40 Years Ago: ‘Saturday Night Live’’s Sixth Season Ends in Chaos
Saturday Night Live has gone through immense turnover during its four-decade run. Still, its Season 6 finale ranks among the strangest, as the episode included cast members making their final appearances, others debuting, the return of famous alumni and one credited cast member who never even appeared onscreen.
Lorne Michaels, SNL’s creator and original producer, had departed following the 1979-80 season, replaced by associate producer Jean Doumanian. Her run at the helm was short-lived, as the show quickly became a commercial and critical disappointment. The nail in the coffin came on Feb. 21, 1981, when cast member Charles Rocket dropped an f-bomb on the air. Both he and Doumanian were fired, with Dick Ebersol taking over producer duties.
Upon his arrival, Ebersol had hoped to completely reconstruct SNL, planning to dismiss most of the previous season’s cast and writers. His goal was to bring the show back to its former glory, in some cases bringing back the original staff that had helped originally launch Saturday Night Live. However, existing contracts made such sweeping changes impossible. Only a handful of moves were made, and Ebersol was given a month before his debut episode - the season finale - would go to air.
At the suggestion of Michaels, Ebersol rehired Michael O'Donoghue, the show’s original head writer. O'Donoghue made his presence known immediately.
“Everybody on the show sucks, except for Murphy,” the writer proclaimed to the cast, as recounted in the book Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live. O'Donoghue then turned to Eddie Murphy and said, “You make me laugh sometimes. But everybody else, you do nothing for me.”
The writer’s speech would build to a tirade. He chastised the cast for being neat, timid and afraid to take risks. He then proceeded to spray paint the word “DANGER” on the office walls. “That’s what’s missing!” O'Donoghue declared.
The bold act ruffled feathers. Staff members who had been hired under Doumanian’s watch realized their time was coming to an end. Both literally and figuratively, the writing was on the wall.
After a one-month break to revamp the show, SNL returned for its season finale on April 11, its cast and staff made up of a combination of newcomers and leftovers from the previous regime.
Though the episode had no official host, SNL graduate Chevy Chase appeared as a special guest. He’d perform in several sketches, including the cold opening, and return to the anchor chair for "Weekend Update."
Watch 'Weekend Update' From the 'Saturday Night Live' Season Six Finale
Chase wasn’t the only SNL alumni to appear in the episode. Al Franken, one of the show’s original writers who also became a cast member, returned for a cameo. In a monologue delivered during his "Weekend Update" segment, Franken skewered Saturday Night Live for its failure under Doumanian, along with the choice to hire Ebersol as her replacement, rather than himself.
Several new cast members made their debut in the episode, including Robin Duke, Tim Kazurinsky and Tony Rosato. Conversely, it would be the final episode for Denny Dillon and Gail Matthius.
Then there were the curious cases of Laurie Metcalf and Emily Prager. For both actresses, the episode marked the first and last in their incredibly brief SNL tenure. Metcalf appeared in one sketch, while Prager was credited but never actually appeared in the episode.
Despite the unusual circumstances surrounding it, the episode was met with praise. Critics called it “watchable” again and “a distinct improvement over others this year.”
A writers strike caused the seventh season of SNL to be delayed. It wouldn’t be until October 1981 that the series returned. By then, Ebersol had brought in additional cast members and writers, furthering his vision of what the show should be. Only two actors from Doumanian’s tenure remained by Season 7: Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo.