Saturday Night Live: William Shatner (1986)

It was thirty years ago today...! William Shatner hosted SNL for the first and only time. 

The occasion was the extraordinary success of Star Trek IV, which topped the $100m mark and was a phenomenon beyond just the Trekkies. I wonder why they went for Shatner and not for Nimoy? Outside the obvious awesomeness of Shatner, of course. (Nimoy did a small bit on Weekend Update many years later. Other than Patrick Stewart, no Trek regular has ever hosted SNL. What a shame.)

The other thing (besides The Voyage Home) occupying America's thoughts in the last few weeks of '86 was the Iran-Contra-Affair. SNL took aim, as it often does, at this timely scandal in the episode's opener, "The Mute Marine," where Shatner plays Ollie North (later, unfathomably-to-me-still, host of his own show on Fox) and Phil Hartman sings out the details of the case to the tune of "The Ballad of the Green Berets." 

Let's have a look at where Shatner was at in '86. Despite playing the lead in a moderate TV hit of the era (TJ Hooker) and a steady stream of cameos and guest work since TOS went off the air, and despite the box office success of each big-screen Trek, it had been two full decades since Shatner was "hot" as an actor. (Think Tim Allen from Galaxy Quest.) With baby boomer nostalgia at it height in 1986 and ST:IV one of the year's biggest hits, this SNL gig was a huge opportunity for Shatner to re-establish himself as a bona-fide star.

And he pretty much did. Not in the sense that he was offered bigger and better roles and won Oscars. But from '86 on down to the present his star has never again dipped significantly beneath the horizon. Does he owe it all to this episode? In one very important way - the "Get A Life" sketch written by Bob Odenkirk and Judd Apatow - absolutely, yes

Before we get there, though, there's this one other skit I want to look at, since even more than that one it nails Shatner not just in 1986 but in 1966 and 2016 and all years in-between. A woman (Nora Dunn) is getting ready in a bathroom when her husband appears behind her. He makes several provocative comments and saunters in; she assumes things are going to go in the predictable direction. But she - and we - are wrong; it is himself he is so ardently admiring.

"You're a lucky woman!"
He gets a good-sized laugh from the crowd with his "Don't you ever die!" advice to himself.

It's not the funniest skit or anything, it's just that this behavior of Shatner's mocked here is how his co-stars described working with him pretty verbatim. Seems more meta in 2016 than I'm sure it was meant in 1986, but I bet any co-star not named Nimoy (and maybe even him) got a bittersweet kick out of this.

Back to the episode. After the opening credits, Shatner's monologue plays it safe: reminding everyone how big of a hit Star Trek IV was, how Star Trek is received around the world ("in Japan, it's known as Sulu, Master of Navigation"), and how he's sure the upcoming (and imaginary) TJ Hooker IV will be his real cinematic legacy. From there, he introduces the "Get A Life" Trek convention skit, to which it dissolves - 

making this monologue one of the handful (of its era, anyway - I'm not particularly savvy on 21st century SNL) that segues into the next skit without a "So-and-so is here, so stick around - we'll be right back!" 

I couldn't find anything about this sketch in Shales and Miller's Live From New York, except an offhand remark about Dana Carvey and Nora Dunn shouting at one another in "the Star Trek sketch." That has to be the other Trek sketch coming up, though, not this one.

So much has been written about this skit in the 30 years since it first aired that it's difficult to truly remember the context. Trek was not quite mainstream at the time, despite the box office of The Voyage Home and Shatner hosting SNL, but the possibility was there. "Get A Life" - as delivered by Shatner - went some considerable distance towards mainstreaming Trek

"Grow the hell up! I mean, it's just a TV show damn it - it's just a TV show."
"Are you saying then that we should pay more attention to the movies?"

One thing, though... The episode #s are all jumbled. It's like they're trying to provoke angry letters from people. And by people I mean Trekkies. #AndByTrekkiesIMeanMe

For example, Victoria Jackson plays Julie Cobb, who appeared in "By Any Other Name" as Yeoman Thompson. It's a well-chosen example of this tradition of Trek conventions, then and now (though obviously they're massive cross-media expos nowadays compared to the 70s or 80s), to grab anyone willing to appear at them who has any connection however tenuous ("She was transformed into a cube and crushed") with the franchise. Extra points for Julie Cobb, but they name the episode as "Errand of Mercy" and list it as "episode 51." The title's obviously wrong, but the episode # is close. (It's listed as production order 50 and order 51 in various places.)  

I can only assume that these are traps to ensnare people like myself so that I may be gawked at and derided. That's some nice pre-internet trolling, Odenkirk and Apatow.

Anyone who sees the skit for the first time in 2016 would be forgiven for wondering what the big deal is. It's fun, but its real impact was in '86

I suppose anytime Victoria Jackson comes up it's worth mentioning she's gone in a rather vocally anti-Muslim direction since her SNL days. (She refers to it in other terms, of course. Here's a USA Today interview with her from 2014 if you're interested.) Which is too bad, as I always liked her on the show

The next skit is with the Sweeney Sisters. Jan Hooks (RIP) and Nora Dunn were great. The latter has claimed that the male writing staff never wanted to write their skits and have memory-holed the Sweeney Sisters. If true, that's too bad. I never really care for this act back in the day but love it now. They bridge the gap nicely between Bill Murray's Nick the Lounge Singer and Will Ferrell's and Ana Gasteyer's Marty and Bobbi Culp.

I forgot how expansive their mythology is, as well.  

In this skit, Shatner plays "Rog," a fellow crooner who met Liz (Nora) while singing at the Coconut Club.
This puts Shatner in the rarefied inner Sweeney circle of Mary Tyler Moore (the third Sweeney Sister) and Robert Mitchum, later involved with Candy (Jan Hooks).

Next up:

The Restaurant Enterprise.

A time when Star Trek V was only a gleam in Shatner's eye. Maybe a little more than a gleam - I don't have Movie Memories handy, so I can't recall when the grandiose ideas of Final Frontier began to germinate. 

The idea here is that Starfleet has mothballed the Enterprise and turned it into a theme restaurant. A silly premise, sure, but it allows for some fun Trek-trope mockery. (Bones uses his tricorder on a patron's food to determine it has no sauce at all, Kirk over-enthuses about both the timing and intensity of Sulu's efforts to create Russian dressing from scratch, ("We don't have days! Push it to the limit - I want full relish!" etc.) And perhaps my favorite, when a diner (played by Kevin Meaney) is choking on his food and Kirk calls Bones over. ("Damn it, Jim, I'm a doctor, not a - oh! Oh, sure.") 

Spock (Kevin Nealon) goofs at one point and calls Bones (Phil Hartman) "Captain."

"Doctor McCoy, would you do me the very great honor of eating my shorts?"

Akira Yoshimura (longtime SNL production desinger) gets to reprise his role as Mr. Sulu from the '76 episode where Belushi plays Captain Kirk.
"Sulu! What have they done to you?"
"We all get older, Khan."

The TJ Hooker skit completely loses the audience. Which is unfair, as it's a decent mix-and-match of cop show tropes: TJ riding on the the hood and reading the license plate with his foot, the abundance of Alpha-Tango language over the dispatch, the music score, all other policework shutting down while the main character's cohorts fret over his multi-day disappearance, the lame joke ending with freeze frame, etc.

Nevertheless, by the end of the sketch, the crickets from the audience are very noticeable.

Weekend Update with Dennis Miller remains a highlight of 80s SNL for me. Someone watching it for the first time nowadays might be surprised at both how personally Dennis "super-conservative" Miller calls out Reagan over Iran/Contra as well as Al "super-liberals" Franken's sympathetic touch in explaining the then-President's upcoming prostate procedure. Something very much missing from political humor on either side of the aisle in the 21st century. Not to mention from Miller and Franken themselves, or other contributors to "Weekend Update" from this era like A. Whitney Brown.

As far as the Shatner stuff goes, that's pretty much it. There's a pretty good "Christmas in New England" monologue that Kevin Nealon does and a decent black and white short by John Eskow starring Griffin Dunne. Not one of the more memorable specific-to-Christmas episodes, but - primarily on account of the "Get a Life" and Star Trek V skits - certainly one of the more all-around memorable SNL 80s eps. 

Oh there was one specific-to-Christmas skit indeed - the alternate ending to It's A Wonderful Life, featuring Dana Carvey's wonderful Jimmy Stewart impersonation and the whole town of Bedford Falls beating Old Man Potter (Jon Lovitz) to death.

Finally, let's look at the music. This was in the G.E. Smith House Band era, and he and his crew work in some fun Christmas melodies into both the theme song and all the commercial break music. The musical guest was Lone Justice; you can see their performances here. I don't remember these guys at all, but from looking them up, seems they were a few years too early for the alt-country stardom many thought was theirs for the taking. And Buster Poindexter (an intermittent featured performer with the cast in the 86-87 season) sings "Izzat You, Santa Claus?" at episode's end. 

"I like John Belushi's work as Captain Kirk better than my own."
-William Shatner



  1. In a way, it makes sense to me that only Shatner and Stewart among Trek stars have hosted. But it seems like should have, especially considering how funny many of them seem to be. Frakes would have killed it, for example. Ah, well.

    I'm with you regarding Oliver North. I'd insert a random bit of anti-Fox sentiment, but why bother? You can fill it in for me mentally.

    "I mean, it's just a TV show damn it - it's just a TV show." -- And so Galaxy Quest was born.

    I think you're right about the inaccuracies. It's a little bit of extra fuck-you sauce on top of this sundae. No way they did the research to know it was Julie Cobb without also knowing what episode was what. And on the one hand, screw them. But on the other hand: well played.

    Was the restaurant skit the final time Shatner wore the yellow uniform? I bet it was. Still looks good on him.

    The It's a Wonderful Life skit came from this episode?!? Man, this one was kind of a landmark, huh? I've seen that bit, but not the rest of the episode, even the Trek bits. I seem to be missing out!

    1. The "Get a Life" skit is historically interesting and might give you a chuckle. The better of the two for my money is the "STV" one. The jokes aren't amazingly original or anything, but it's notable for being a Trek parody before such things became somewhat streamlined via Robot Chicken, Simpsons, Family Guy, etc. I like Free Enterprise for that reason, as well. (Well, for many reasons, but its glimpse of a world of Trek parody before Trek Parody became a genre.) It's kind of fun to see a "Star Trek V," as well, from a time before such a thing (not to mention STVI, TNG, any of the other series, any of the TNG movies, Kelvin Trek, etc.) actually existed.

      Probably was the last time he wore the gold shirt, yeah.

      I suppose Oliver North on Fox would be more remarkable in a world without, I don't know, Al Sharpton on MSNBC or any other example, but good lord. When Jello Biafra and DOA put out the greatest hardcore record ever made ("Last Scream of the Missing Neighbors") one of the songs ("Full Metal Jackoff") had the excellent fist-pumping refrain "OLLIE! FOR PRESIDENT! HE'LL GET THINGS DONE!" It was outrageous parody at the time.

      Now... something less than parody.

      Frakes indeed would have killed SNL. Spiner, too, and maybe even Janeway.

      An entire SNL episode revolving around Worf saying "Perhaps today IS a good day to die!" then realizing, later, somewhat regretfully, that okay, maybe it'll be tomorrow, over and over again, would amuse me greatly as well.

    2. Fantastic review! Speaking of Trek parodies, I recall the NNTN "Star Trek IV: The Fire at Paramount," which aired in '84, I think. It featured Nimoy saying, "The mail service to Vulcan is very slow these days..."


    3. Not Necessarily the News! Takes me back, for sure. Glad you enjoyed! (And nice work over there at GalacticJourney - that's a real great approach for a website.)