Monday, September 21, 2015

About the time John Simon appeared on 'Saturday Night Live'

Simon says: Infamous critic John Simon lampoons his own image on Saturday Night Live.

The mostly doomed cast of SNL's 1985 season.
The 1985-86 season of Saturday Night Live marked producer Lorne Michaels' somewhat uneasy return to the long-running program after a half-decade hiatus. Michaels' own skit-com, The New Show, had bombed badly in the interim, so he agreed to return to his old job upon the departure of showrunner Dick Ebersol at the end of SNL's tenth season. Although he'd eventually turn things around in a big way, Michaels' second reign at SNL was anything but an immediate triumph.

For reasons known only to him, the returning producer loaded the cast with actors from John Hughes movies, including Robert Downey, Jr., Anthony Michael Hall, and Randy Quaid, none of whom were known for sketch comedy. (Remember that Quaid and Hall had worked together in the Hughes-scripted Vacation, while Hall and Downey had crossed paths in Hughes' Weird Science.)

During that tumultuous, critically-panned season, considered by some to be among SNL's worst, the show was once again in critical danger of cancellation due to flagging ratings and general lack of audience enthusiasm. Most of the newly-signed cast members were dutifully fired at the end of the year, but the ones who survived -- including Nora Dunn and Jon Lovitz -- would soon become part of perhaps the strongest ensemble in SNL history, buoyed by the addition of Phil Hartman, Jan Hooks, and Dana Carvey the very next year.

SNL was on the verge of a Reagan-era renaissance, but that was hardly apparent during the blighted '85-'86 season. Back then, it looked the show had finally had it after 11 years on the air.

But even during those dark times, there were occasional bright spots. Case in point: a mock trailer for a film called Critic, starring Jon Lovitz as an incorruptible movie critic for a fictional newspaper called The New York Trumpeter. Yes, Lovitz portrays a New York film reviewer in the sketch, but there is otherwise no thematic connection to his familiar role as portly, disheveled loser Jay Sherman in the similarly-named animated series, The Critic, which aired nearly a decade later on ABC. No, in the SNL sketch, Lovitz portrays Victor LaSalle, an absolutely incorruptible critic whose steely, humorless demeanor shows just how seriously he takes his job.

While The Critic was a comedy about a likable bumbler, Critic (there's no "the" in its tersely-worded title) is presented as a tense, nail-biting drama in the tradition of Network and All the Presidents' Men. There's even a touch of Citizen Kane in there, too, as the noble LaSalle bravely pans a movie financed by the same corporation who publishes his newspaper... and promptly loses his job over it!

The most unusual feature of Critic is a cameo by infamous, Yugoslavian-born theater and film reviewer John Simon, who at the time was one of the most hated men in his profession for his scathing, often cruel critiques, many of which contained vicious personal attacks on actors, writers, and directors. Here, in the upside-down world of sketch comedy, Simon is a simpering, insecure wannabe who got into film criticism because he didn't have enough talent to make it in show business. Lovitz's character, the pompous, pipe-smoking LaSalle, looks upon him with utter contempt.

Critic is a high-concept sketch, and the audience doesn't quite seem to get it. They clearly don't know who the hell John Simon is, as his appearance generates no reaction whatsoever. The only big laugh in the sketch is a cheap fat joke at the expense of Roger Ebert, which to me is the only low point in the proceedings. While writing about his heavy Eastern European accent, Simon dished a little about his SNL appearance in a blog post from 2011:
"Certainly I sounded foreign enough to Lorne Michaels when I appeared on Saturday Night Live. It was a skit about a good critic played by Jon Lovitz, and a dishonest critic played by me. Chatting backstage, Lorne asked whose army I was referring to when I spoke of my military service. “Ours, of course,” I replied, feeling at that moment very patriotic. “How else do you think we could have won the war?”
Modest as always, John.