BOOTLEG FILES 446: “Fridays” (1980-82 ABC comedy series).
LAST SEEN: Bits and pieces of episodes are scattered across YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A missing piece of 1980s flop culture.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: At some point, but not in the immediate future.
Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it is also the worst form of comedy. A case in point: the ABC comedy series “Fridays,” which was created as a blatant knockoff of NBC’s “Saturday Night Live.” I was in high school when “Fridays” was broadcast from 1980 to 1982, and I never thought it was very funny. Three decades later, I’ve just watched a large volume of sketches from the series via YouTube – many of which I can still remember clearly from my teen years – and I am still of the opinion that the show was just not funny.
The problem with “Fridays” was that it was never allowed to have its own personality. Part of this may have been based on a long-simmering regret: co-producer John Moffitt was Lorne Michael’s original choice to direct “Saturday Night Live,” but he turned down the gig. With “Fridays,” Moffitt and co-producer Bill Lee sought to one-up Michaels with their own brand of irreverent sketch comedy – albeit on Friday night at 11:30 pm ET and not Saturday night in the same time slot.
However, Moffitt and Lee, along with their cast and crew, broke no new ground with “Fridays.” Indeed, the show aped the entire “Saturday Night Live” experience: guest hosts, top-rated music acts, a fake newscast and edgy sketch comedy that pushed the boundaries of good taste. But what “Fridays” lacked was a sense of quality control and focus. The sketch comedy was conducted on a hit-or-miss basis (it mostly missed) and the actors constantly overplayed their roles with broad acting and excessively loud line-readings that suggested they were playing for the last row of the studio audience instead of the cameras recording their antics.
“Fridays” made a concentrated effort to establish recurring characters with easily identified catch phrases and shtick. One of the better efforts was the Drugs R Us pharmacist played by Mark Blankfield. This emotionally frayed wreck of a man seemed to be fighting a losing war for his sanity, despite his constant claim of “I can handle it!” Inevitably, he would consume a pharmaceutical without reading the label, only to discover his error in a rough reaction (e.g., suppositories were mistaken for lozenges, glue was mistaken for a nasal decongestant).
Less frenetic was Nat E. Dred, the Rasta Gourmet. Darrow Igus played the dreadlocked, shirtless, perpetually happy Jamaican chef whose recipes inevitably called for “ganja.” Needless to say, the meals would go on the proverbial back burner as cheerful Rasta enjoyed a deep smoke of his oversized reefers.
However, many of the “Fridays” characters came across like amusing ideas that could not evolve beyond a single-joke concept. Larry David (sporting a Larry Fine hairdo) was the amiable Saully Mullins, a temp agency worker who turned up as the unlikely replacement worker for the likes of Secretary of State Cyrus Vance (at a peace conference) and Gloria Steinem (at a feminist political rally). A pre-“Seinfeld” Michael Richards offered the characters Battle Boy (a bellicose child with a fixation on military toys) and Dick (an obnoxious narcissist). But the sketches with these characters always fell flat, with the actors vainly trying to milk laughs from a dry source.
As for the “Fridays” faux newscast – called “Friday Edition” – the kindest thing that could be said was that Melanie Chartoff, as the pretty and perky news reader, smiled sweetly and gamely plugged her way through some of the unfunniest topical jokes ever written.
“Fridays” also tried to push the envelope with sketches full of gross-out humor. The sketch “Diner of the Living Dead” put George Romero-style zombies in a casual dining environment, while “Women Who Spit” celebrated unladylike behavior. However, these efforts produced a negative backlash as several ABC affiliates dropped the program from their line-ups and replaced “Fridays” with alternative offerings. Another sketch that reinvented the Three Stooges as drug addicts produced the threat of a lawsuit from the estate of Moe Howard.
Of course, the show’s weirdest moments were on February 20, 1981, when Andy Kaufman was the guest host. Kaufman seemed off of his game throughout the show, and at one point the audience booed him when he delivered an incoherent monologue that delayed the performance of the musical guests, The Pretenders. But things appeared to derail when Kaufman broke character during a restaurant sketch and refused to deliver his lines. Michael Richards, Kaufman’s co-star in the sketch, stormed off stage and returned with cue cards that he dumped in front of Kaufman, who responded by throwing water at Richards. A mini-brawl ensued involving the cast and crew before the show broke for a commercial. Although it was later revealed that Kaufman and some of the “Fridays” team had planned the sketch disruption, audiences watching the show were more confused than amused – and the reaction was overwhelmingly negative. Kaufman had to return to the show the following week in a taped appearance to apologize for the mayhem he created.
When it first appeared in April 1980, critics savaged “Fridays” and audiences mostly ignored it – after all, who needed this vulgar rip-off when “Saturday Night Live” was still on the air? As luck would have it, fortunes would switch in the fall of 1980, when the sixth season of “Saturday Night Live” – which featured a new ensemble under the production of Jean Doumanian – laid one of the most foul-smelling eggs in show biz history. Remarkably, critics and audiences began to re-evaluate “Fridays,” and the ABC show was seen in a more positive light. ABC expanded the program’s running time from its original 70 minutes to 90 minutes, and it appeared that “Fridays” had a secure future.
However, “Fridays” was never able to catch a break. The struggling “Saturday Night Live” enjoyed a second wind for its 1981-82 season, with thanks primarily to the surplus amount of attention devoted to cast member Eddie Murphy. In early 1982, ABC opted to expand its popular news show “Nightline” to Friday nights (it had previously been playing Monday to Thursday). “Nightline” was moved into the 11:30pm ET time slot owned by “Fridays,” which was then shifted to midnight. As the program’s ratings plummeted, ABC toyed with putting “Fridays” in prime time. But the program was literally not ready for prime time: “Dallas” trounced a standalone broadcast of “Fridays” on April 23, 1982, sealing the show’s doom.
“Fridays” stayed on the air in reruns through October 1982, and edited versions of the show turned up in syndication and on the USA Network later in the 1980s. To date, “Fridays” has been absent from home entertainment release. Several sources blame Michael Richards and Larry David for refusing to allow a DVD anthology series, but that seems strange because clips from “Fridays” involving both men were included as special features on a couple of “Seinfeld” anthology DVDs. Most likely, the bother of clearing music rights from the program’s various guest bands and the expense of digitally remastering these old episodes – not to mention the show’s reputation as a flop – cancelled hopes for a DVD release.
In returning to “Fridays” again after a three-decade absence, I was hoping to rediscover an unfairly condemned work that was ahead of its time. Sadly, “Fridays” is just as bad in 2012 as it was in 1982.
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