A few months ago Saturday Night Live celebrated its 40th anniversary. The big reunion special was fun, if a bit bloated and rough around the edges. I’m sure there were many younger SNL fans watching the show that night who had never really experienced anything from the show’s early years…when I was a kid. Of course, some of the most bittersweet moments of the show came when they paid tribute to original cast member Gilda Radner, who passed away in 1989. Radner, unlike many of her cast mates only appeared in a handful of films. One was a big screen version of her one-woman stage show, directed by none other than Mike Nichols. The 1980 film was appropriately titled Gilda Live.
The film featured Radner performing in numerous sketches and musical numbers in front of a packed theater audience. The evening begins with Radner singing the song “Let’s Talk Dirty to the Animals” before the curtains open on a set that looks like a school gymnasium, complete with stage. First Radner does an audition in which she displays her tap dancing talents. She then starts to go through her various SNL characters, including little girl Judy Miller, Emily Litella, Lisa Loopner, gymnast Nadia Comaneci, and, of course, Roseanne Roseannadanna.
Radner also shows great musical range. In one sequence she plays a barely-able-to-stand punk singer performing a song called “I Love to be Unhappy.” She also portrays a girl-group singer named Rhonda Weiss who sings an ode to Saccharin. Along the way Father Guido Sarducci (aka Don Novello) fills in with his stand-up act while Gilda makes quick costume changes. Also onboard is Paul Shaffer, who even plays his SNL character Don Kirshner at one point, and future Oscar-winning composer Howard Shore.
There have been many films based on SNL characters over the years. Released a few months before The Blues Brothers, this would technically be the first. It’s also the one that probably comes closest to capturing the feel of those early seasons of Saturday Night Live. Radner certainly played well within the ensemble of the Not-Ready-For-Primetime Players, but here she proves that she was perfectly capable of being hilarious without anyone else to play off of. There’s nothing high-concept about the skits (written by a small army of SNL veterans), but they fit Radner perfectly. She goes from character to character effortlessly. In the end, though, the most compelling character of the whole film is Radner herself. There is a very sweet moment toward the end of the film in which she tells the story of a school dance followed by making out with a boy in his rec room while listening to Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner’s 2000 Year Old Man album. She then goes into a wonderful little doo-wop number called “Honey (Touch Me with my Clothes On).”
Radner’s commanding presence on the stage is undeniable, but I’ve also got to give a lot of credit to Don Novello who fills in the gaps in hilarious fashion. I’ve always loved the character of Father Guido Sarducci. His 1986 album, Breakfast in Heaven, was one of my favorite comedy albums during my teenage years. It’s hard to call what he does “stand-up.” It feels so much more natural and conversational than you get from so many other comics straining to reach the punchline. This film gives us a nice taste of Novello’s act. I know it’s Gilda’s show, but I wanted more of Father Guido Sarducci.
Gilda Live is a real treat! For those who experienced the genius of Gilda Radner when she was on SNL, this will be a joyous trip back in time. For those who have never experienced her, you may get a better idea of why us old people hold the original SNL cast in such high regard.