that would read on paper as woefully dull - Michael Richards plays with Army men; Mark Blankfield is a hunchback - proved masterful and memorable bits of comedy.
By the end of its short life, Fridays managed to win over early dismissive critics and attract a larger audience than Saturday Night Live before finally falling to the twin juggernauts of Nightline and Dallas.
COMEDY COMES TO LATE NIGHT
Saturday Night Live didn't break new ground. Sketch comedy programs had been a staple of television throughout the life of the medium, including groundbreaking programs by Ernie Kovacs and Sid Caesar. What Saturday Night Live did differently, however, was aim its comedy at a younger, hipper crowd. The humor appealed to a generation raised on National Lampoon and its companion radio show, where, indeed, producer and creator Lorne Michaels had siphoned some of his early stars, including John Belushi, Gilda Radner and Chevy Chase.
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And on a night when traditionally the young and hip weren't sitting at home in front of the TV, Saturday Night Live changed that. Since its debut in 1975, with George Carlin as a guest host and Andy Kaufman on hand to lip sync the theme from Mighty Mouse, Saturday Night Live became synonymous with hip, with ratings, with success.
ABC couldn't help but notice. The network that reached out to youth in the 1970s with T&A shows such as Charlie's Angels, Three's Company and The Love Boat wanted its own version of Saturday Night Live.
To do that, ABC turned to Bernie Brillstein, who'd proven successful in recreating Laugh-In as Hee Haw and who happened to manage Michaels, Belushi and Radner, among others. Brillstein waved them away, told them that putting their proposed show on Saturday night as planned was a bad idea, and suggested ABC talk with two of his other clients, John Moffitt and Bill Lee.
Moffitt had worked his way through the ranks at CBS, and worked on The Ed Sullivan Show for 10 years starting in 1960, eventually becoming its director in 1968. He would go on to direct specials for Nancy Sinatra, Mitzi Gaynor, Lilly Tomlin and Richard Pryor.
Lee, a vice president at Dick Clark Productions, would work with Moffitt on several productions, including specials starring the Captain and Tennille and Helen Reddy, both for ABC.
In 1978, ABC signed Moffitt and Lee to a two-year development deal.
"What ABC wanted was they wanted Saturday Night Live on a Friday night," Moffitt said in a telephone interview. "Though they wouldn't say so, that's what they wanted."
Moffitt, who had turned down Michaels' offer to direct Saturday Night Live, said ABC steered him toward a comedy group called Low Moan Spectacular. Low Moan was notable for its farces, particularly its parody of English detective stories in a play called Bullshot Crummond.
"We saw them and we just said they're talented but we don't think this is the way to go," Moffitt said. "We should put together an original group. They're not all that strong."
Moffitt pulled Mark Blankfield, who had been playing seven parts in Bullshot Crummond, out of the cast. A one-time Juliard student, Blankfield had met another actress, Sally Kemp - who used the stage name Brandis Kemp - while both were at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. They married in 1972 and she too was part of Low Moan. Kemp, who earned a master's degree in drama and literature from Stanford University, became part of the Moffitt and Lee project as well.
ROUNDING UP THE CAST
Across the continent from New York and Saturday Night Live and that show's "Not Ready for Prime Time Players" - that name itself a mocking tribute to Howard Cosell's failed Saturday Night Live program with its Prime Time Players - Moffitt and Lee argued over what to call their show. Moffitt pushed for West Coast Comedy Company. Lee wanted Fridays. The two compromised, calling their production company the West Coast Comedy Company and the show Fridays.
Moffitt and Lee traveled near and far to find their cast.
"We were looking for original people, people that were unlike anybody else," Moffitt said. "It wasn't like we went to Kentucky Fried Theater, like I think Lorne did, or Second City. We wanted to find people from all different places that had not really worked together, that were as totally different from each other as possible."
Moffitt and Lee succeeded in pulling together a skilled ensemble, although some were more experienced than others. Darrow Igus, for example, co-starred in the short-lived CBS comedy Roll Out, an unlikely 1973-74 series about an Army trucking company during World War II, and also costarred in the 1976 movie Car Wash.
Chartoff took to acting early on, appearing in musical theater beginning at 14 and making her TV debut at 17 on the soap Search for Tomorrow. She would go on to appear in the movie American Hot Wax and polish her comedic talents at the Improv club on both coasts.
Bruce Mahler, a classical pianist who also played violin, made a string of appearances on The Gong Show and two guest spots on Fernwood 2Night, the Mary Hartman Mary Hartman spinoff, as a pianist in an iron lung.
Maryedith Burrell was a veteran of the Los Angeles improv group The Groundlings and also performed in Off the Wall with Robin Williams. John Roarke, the resident impressionist on Fridays, was a veteran performer with comedy troupes in Boston before making his way to Los Angeles, where he underwent a lengthy audition for Fridays. "I went out there and auditioned for five hours and straight and got the job," he said.
In the search for cast members, Moffitt remembers sitting for hours with Lee at Catch a Rising Star in New York, watching "a parade of comics going by."
"Early on there was a guy named Larry David," he said. "He came out and he was kind of angry. At one point he forgot where he was in his routine and he just stormed off. We thought, 'Well, that's the end of that. What a weird guy.' So we wrote him off. But then two hours later, all of a sudden he's coming back on stage again. 'All right, I remember where I was.' And he picks up. He remembered where he was. He blew us away. He was very funny. We brought him to LA."
Moffitt and Lee went to the Improv in Los Angeles to catch Michael Richards.
"This guy comes on stage and he did not have an act. But he had this branch of this tree that he must have gotten on the way to the show," Moffitt said. "He went on with this thing. He had this big branch in front of him and he's doing bird sounds. 'Woo. Woo-woo.' He did all kinds of weird shit. It just was outrageous and funny but there was no jokes. It was all just all character and stuff."
Moffitt and Lee invited Richards to join them across the street to talk and eat at the Moustache Cafe.
"We went there and we're telling him about this project and he keeps ordering food. He was starving," said Moffitt, who remembers Richards ordering a constant supply of food brought to the table. "Finally he says, 'Fellows, I'm sorry. I'm going to have to break this up but I've got to drive a bus at 7 o'clock tomorrow morning. I really appreciate this. Thank you.' And he left. He did not believe us at all. I don't know what he thought. Anyway, he had a great meal and he took off. He indeed was driving a bus at 7 o'clock in the morning. Eventually he realized that we were serious."
The writing staff was headed by Jack Burns, a legendary comic who used to work out of Second City in Chicago and counted among his partners both George Carlin and Avery Schreiber. Burns was another Brillstein client and Moffitt had directed the 1973 summer replacement show for the duo, The Burns and Schreiber Comedy Hour, but by the time of Fridays Burns was a solo act.
"He has a wonderful comedy mind," Moffitt said. "He was very prolific, very bright, very funny. Jack is one of the funniest people I ever met."
Burns, who had filled Don Knotts' vacant spot on The Andy Griffith Show as Sheriff Andy Taylor's deputy, also served as the announcer on Fridays, belting out "Live, from the Los Angeles Basin" each week.
Broadcast from Studio 55 in the ABC Television Center, Fridays was done live-to-tape, with the show airing live along the East Coast starting at 11:05 p.m. and the taped version played for the West Coast later that night. The studio audience of about 200 skewed young, with the crowd filled with people in their 20s. The audience at home, Chartoff said in an interview, was made up of "hip people whose parents let them stay up till 11."
Fridays joined the ABC lineup late, not premiering until April 11, 1980, with Kenny Loggins as the musical guest. Denver Post TV critic Clark Secrest, writing in that day's newspaper, said it was inevitable that the show would be compared with SNL. But he pointed out the likely differences between the two programs: "I suspect that one noticeable departure will be that Saturday Night Live has a distinctly New Yorkish, Off-Off Broadway coffeehouse feel to it, while Fridays will originate from the West Coast, whose brand of comedy is decidedly different, yielding personalities such as Robin Williams."
The makeup of the cast and roles they were cast in invited comparisons.
The original SNL cast included one black player (Garrett Morris). Fridays had Darrow Igus. Melanie Chartoff anchored Fridays' faux newscast. Jane Curtain had only recently left the Weekend Update chair on SNL.
Fridays met the comparisons head-on. The first episode opened with Moffitt and Lee "saying how we're going to be different than Saturday Night Live and what we want to do," Moffitt said. "Then we pan around and you see everybody's dressed in all the characters of Saturday Night Live, the conehead, the bee. We did that on purpose."
"Pretty clever, I thought," said Chartoff.
She and the other cast members bristled at how much ABC wanted to copy the SNL model.
"ABC wanted to literally clone SNL and we all resisted like crazy," she said. "We were originals, we protested, with vastly different ideas and styles than theirs. Even though Larry David, Bruce Mahler and I came from the New York experience, and a lot of our writers were East Coast guys, we were promoting a more absurdist point of view."
Igus told Oui magazine in 1980: "It's ludicrous to call us a ripoff of Saturday Night Live, when Saturday Night Live was a ripoff of Ernie Kovacs, and Ernie Kovacs was a ripoff of Sid Caesar. So who cares?"
The comparisons didn't bother Lee, who told The Hollywood Reporter before Fridays premiered: "We aren't copying any other series, we're just going on the air a little later. But if people still do compare us, it's nice to be compared with a winner."
Back in New York, Lorne Michaels didn't bother watching the premier of Fridays. Instead, he had a SNL staffer, Matt Neuman, watch it for him. Neuman turned the TV off halfway through the show. Legendary SNL and National Lampoon writer Michael O'Donoghue would later dismiss the cast of Fridays as "Yahoos."
"Fridays was a weak imitation of SNL at best, and at worst more resembled the Cracked magazine of late-night comedy shows," Neuman said in a interview. He left SNL when Lorne Michaels and the original cast and writers departed in 1980. He knew Moffitt from when both worked on a Lilly Tomlin special and signed up for the writing staff of Fridays.
Variety reviewed the premier of Fridays and started its critique by pointing out that Fridays is a "direct copy" of SNL, but aimed at a younger audience.
"The ingredients are the same: the parody news show, the irreverent jokes about all the older folks hold dear, the rock band guest and the young, unknown (at the beginning) performers," Variety opined. "You know the formula.
"But ABC's performers seem even younger than NBC's and not so skilled or professional. Even the studio audience seemed younger. It laughed even louder at any reference to drugs, but that may be the result of shooting in California rather than New York. In fact, they laughed in spots where the most diligent search of memory could recall no occasion."
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"I'm always amazed that I never hear about the first show Seinfeld Alumnus Michael Richards was on, an ensemble comedy show much like Saturday Night Live, but on Friday nights.
"I personally loved that show, and the nascent persona that Richards developed in that show was a silent one, waiting for Kramer to give him speech. Richards also looked pretty hilarious in drag, too. Lots of other funny folk, which, other than Mark Blankenfield (Take a PILL!) I've forgotten their names.
"I've never seen this repeated on Comedy Central either. But then, in the name of getting my work done, I jettisoned from cable a number of years back."
- Ray R
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