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Fridays debuted in April 1980 fully aware of the long shadow looming over it. Here was a major network’s late-night weekend sketch comedy show starring an ensemble of young unknowns exuding rock ’n’ roll attitude and palpably conveying the contemporary creative spirit of its big city home base.
Rather than dodge the Saturday Night Live elephant in the room, though, Fridays burst out of the gate and confronted the beast in its opening moments.
The show’s initial image is a pair of producers addressing actors off-camera, warning them, “Some critics and some viewers are going to say . . . that we’re imitating Saturday Night Live.”
The Fridays cast loudly protests as they’re suddenly revealed to be perfectly done up as SNL icons, from Michael Richards as a Conehead to Larry David as a Blues Brother to Mark Blankfield in a bee costume and so on.
With that knockout first punch, Fridays defiantly announced its independence just as surely as SNL had separated itself from all previous TV variety shows by kicking off with John Belushi and Michael O’Donoghue’s bizarre “I’d like to feed your fingertips to the wolverines” sketch. Unlike SNL, though, Fridays emerged wholly formed (a benefit, of course, of having years to watch the competition).
Cast standouts were immediate. At very first glance, Michael Richards laid the foundation for his eventual triumph as Seinfeld’s Kramer, with a twitchy, can’t-take-your-eyes-off-him persona that veers from instantly shocked submissiveness to sudden, grotesque overconfidence.
Mark Blankfield’s antic energy would flower quickly into a popular pharmacist character clearly too fond of sampling his own wares (a bit that would generate an unofficial Fridays spin-off movie, Jekyll and Hyde . . . Together Again).
Darrow Igus’ Rastafarian chef nearly turned “mari-JUAN-ah!” into a major ’80s catchphrase, and Bruce Mahler’s glossy-voiced rabbi would also return on Seinfeld.
Sophisticated and hip, Melanie Chartoff, who anchored Fridays’ weekly newscast parody, went on to a distinguished TV comedy career. She stood out immediately as the vice principal from hell (or a Tex Avery cartoon) in the cult sitcom Parker Lewis Can’t Lose. Later, she beguiled multiple generations by voicing the cartoon character Didi Pickles on Rugrats, as well as Didi’s mother (you’d never guess it was the same voice actor).
With its identity established so fast, Fridays could afford to experiment and even get stunningly ambitious. “The Ronny Horror Picture Show,” for example, still stands as one of the most jaw-dropping gut-shots of political satire ever broadcast on commercial television. Unimaginable in any broadcast context today, it’s a 17-minute, epically mounted, painstakingly detailed five full-song parody of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
“Ronny Horror Picture Show”
Fridays’ commitment to such danger notoriously spilled over into . . . well, something in 1981 when Andy Kaufman guest-starred. Midway through a restaurant sketch, Kaufman broke character, prompting Michael Richards to become furious, grab a stack of cue cards, and set off a shoving match. All this was broadcast live, and it was all, as it’s easy to conclude now, precalculated by perpetual TV terrorist Kaufman.
“Andy Kaufman Fight”
Being so entirely a product of its time and place, virtually every moment of Fridays invites the description “new wave,” particularly that of the Los Angeles variety. The show’s look, tone, and feel perfectly reflect the subgenre’s retro-futurist pop art aesthetic during the weird moment between disco and MTV when it dominated commercial radio and record sales. More directly, Fridays became the premiere visual outlet for new wave music artists.
Saturday Night Live came of age during the birth and ascendance of punk rock just a few subway stops south of Studio 8H. However, aside from Patti Smith (and Gilda Radner’s Candy Slice), SNL ignored punk. Sure, it was cool for them to invite Sun Ra, but where were the Ramones?
So whereas Paul Simon figured as SNL’s standby troubadour, Fridays hosted The Clash, Devo, The Cars, The Pretenders, The Jam, The Tubes, The Blasters, Jim Carroll, and Split Enz. The show also introduced the unsigned Stray Cats and ran a phone number on screen for record companies to call—and it worked!
Alas, like new wave, Fridays burned bright and flamed out fast—and there’s been nothing like it as much fun to laugh along with and dance to ever since.
Full episodes of Fridays, are available to watch free on ShoutFactoryTV.