''SNl'' remains alive but barely kicking, even as ''MAD TV'' and ''Night Stand'' try to deliver a lethal dose of competition

By Ken Tucker
Updated October 13, 1995 at 04:00 AM EDT

For the first half hour, things were looking pretty grim for the season premiere of Saturday Night Live (NBC). True, Tim Meadows’ opening-sketch impersonation of lawyer Johnnie Cochran was accurate and gratifyingly mean — and probably the longest glimpse we’ve had in recent years of that rarity: an African-American SNLer.

But from the forced jollity of host Mariel Hemingway’s opening remarks to the predictability of a fake commercial for a breakfast beer called ”A.M. Ale,” the launch of SNL‘s 21st season looked just like more evidence as to why the show should be canceled.

Then, around midnight, new cast members Cheri Oteri and Molly Shannon exploded all preconceptions about what women can get away with on SNL with their sketch ”Leg Up,” which imagined a talk show hosted by veteran hoofers Debbie Reynolds (Oteri) and Ann Miller (Shannon). Here Reynolds and Miller became cynical, vulgar, yet lovable old pros who give their guest, Showgirls star Elizabeth Berkley (played as an idiot by Hemingway with a reckless cruelty I admire beyond words), a thorough roasting. This was an instant SNL classic, a keeper to stand with anything Bill Murray, John Belushi, or Gilda Radner pulled off at their sharpest. That it should come from two women in the cast of a show by now legendary for its assiduous mistreatment of female talent only adds to its value.

As for the rest, here goes:

The ”new” band: Since they’re still playing the same set of lame faux-R&B riffs, it almost seems a shame they bothered to replace guitarist-bandleader G.E. Smith, whose cheesy suck-up grin at least served as an instant critique of the schlock being played.

”Spade in America”: To David Spade’s new 12:30 a.m. spot, I say: Buh-bye, Dave. Your extraordinary smugness, to say nothing of your homophobic Unabomber routine, has finally exhausted the cool wit that originally got you the job.

”Weekend Update”: Norm MacDonald’s anchoring was uneven but not without value. His comment that the family of disappeared atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair was ”asking everyone to not pray” was worth staying up for.

Most annoying newcomer: Will Ferrell, whose yelled-insult shtick became intolerably annoying halfway through the debut.

Musical guest choice: Blues Traveler was amazingly uninteresting, although I must say, seen in the context of SNL, the group’s husky, harmonica-huffing lead singer suddenly revealed himself as a true nightmare: a sober John Belushi.

Of course, knock SNL and you’re obliged to face up to its competition, which only makes SNL look sterling by comparison. Based on the sketches supplied to critics for its Oct. 14 debut, MAD TV (Fox) looks to be a tiresome bomb. Here is an SNL rip-off (using the imprimatur of Mad magazine) whose most amusing moments come not from its skilled though thoroughly anonymous cast but from the cartoons that take off from MAD standbys like ”Spy vs. Spy” and the big-footed surrealisms of artist Don Martin.

SNL‘s other new competitor is a poker-faced parody of daytime talk shows called Night Stand With Dick Dietrick (syndicated), which makes the fatal mistake of thinking that these shows, with their already absurd parade of emotional freakishness and grotesque family dysfunction, can be spoofed. Timothy Stack, who plays Dietrick, is shrewd and talented — his spins on lines elicit laughs that otherwise wouldn’t be there. But he’s wasted in a show whose humor evaporates the instant you finish chuckling over episode titles like ”People Who Are Convinced They’re Twins” and ”Sexaholics: The Problem, the Cure, and Where to Meet Them.”

It’s more than likely that neither MAD nor Night Stand will give SNL ratings trouble; no, SNL is its own worst enemy. Twenty-one years on, it radiates a contradiction: lazy arrogance along with a desperate desire to be liked. As a result, it’s a show that’s always canceling itself out. Saturday Night Live: C+ MAD TV: D Night Stand With Dick Dietrick C-

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