Laughing Matters: Steve Martin, “Billie Jean”

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

NBC programmed a lot of disasters on Friday nights in the fall of 1983, including a show about a talking orangutan and the notorious Manimal. And yet it was a show that arrived as a mid-season replacement on that night which proved to the biggest dud of them all. Amazingly, it was produced by Lorne Michaels, the creator and current producer of Saturday Night Live who’s gone on to be one of the most powerful people at the network.

This was during the brief, deliberately forgotten stretch when Michaels wasn’t presiding over Saturday Night Live, having left the show after the 1979-1980 in what he originally thought was going to be a single year off with the program being taken out of production. Whatever animosity may have existed was smoothed over by early 1984, and Michaels returned to NBC with a new show that he called The New Show. All pre-taped comedy sketches, the program aired on Friday nights, in the last hour of prime time.

Though it boasted SCTV veteran Dave Thomas as a regular (alongside Valri Bromfield and  Saturday Night Live ringer host Buck Henry) and cycled in Saturday Night Live alumni (Gilda Radner and Laraine Newman showed up in separate episodes), The New Show gained no traction with viewers. Among first-aired series during the 1983-1984 season, The New Show finished dead last. (It appears some Father Murphy reruns NBC used to plug a hole in the spring finished behind it.) As would be expected, The New Show was canceled. Before the end of the following years, Michaels would be back at the helm of Saturday Night Live, a post he hasn’t relinquished.

I don’t remember much of The New Show, but I’m absolutely certain I watched the premiere. I remember being overjoyed at the grand silliness of the opening sketch, which featured Steve Martin essentially recreating Michael Jackson’s music video for “Billie Jean.” Martin found the illuminating sidewalk to be a bit more of a challenge.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Laughing Matters” tag.

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