Today marks the 24th anniversary of the passing of famed SNL alumnus Gilda Radner, who was the show’s first break out female superstar; who dazzled American audiences coast to coast with a wide array of memorable characters; who was part of the very first wave of the show and instrumental to its success; and who set a tone and standard for the many successful female SNL players who followed in the wake of her. Radner died at the age of 42, on May 20, 1989, of ovarian cancer.
All but forgotten by today’s staunch SNL audience, who witnesses a show which is now in its 39th year on the air and is a much, much different one than the one that premiered in October 1975, Radner nonetheless still remains one of the greatest personalities to come from the program.
As part of the original Not Ready For Prime Time Players — most of whom came from National Lampoon and Second City and consisted of relatively unknowns on television at the time like John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase, and eventually Bill Murray (by the second season) — Saturday Night Live was a reckless, adventurous program right out of the gate, pushing limits and boundaries not usually seen on television, mixing a kind of unconventionality that was only seen on programs prior like England’s Monty Python’s Flying Circus, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, and to a lesser extent, the middle ground, yet slightly envelope pushing smash comedy-variety program Laugh In. It also took elements of shows from TV’s Golden Age, most notably, Your Show of Shows, which starred Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca and was performed live each week, and also bristled with a comedic recklessness which made it one of the most popular programs of the early 1950s.
By the time Saturday Night Live premiered in the mid 1970s, societal changes had taken large strangleholds on the public persona by way of popular culture and political climate and general opinion, and SNL was right in the center of it, skewering sacred cows previously grazing in the grass on televisions vast landscape, speaking of drugs, sex, holes in the Government and distrust of it, sketches which pushed back and jostled nervous censors who were at the headache inducing two fold of losing control over a show that rustled mainstream America’s feathers, yet became a hit with the post-counterculture generation of the 1960s.
And Gilda Radner’s presence on the program slotted in perfectly with the other players on the show in showcasing this new type of radicalized comedy. Whereas John Belushi played the smashing hammer attack comedic styles, swinging on barbed wire like a cherubic Tarzan on the program; whereas Chevy Chase played it cool yet with a prep school sticking out of tongue at superiors and authority guise; whereas Dan Aykroyd could be the chameleon on the program, effortless going from one zany character to another like a lazy susan rotating; Gilda Radner could in a way do all three of the aforementioned men’s tactics and throw some of her own in the mix. As part of the three girls on the show, which consisted of Jane Curtin, who was a master at playing icy, bitchy straight women with tongue firmly affixed in cheek characters and Laraine Newman, who unfortunately never really found a firm footing on the program and became its outcast and usually found herself relegated to bit parts and third string characters, save for the occasional highlight here and there. Radner was the leader of the pack of them, and she exuded a kind of cross between confidence, innocence, wide eyed and otherwise, shyness, plain Jane, funny, gawky, quick silvered, defeatist, and triumphant.
It was truly a marvel to watch her at comedic work during those first few seasons of the show, work that was capped off by an Emmy win in 1978 for her. By that point, SNL had become one of the hottest shows on television, and some of the characters Radner played became some of the most well known and beloved in the show’s history, characters like Emily Litella, the little old lady whose knack for mispronouncing key words and phrases got her into innocent yet ribald trouble, a perfect example is when she was doing an editorial on the long running sketch Weekend Update on the show, and spoke of Presidential “Erections.” She went on and on about monuments dedicated to past domestic White House leaders until anchorman Chevy Chase (who she erroneously called “Cheddar Cheese”) informed her that it was Presidental ELECTIONS she was supposed to be waxing about. Gathering herself at her mistake, and with perfect timing and pause, would then utter what became one of the early catchphrases bred from the show, the simple yet hilarious, “Never Mind.”
Another highlight character, also on Weekend Update was Rosanne Rosannadanna, who was in a way like Emily Litella in reverse. This time, the character was big haired, brash, tasteless, loud, disrespectful, and also hilarious. She’d start her editorials about some pressing current affair which was written via a letter always by a Mister Richard Feder from Fort Lee, New Jersey, only to have it lapse into some hackneyed story about a family member or a friend doing something absolutely gross, like finding a toenail in a hamburger or hair on a soap. Her catchphrase was “It’s Always Something.”
It was this kind of work and more, like her portrayal of newswoman Barbara Walters, called Baba Wawa, which poked fun at the near Elmer Fudd style vernacular Walters sports, which endeared Radner as a true comedienne, taking the mantle and torch from predecessors like Carol Burnett and Lucille Ball (another personality Radner could imitate flawlessly, right down to Ball’s comedic wail when she fake cried on I Love Lucy). It set a template on the show that females like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Kristen Wiig utilized, and even though their comedy was a little different, playing to the modern times, there still always seems that any female that breaks out on SNL, tips their cap in some respect to the niches carved on the stage and backstage by the presence of Gilda Radner.
She appeared on the SNL from 1975-1980, and then an unexpected and strange thing happened: her career pretty much became docile and at a standstill during the 1980s. Most pundits and critics poised her for astronomical success akin to Chevy Chase’s, Bill Murray’s and Aykroyd’s and Belushi’s that they all had upon leaving the program, but for some reason, the few movies she appeared in were mainly forgettable vehicles that didn’t do much business at the box office, and she barely and rarely ever appeared on television again. She married famous actor/comedian Gene Wilder in the mid 1980s and remained with him until her death in 1989. Radner was the second original SNL cast member to pass away, the only other death of a former SNL cast member by that time was John Belushi, who had died in 1982. The SNL that aired that night of her death was hosted by Steve Martin, a longtime virtual family member of the program (and remains one to this very day), who almost broke down during his monologue when he spoke of her memory. The program then re-aired one of their most poignant sketches, from about 10 years earlier, called “Dancing in the Dark,” in which he and Gilda played a couple at a Disco bar who suddenly start dancing together al a famous hoofers Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse. The chemistry and gregarious warmth of the simple yet effective sketch may stand as one of Gilda’s peaks of all her stellar work on the program, and one of the most memorable.
If anything, “Dancing in the Dark” showcases the immense talent of Radner, as it shows her with no character makeup on, just with her plain, yet radiant simple visage beaming in front of the camera, at once confused and confident, elements which pretty much make up the equation of what she was at face value on the show, and elements which make up why she was so successful on it as well.
For those that were too young to remember her, or for those that remember staying home each and every Saturday Night during the show’s immeasurable heyday, witness some of her work on Netflix, which has the first five years of SNL available for instant streaming and marvel at how talented and pure her comedy was, and continues to be. In the sea of the in-your-face, dolby, everyone is famous before they should be styles of today’s SNL, it’s telling of the talents and styles of Gilda Radner that she was able to make her success on the show one rung up its tall ladder at a time, and she stood alone on the top of that ladder once she got there.
Never forget the great Gilda Radner. In all actuality, once you take a glance at what she had to offer, it will impossible to do so anyhow. Irresistible charm like hers is all too rare in today’s climate, and because of the dearth of it, makes you appreciate how magnetic is really is when it shines upon you, just like the work of Gilda Radner did, then, now, and forever.