March 09, 2001 at 12:00 PM EST
We gave it a D-

In my dream, John Belushi is still alive.

He’s also still shooting speedballs, and his periodic attempts at detoxing are giving Robert Downey Jr. some breathing room in the tabloids. Belushi uses, he quits, he goes on a diet and pumps up, then resumes his worst excesses. All this has cost him his movie career, but in my dream, his old friend Lorne Michaels lets him rejoin the cast of Saturday Night Live. However, all the young fans weaned on Comedy Central’s SNL reruns want only to see his old characters — the samurai guy, the ”cheeseburger” guy. Belushi also notices that his macho bluster doesn’t fly backstage anymore, where co-head writer Tina Fey and others are crafting articulate jokes for SNL‘s ”Weekend Update,” which she cohosts with Jimmy Fallon. Belushi, frustrated and depressed, starts drugging himself again. ”I’m too old for this nonsense,” says Michaels when Belushi is fired. So the actor goes to the one place on NBC where he’ll be welcome: the XFL. Belushi reverts to Animal House vulgarity, joins the New York/New Jersey Hitmen, uses the name ”Bluto” on his jersey, and decks announcer/governor Jesse Ventura during his first post-game interview. (Belushi’s defense? ”Here’s your smash-mouth, you government toady!”) The new football league’s heretofore sagging ratings skyrocket. The comedian finds new fame and marries a Los Angeles Xtreme cheerleader named Tammy. He’s hooked and happy.

In real life, of course, it is not so. The XFL is a joke worse than any Belushi ever muttered in the ’81 stinko film Continental Divide. The games are unwatchable — tedious slogs toward, say, a 6-6 halftime score while an announcer yells, ”We got us a barn burner here!” And indeed, few are watching. Ratings plummet each week. Mastermind Vince McMahon doesn’t seem to realize that much of the drama that made his wrestling shows hits is created by the expressions of rage we see on the protagonists’ faces, and football helmets mask that televisual necessity. The most passion the XFL has stirred thus far is when its Feb. 10 broadcast pushed that week’s Jennifer Lopez-hosted SNL back about 45 minutes, and executive producer Michaels reportedly went through the roof.

Michaels had good reason to be steamed; SNL is having a gangbuster season, and he wants maximum viewership. SNL‘s ratings are robust, its bookings are canny (having Shaggy locked in as musical guest the week his CD was No. 1 on the Billboard album chart suggests the show’s pop-culture instincts aren’t rusty), and it’s made a crucial presidential transition, from the popularity of Darrell Hammond’s big-pimpin’ Bill Clinton impersonation to the popularity of Will Ferrell’s ferrety George W. Bush. Personally, I’m disappointed in Ferrell’s Bush, whom he continues to portray as a word-fumbling frat boy. Ferrell is ignoring the new development in Bush’s public personality: When you catch him on live feeds on the all-news networks, you get to see Bush’s casual arrogance, the way he treats the press like idiots as a defensive measure — before they can treat him like one. Ferrell, the iron man of the current SNL cast who seems to get more characters on camera than any other member, never stings his subjects with satire (his Janet Reno was similarly kid-gloved as a political subject — his joke was simply to appear as a big guy in a dress).

For more pointed barbs, we must go to Fey, who, for example, in her Nov. 4, 2000, ”Weekend Update” report, noted that Bush hadn’t disclosed his drunk-driving arrest record because ”it did not set a good example for his daughters, preferring instead that they see him as a failed businessman who executes people.” That Fey delivers such blow darts — poison-filled jokes written in long, precisely parsed sentences unprecedented in ”Update” history — with such a bright, sunny countenance makes her all the more devilishly delightful. Her coanchor Fallon is funnier, however, when not behind the news desk. His impersonation of U2’s Bono as a blithering camera hog the week after the Irish band had appeared was marvelous, and Fallon’s take on MTV’s most popular host — ”I’m Carson Daly. I’m a massive tool” — has become a mantra in my household. At ruthless moments like these, Fey and Fallon summon up the finest spirit of Belushi — the anarchic, savage Belushi, the one we all want to remember most fondly in our dreams. XFL: D- Saturday Night Live: B+



Saturday Night Live 11:30 PM SATURDAYS NBC

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