“Saturday Night Live”: Wanna Bite the Hand That Feeds Me (Miskel Spillman Meets Elvis Costello)

6 Jul

On the evening of October 8, 1977, Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels sat behind the same desk from which he’d presented a $3,200 check to The Beatles the week before, and made an offer that was just as genuine — one that, unlike his Fab Four pipe dreams, would yield genuine results.

“How many of you out there watching this show right now,” he began, “are saying to yourselves, ‘You know, Madeline Kahn‘s pretty good [the actress hosted that week], but I think I can do a better job than that’? Well, here’s your chance. Because now, anyone can host Saturday Night Live. All you have to do is write a postcard and state in 25 words or less why you want to host Saturday Night Live.”

This was not a sketch. An address was provided as Lorne explained the details. After the November 1 deadline passed, the entrants would be winnowed to five finalists, who would then be flown to New York to read their entries on-air, and the winner would host the December 17 Christmas episode, with the series’ $3,000 hosting fee as a quite generous gift.

“We don’t care who or what you are,” Michaels concluded. “If you can lick a stamp, you’re on your way to stardom.”

Some 150,000 tongues and minds went into overdrive over the next three weeks as Saturday Night Live was deluged with pithy correspondence.  “I’m an 80-year-old grandmother,” read one. “I need one more cheap thrill since my doctor told me I only have another 25 years left.” Volumes of submissions were considered and discarded, before finally being pared down to five finalists. The following week’s emcee, Buck Henry, announced the news on the November 12 episode hosted by Ray Charles and added that the lucky competitors would appear with him on November 19.

Sure enough, seven days later they were trotted out for Saturday Night Live‘s cold open, each in matching blue button-down sweaters differentiated by the letters A through E, a regular malt-shop quintet. Gilda Radner introduced them on camera as a “cross-section of America” (to the disappointment of Garrett Morris, who complained of a distinct lack of ethnic variety). And a curious cross-section ’twas: David Lewis, a gangly, bearded “unemployed guy” from Oregon; Deb Blair, a housewife and mother from Peoria, Illinois; Connie Crawford, a Vassar freshman; Richard Kneip, the governor of South Dakota; and, finally, Miskel Spillman, a petite 80-year-old grandmother from New Orleans, Louisiana, who stood out with her bob of shocking white. Introductions were made, but the audience favorite was quickly established when Buck cajoled from the genial octogenarian “I’m Miskel Spillman. I’m old.”

The five were given the honor of announcing, “Live from New York, it’s Saturday night!” and appeared intermittently throughout the show, first during Henry’s monologue, where it was discovered that David Lewis may have been a little too eccentric even for SNL. (After Lewis’ turkey impression fell flat, Henry deadpanned, “Obviously, we didn’t throw all the weird letters away.”) Later they surfaced in a Gary Weis short chronicling each finalists’ underhanded attempts to influence the host (Crawford came on to him, Kneip offered him a government job, Lewis spun a wild story of animal cruelty, Blair suggested that perhaps her children wouldn’t have a merry Christmas after all, and Spillman announced, “Something’s going to happen around New Year’s Eve. I’m going to kick.”) They were brought back out for the cast farewells at home base, with Spillman admitting over the adulation, “I’ve had the most wonderful time in my life.”

Connie Crawford, today an acting and directing instructor at Brown University, fondly recalled both the episode and Mrs. Spillman in an interview with TV.com’s HelloStuart last year:

For me, it was brilliant. [The show] was exciting and smart and funny, and people were very generous and kind and patient. … With us there, us five, doing what they did with us, bring us into this, not only did they put on a live show in less than a week, but the material was very edgy and they asked five complete civilians to join them. That was quite risky. The show on its own and the way they were doing it was quite raw, and to bring us in … that was reality TV.

[E]verybody knew [Miskel] was going to win. Come on. She was an 80-year-old woman from New Orleans having an adventure. … I expected her to win, so it all made sense. … [S]he was a lovely woman. She was a charmer, she really was. I wouldn’t have done anything differently.

David Lewis concurred in his own 2008 exchange with TV.com. “[Spillman] was a prime example of many who are past retirement age, yet so full of life, rich with wisdom and experience,” said the performance artist/songwriter. “By the end of the show, it was obvious who the sentimental favorite was.”

(Of the remaining finalists, Deb Blair’s whereabouts are unknown, and Richard Kneip, who followed his South Dakota governorship with a Presidental appointment to U.S. Ambassador of Singapore, died in 1987.)

After all the votes were tabulated from postcards, phone calls, letters and specially printed TV Guide ballots, Spillman was the clear victor by some 15,000 votes. The sprightly senior citizen, pending any natural life occurrences, was locked in for December 17.

Her musical guest, however, was not. The Sex Pistols, the melodic scourge of the U.K. sneering inroads into the stateside press, were initially scheduled to perform, but their notoriety and criminal records made visas near impossible. (The Pistols did arrive early the following year, disintegrating in San Francisco on January 14.) Luckily, Elvis Costello & The Attractions were then touring the United States and Canada to promote their debut, My Aim Is True; a few phone calls later and a New York stop was scheduled.

The Saturday Night Live staff may have been relieved, but the 23-year-old Costello was anything but. He gritted his teeth as Columbia Records, his U.S. label, began instructing him on what songs to perform. They wanted established tracks, naturally, but the band leader blanched at a request for “Less Than Zero,” a composition whipped by its angry writer after watching ex-British Union of Fascists head Oswald Mosley snivel on the BBC. Costello felt the references were too obscure for Americans; it was a decidedly English phenomenon. The label, however, insisted. Costello fumed.

His anger is evident even in the night’s first musical performance. Costello snarls through “Watching the Detectives,” almost challenging the cameraman to track him. He advances upon the lens, ducks its gaze, and evades its path. He seems to have little regard for blocking, which didn’t match his perception of “live” spontaneity. In fact, Costello wasn’t all that impressed with the show, period. “Maybe something got lost in translation,” he mused in Rhino‘s 2002 reissue of 1978’s This Year’s Model, “but none of the humour seemed nearly as ‘dangerous’ or funny as they seemed to think it was, or perhaps they were just having a bad show.”

Even with a private citizen serving as “host,” Saturday Night Live pulled few punches in its presentation. In the cold opening, Laraine Newman admonished John Belushi (who eerily prophesied, “Don’t worry, I plan to be dead before I’m 30” — he was only off by three years) for sharing a lethal strain of bud with the 80-year-old to relax her nerves. “John,” gasped guest-guest host Buck Henry, “your joints overwhelm even an experienced drug user like myself!” Miskel, for her part, was game, wandering into her monologue on Henry’s arm and marveling at “the colors.”

Spillman was used sparingly for the next hour-and-a-half. She sat and listened to Jane Curtin recite an alternate version of O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi that ended with a trademark Belushi outburst and the still-nascent cry of “But nooooo!” Later she had a brief walk-on as the mother of a desperate Vietnam War vet (Bill Murray) in the existential buddy-cop drama, Sartresky & Hutch. Her most prominent showcase came as Belushi’s college girlfriend in a sketch chronicling a student’s holiday homecoming. Otherwise, the episode did contain two future classics: E. Buzz Miller’s sleazoid exploration of the artist Titian and Al Franken’s Yuletide tirade against his parents.

Spillman was nowhere in sight or earshot when Elvis returned for an encore; announcer Don Pardo announced him instead. The artist dutifully adhered to his record label’s wishes with an ice-cold stare through “Less Than Zero” — until he hit the line “There is a vacancy waiting in the English voodoo.” At “waiting” he abruptly shouted, “Stop! Stop!,” dramatically flailing his arms. As if confidentially, he turned back to the microphone and apologized. “I’m sorry, ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “there’s no reason to do this song here.” Then he turned to his bewildered Attractions and called for “Radio, Radio,” a song they had yet to even record (after that night, the song would go unheard in America until This Year’s Model the following fall). As Elvis told Tom Snyder in 1981, it made for riveting television. “They didn’t have my camera cues, which supposedly, from a professional point of view, isn’t very good. But from a live TV point of view, I would’ve thought it was great,” he quipped.

Apparently, he was alone in that sentiment. “[T]he producer did not agree,” Costello recalled on the Model reissue. “He stood behind the camera making obscene and threatening gestures in my direction. … We were chased out of the building and told we ‘would never work on American television again.'”

Miskel must’ve been unaware of such backstage drama. As the cast gathered for goodbyes, the by-now-beloved grandmother, resplendent in a Mrs. Claus outfit that complemented her brilliant white head of hair, wrapped with “I want to thank everyone in the world for voting for me. I’ve had the most wonderful time in my life.”

It was a life that would continue for another 14 years, past, sadly, both Belushi and Gilda’s. She was a spry and feisty 92 when People caught up with her for a 1989 SNL retrospective. “I love the current cast,” she said, singling out Dana Carvey as a particular favorite. “I take naps in the afternoon so that I can stay up. I’d love to host again. I have 13 more years left, you know.”

When the issue hit newsstands on September 25, 1989, it had been exactly six months since Elvis’ triumphant return to Saturday Night Live after an 11-year absence. This time he was Mary Tyler Moore’s problem. However, the bespectacled icon, by now a respected artist, made it through the show without incident, flowing smoothly through “Veronica” and “Let Him Dangle” with nary a hint of surprise. He was invited back in May 1991 to perform “The Other Side of Summer” and “Candy.” One wonders if Miskel Spillman watched either with interest. She passed away less than a year later, on March 30, 1992, at the age of 94 and remains, to this day, Saturday Night Live‘s only non-celebrity host. As for Elvis, he has long been forgiven, even ribbing his youthful defiance on Saturday Night Live‘s 25th anniversary special in 1999, by barging in on the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” to lead them through “Radio, Radio.”

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