45 Years Ago: The Nerds Make Suitably Graceless ‘SNL’ Debut
Saturday Night Live’s penchant for repeating popular (or would-be popular) characters is well-established. And while SNL is often criticized for the practice of running a once surprising and amusing bit into the ground, the best recurring characters have provided some of the most enduring moments in the show’s history, even if the hit-to-miss ratio in that genre skews heavily into “should have stopped at one.”
Still, one of Saturday Night Live’s earliest and most consistently enjoyable repeaters was the Nerds, a sketch that benefitted immeasurably from the sparkling talents and onscreen chemistry of Gilda Radner and Bill Murray as the terminally awkward and off-putting Lisa Loopner and Todd DiLaMuca, respectively. Created by original Saturday Night Live writers Anne Beatts and Rosie Shuster for the Jan. 28, 1978, Season 3 episode, the characters would go on to be featured a whopping 13 times over the next three seasons, hanging up their pocket protectors and granny glasses only after Radner and Murray left the show along with producer Lorne Michaels and the rest of the cast after the 1979-80 season.
As to what makes a popular recurring sketch, there are several factors. Sheer desperation is one, the pressures of putting out a weekly, 90-minute live comedy show often see the producer turn to an already-established sketch template for guaranteed airtime. Sheer stubbornness is another, with several notable recurring sketches (like Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd’s “Wild and Crazy Guys”) getting little initial response before finally clicking on a second or third go-around. As for the Nerds, it’s honestly tough to see what drove Saturday Night Live to return to that well, especially since their initial appearance was greeted with near silence from the studio audience.
Part of the problem is that these are embryonic versions of the Nerds who’d eventually be greeted with enthusiastic applause in their future sketches. Framed as a radio station interview of an all-nerd band there to promote their debut album, Trying Desperately to Be Liked, the premise came to Beatts upon seeing Elvis Costello’s infamous appearance the year before. As quoted in Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad’s book, Saturday Night, the famously acerbic Beatts, taking in the young, bespectacled Costello opined, “This isn’t punk rock, this is nerd rock.” With Costello’s literately angry songwriting and unassuming appearance as a backdrop, the Nerds were born.
Still, there’s little of the post-punk coolness of 1978 Costello in the sketch, which is more a recycled litany of cruel jokes at the expense of the socially backward and ungainly. That week’s host Robert Klein plays Spaz, who sports Costello’s horn rims, greasy hair and a lapel button marked “THIMK,” an appropriately nerdy Mad magazine gag of the time. Radner is on hand as “Four-Eyes,” the future Lisa Loopner slouching and talking through her nose as she retorts at one point, “That’s so funny I forgot to laugh,” which would become one of the indefatigable Lisa’s catchphrases. And Murray plays “Pizza Face,” a nickname DJ Dan Aykroyd begins to ask him about before a single glance answers the question for him.
Part of the issue in this first sketch is Klein, a talented stand-up who yet never quite gelled as a sketch performer in his two hosting appearances. The other is that Aykroyd’s obvious contempt for his in-studio guests poisons the well when it comes to relating to the Nerds. There’s precious little room in the four-minute sketch for Murray and Radner to show off the looser, more natural interplay that would mark the characters going forward. There’s some indication of a romantic (or at least childishly blundering) relationship, with Murray’s Pizza Face uncorking the first of the noogies and “Indian burns” he’d habitually inflict upon Radner. In explaining his physicality as the nerd who would become Todd DiLaMuca, Murray, in the SNL oral history Live From New York, gives a glimpse of his reasoning for Todd’s halting aggressiveness, explaining, “You stick your belly out through your pants, your belt’s your belly, it’s sort of like you have your emotional armor in your belly and your banging at people with your armor.”
Watch the Nerds on a 1978 Episode of 'Saturday Night Live'
That’s more insight into these maladroit characters than this first sketch gives, however, with Aykroyd’s jock all too happy to note that nobody has called in to win free copies of the Nerds’ record, containing as it does songs with titles such as “I’ll Give You My Lunch Money” and “Let My Head Out of the John and I’ll Give You Tomorrow’s Lunch Money.” There’s also a song about getting egg salad on your retainer, presaging the Nerds' expanded universe to come, as Lisa’s equally ungraceful mother, Mrs. Loopner (Jane Curtin), would invariably present the kids with some of her “famous egg salad.” Curtin makes her first appearance here, too, although she’s meant to be the mom of Klein’s Spaz, ushering the teens into the outerwear for their drive home alongside the never-seen Mr. Loopner.
As Murray notes in Live From New York, there was a unique joy in playing against Radner in these sketches, something we get merely a hint of here. The two SNL stars were in a tumultuous on-and-off relationship throughout their time on the show, a fact that informed the push and pull of their characters’ interactions. Murray, known for his boisterous, often intrusive physicality behind the scenes, amped up Todd’s manhandling of Lisa, the noogies and headlocks suggesting both the backward Todd’s inability to function in a normal romantic situation and Murray’s own ebbing and flowing passion for his costar.
Radner, for her part, specialized in sacrificing herself for her characters on Saturday Night Live, a telling trait that saw Lisa absorbing Todd’s increasingly bruising attentions, even as she managed to maintain her version of prim self-reliance. It’s a fascinating, even unnerving, undertone in the Nerds saga, but it’s only tangentially in evidence in this first sketch, where the innate charisma of Radner and Murray gets sidelined in favor of the framing device.
Going forward, the Nerds had one more so-so appearance in the incongruous setting of a talk show, Todd and Lisa this time hawking their memoir, What Ever Happened to the Class of ’77, although giving Murray and Radner more time together to refine their characters worked to ingratiate the bit with audiences. After writers Al Franken and Tom Davis appropriated the characters for that sketch, Beatts and Shuster reclaimed them going forward, with the Nerds expanded universe taking on increasingly elaborate elements, from the fact of Lisa’s father being born without a spine to the fact that the unfortunate Mr. Loopner invented the Slinky, but never filed a patent. Throughout their many appearances, Murray and Radner, their real-life romance sputtering and flaming through the years, found a uniquely hilarious and even touching rhythm in the similarly fraught ballad of Todd and Lisa. Looking back, the Nerds provided an unlikely vehicle for them, and us, to navigate a relationship.