35 Years Ago: The Worst Season of ‘Saturday Night Live’ Begins
After five years away from Saturday Night Live, Lorne Michaels came back as executive producer for the show's 11th season on Nov. 9, 1985.
The program's creator brought an entirely new cast along with him that was filled with future stars such as Jon Lovitz, Dennis Miller and Robert Downey Jr., who would eventually go on to big-screen superstardom as Iron Man. Members of Michaels' team eventually helped contribute to the show's rebirth, but the season itself was largely considered a failure.
Michaels had left the show after Season Five because he was unable to reach a new contract with NBC. His successor, Jean Doumanian, lasted less than a year, although her tenure did see the emergence of Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo. Doumanian was replaced by Dick Ebersol, whose four-year spell was marked by continued low ratings and frequent cast turnover. NBC thought about canceling the show but decided to rehire Michaels, whose ventures outside of SNL hadn't been successful.
Michaels brought back some of his top writers from the early days - like Al Franken, Tom Davis, Don "Father Guido Sarducci" Novello and Jim Downey - to help steer the ship back on course. For the cast, he took a different path than usual. Where SNL had often served as a launching pad for young comedic talent (though Season 10 changed that with already-established comedians Billy Crystal and Martin Short), the executive producer brought in Randy Quaid - who'd had more than a decade of movie work behind him, including an Oscar nomination in 1973 - and Anthony Michael Hall, who'd risen to fame in National Lampoon's Vacation and Sixteen Candles in the previous two years. Rounding out the cast were Downey Jr., Lovitz, Miller, Joan Cusack, Nora Dunn, Terry Sweeney and Danitra Vance.
The first episode of Season 11 featured Madonna as host and Simple Minds as musical guest. Despite all the changes, SNL still wasn't fixed. If anything, the show may have declined: The season is now frequently considered to be the worst in the show's history.
For all of Quaid and Hall's credentials, as well as what Downey and Cusack would soon display in their own movie careers, they were ill-suited to sketch comedy. Downey even finished last in a 2015 Rolling Stone ranking of all SNL cast members to date. Sweeney, the first openly gay actor in SNL's history, and Vance, the lone African American in the cast, were more or less reduced to playing stereotypes. In the season premiere, for example, Sweeney played an actor pretending to be heterosexual to get work, and one of Vance's characters was Cabrini Green Harlem Watts Jackson, an unwed 17-year-old mother of two.
But that doesn't mean there weren't occasional bright spots. One of Michaels' best decisions for the season was to install standup comic Dennis Miller as anchor of the news segment, returning to its original "Weekend Update" title after going through three name changes in four seasons. The six years he spent behind the desk, rarely appearing in other sketches, restored some degree of stability, and credibility, to the show.
Meanwhile, Lovitz became the breakout star thanks to a pair of his creations: pathological liar Tommy Flanagan and the Master Thespian. Dunn, for her part, emerged as a deft and versatile comedic actress; her portrayal of talk-show host Pat Stevens also became popular during her stint. Along with occasional contributor A. Whitney Brown, those three cast members would be the only ones to return the next season. The next year saw the arrivals of Dana Carvey, Jan Hooks, Victoria Jackson and Phil Hartman. Saturday Night Live was then primed to enter a new golden age.