There are stories that circulate about a legendary SNL 40th anniversary party. The best one is told by Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show where he lays out a fever dream of celebrity and comedic walk-ons and performances only the elite would ever experience. Listening to that recap on YouTube reminded me of the photos I saw and stories I read growing up of the more infamous of parties surrounding the rock-and-roll era of comedy in the 1970s, when epic or infamous parties didn’t wait for anniversaries or fits of nostalgia.
In the history of comedy, the period between 1975 and 1980 (with some wiggle room before and after) is important for shifting comedy from its prime time, “laughing at love” cultural anesthetic to a more subversive, satirical, and dark humor that matched the mood of the Nixon-Vietnam era. It wasn’t new. Second City in Chicago, National Lampoon in New York, and the Footlights at Cambridge produced a generation of darker comic talents. The movement was already growing and gaining strength. Once Monty Python reached America and Saturday Night Live went on the air, American culture shifted from denying the darkest parts of itself to embracing and challenging them.
That force possessed a gravitational pull. It had power. It was sexy and dangerous and dark in a way that excited a generation of people who watched the Aquarian movement die under Nixon’s boot and Nixon himself exposed as a corrupt thug; that generation living in the aftermath of the lost war against “Old and Evil” found new partisans, new champions.
Like the cavalry to the last great generation of “classic” rock music, they infused a disconnected and angry generation with a cause and a message. Perhaps the movement wasn’t as notable or critical as the boomer’s summer of love with its darker overtones and bleaker message, but it gave the generation its identity.
Comedy and Rock music became equal partners in subversion and counter-culture. In a time when the music of the sixties was transformed into harmless Muzak for elevator riders and department store shoppers, the culture of comedy – inspired by pioneers like Lenny Bruce and George Carlin and Richard Pryor – was organizing and aligning with the youthful outrage of punk rock and the hardened survivors and statesmen of sixties idealism. Their meetings and their interactions – like the killer parties of Hollywood’s golden age – were epic. Part bar crawl, part company picnic, part family reunion, they were settings for unique collaborations that will never happen again.
Putting together the images and the stories, I’ve often imagined the scene at some private club owned by a friend-of-a-friend; the place they’d go where cameras didn’t follow and the stopover point before Aykroyd would drag Belushi to the blues club they would later buy together. The after-dinner afterparties where superstars could just be themselves and rock legends could unwind.
I imagine Keith Richards with a lit joint hanging from his lips, sitting on a stool beside David Bowie on piano and Debbie Harry humming along. Whatever they’re composing together will never be heard again. Because it has the same time sig and structure as another song he knows, Aykroyd (in his moustache and Ray-Bans) steps in to sing Willie Dixon’s “My Babe” and somehow it works, especially when Aykroyd switches to harmonica. It is the centerpiece to two floors of a party closing in on two in the morning.
Shelly Duvall wants to sing with them, but she chooses to sit in a corner with a napping Buck Henry while sipping wine and watching the room soften into blurry, gentle lines. She wonders where her date got to, not knowing he dropped acid with Doug Kenney an hour earlier and just left the building pursued by ghostly Nazghul on horseback.
Harry Nilsson WAS going to sing and play with the jam, but Aykroyd and Keith Moon had pushed him to the back of the club and to have a “talk” about “restraint” after he groped one of the hostesses. Nilsson will spend the rest of the evening drinking whiskey with a stranger he’ll eventually take out back into the alley.
Keith Moon is busy harassing the kitchen staff while waiting by the service entrance for a man delivering party supplies in a brown paper bag. He’ll eventually have to beat that man with a chair for attempting to short him on the delivery and the unconscious body left in the alley will permanently ruin Nilsson’s moment later on that night.
Graham Chapman, intent on impressing the handsome bartender with the heavy gin hand, offers Liza Minnelli “all of Eric [Idle]’s cocaine” to swap clothes. Slender Liza is rocking a sequined, satin gown that would never fit Graham, but he insists it would look lovely with his complexion and recent haircut. She laughs, but is intrigued by the offer of cocaine and so continues flirting. Graham will eventually rise from behind the bar wearing Liza’s dress like a hospital gown and lip stick. He and the bartender will disappear for into a stockroom. Liza will return wearing Graham’s Russian trapper hat, flannel shirt and belt as a dress and looking far more stylish than newly arrived David Geffen thought possible.
For his part, Eric Idle is relatively subdued, comparing banjo fingering techniques back near the kitchen with Steve Martin. It will develop into “Dueling Banjos” soon after Bowie stops for a drink, attracting Belushi and Peter Boyle into improvising what would eventually become “Dueling Brandos.”
Terry Jones corners George Harrison and Paul Shaffer to pitch a great idea for a movie the Pythons are working on about the life of Jesus. George jokingly asks if there might be a part for Ringo in it.
Gilda Radner sits on the upstairs bar asking questions in the voice of Judy Miller while Bill Murray teaches her to make random drinks with random ingredients. He gives them names like “Soggy Dance Belt,” “Rusty Trumpet,” and “Raging Boner” adding “don’t swallow more than four Raging Boners in one session unless you are a trained professional in adult entertainment.” Several of Belushi’s throwaway groupies delight to the disgusting (but free) concoctions.
Tom Davis, on his fifth mystery beverage of the evening, asks Richard Pryor if he wants to share a cab to Studio 54. Pryor explains that ain’t his scene and asks where they hid all the good drugs. Davis answers that they are all in the basement “under a pile of dead mobsters” to which Pryor replies by walking away quietly.
Al Franken (in a Disco Sucks t-shirt and canvas running shorts) is still arguing with Anne Beats about the script changes to his sketch after dress. It’s no longer about who authorized it but “the principle of the thing” as Beats wants to punch Franken in the face and go to sleep. Or get laid. Whatever doesn’t involve Franken droning on.
John Cleese made an appearance earlier, Terry Gilliam tells a group of Brooklyn girls totally uninterested in him. He says John spent fifteen minutes pretending to be offended by everything and everyone and interrupting Patti Hansen making out with Lou Reed on a sofa to give kissing tips before leaving with Connie Booth for “more civilized environs.” Most realize this is a parody of Andy Warhol and his entourage who did the exact same thing, un-ironically, the weekend before.
Jane Curtain, checking her watch every few minutes, drags out a conversation about feminism with Candace Bergen from their circle of chairs near the front of the club. She’s waiting on a ride that’s late and is tired of the party. Candace mentions Lorne told her that McCartney might be stopping by but Curtain laughs, pointing to Harrison as she says “not so long as he’s here.”
Jagger and Lorne Michaels discuss the politics of television with George Carlin, digressing briefly to talk about the upcoming Eagles release party at L’Ermitage and if they were all booked through their agency and if they’d upgraded the food service since the lousy Fleetwood Mac party. Carlin admits never getting an invitation and tells Jagger he’ll probably be too busy getting a rim job from Alice B Toklas that weekend to make it anyway. Lorne mentions staying with Paul Simon at his chateaux in Long Beach and wanting to book Warren Zevon or Jackson Browne for the following season of SNL.
Belushi and Stephen Tyler compare cocaine lines in the upstairs men’s room, explaining to a completely dumbfounded Carrie Fisher and Amy Irving (in matching painter hats and beatnik attire) how to tell the quality of the cut by the texture of the powder. Robin Williams, already through his third line, prepares to charge out of the bathroom pretending to be a wild orangutan in heat. Doug Kenney is hiding from the reptile Nazis inside a nearby stall. His attempts to reach Michael O’Donohue uptown by telepathy have so-far failed.
Later in the night Belushi will want to cook Albanian dishes in the kitchen and only talked down by Aykroyd and Shaeffer setting up a set of Joe Cocker songs by the piano. Bowie will “literally” disappear in a puff of smoke, or at least that how the story will be told. Michael Palin will show up, ask about Cleese, and leave immediately as though he’d been summoned to an audience. John and Yoko arrive as a vase of white flowers displayed on the downstairs bar congratulating the NRFPT Players on another show and regretting they have to be up for a flight to London in the morning. Williams will lead a flock of groupies into a town car as Peter Pan, escorting the car to the end of the block by skipping and dancing alongside them and then convince a couple of NYPD officers to drive him back to his hotel. Buck Henry will quietly call the staff’s attention to the hooker passed out in the upstairs men’s room in a stall next to Doug Kenney.
The night will end after Murray tells a slightly racist and heavily intoxicated story of tiger lost in Harlem and when the owner of the club presents Lorne with a bill for the night’s damages which he tucks into his coat and considers how to describe on the show’s expense report. Belushi and Aykroyd mount their cycles. Limos queue up at the back of the club. Cabs line up at the front. It’s three in the morning and the song is over. Nobody bothered to press RECORD.
These things never happened as I described. They could have and certainly similar things did. They won’t happen again. Those relationships which fueled their comedy, their writing, and their music, was the result of being those people in that place at a special time in history. What’s happened since?
A lot of them are dead.
They weren’t killed by a year. They were picked off over time by drugs, alcohol, heart failure, suicide, cancer, Parkinson’s, or violence. The years changed them and the world changed as a result of their work pulling away from them toward the gravitational pull of new and different ideas, through the end of a Cold War and into a War on Terror. When they go, they leave behind a unique body of work that cannot be replicated – nor should it.
But they left their mark. And I mourn the end of that era rather than hate the years that took them. I choose to mourn by remembering what might and could have been, celebrating those still creating, inspired by those lives that touched theirs.
Watch: Don’t Look Back at Anger