When Larry David and Michael Richards Starred Together on a Live Sketch Comedy Show: A Look Back at ABC's Fridays

Saturday, April 27, 2024

It was April 1980 and the future of Saturday Night Live, which was nearing the end of its fifth seasonseemed to be up in the air. 

Two of the late-night live comedy sketch show's most popular cast members, Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, had left the previous year to pursue movie careers. Ratings dropped as a result and viewers were less than enamored with the new "not ready for prime time" players Charles Rocket (who infamously dropped the f-bomb on the live show, leading to his dismissal) and Ann Risley who had been hired to fill the openings Aykroyd and Belushi left behind.

NBC executives, who had little faith in the program by this point, slashed the show's budget from $1 million to $350,000 per episode. It all got to be too much for the show's creator, Lorne Michaels, who admitted that he was exhausted and needed a break. 

After five years in which SNL attracted a large viewership and cemented itself in pop culture and television history with memorable characters and catch phrases, the bloom had now fallen off NBC's rose. 

Somewhere over at ABC, executives as well as television producers Bill Lee and John Moffitt were watching it all play out. In 1978 they had started to develop their own live, late night comedy sketch show featuring a regular cast along with musical guests and (eventually) celebrity hosts. And now that SNL seemed to be on its last legs, the timing for this show's debut couldn't be better. 

The show was Fridays, which aired (of course) on Friday evenings originally at 10:30 PM and later at 11:30 PM. It lasted for three seasons, from 1980 to 1982. Many fans believe it was funnier than SNL.

Who Was the Cast of ABC's Fridays?

The original main cast was comprised of husband and wife Mark Blankfield and Brandis Kemp, Melanie Chartoff, John Roarke, Darrow Igus, Maryedith Burrell, Bruce Mahler, and then unknowns Larry David and Michael Richards. David was also one of the show's writers and, according to cast member Chartoff, "a very sweet guy" who hadn't developed his acerbic Curb Your Enthusiasm persona yet. 

Last but not least, Johan the parakeet served as the show's unofficial mascot. 

Actually, all of the cast members were unknowns which is how producers wanted it. They also tried to make it clear they weren't trying to compete with SNL, although the similarities were pretty obvious. The writers poked fun at the elephant in the room right at the beginning of the first episode which featured the Fridays cast dressed like SNL characters. 

Fridays' writers, however, gave the show's humor a flavor all its own. For starters, there was a lot more physical comedy—some of it quite risky, especially for live television. Just about every cast member went to the hospital at least once for injuries sustained during filming. Bruce Mahler accidentally blow torched his face during one sketch. 

A prime example of the show's penchant for pushing slapstick to the limits is demonstrated in the skit below, where a crazy foreign chiropractor (Michael Richards) treats a patient (Mark Blankfield) using unconventional methods that include flipping him like a pancake, leaping onto his back and hanging him up by the feet. There were so many moments here that could have gone terribly wrong, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't find it hilarious. Remember, this was done LIVE.

Speaking of Richards, this show was his first paying gig as a comedic actor and it wasn't long before he drew the strongest reaction from the audience during the opening credits. Richards' recurring characters included the socially inept Dick the Swinger and the juvenile Battle Boy, who relishes in setting his toy soldiers and sister's dolls on fire. 

Traces of these early performances are detectable in Richard's Cosmo Kramer on Seinfeld, something which the comedic actor alluded to in an interview with L.A. Weekly: "Some of the stuff I did on Fridays was a start for characters I developed later on."

Sometimes, however, the jokes fell flat. There was an awful lot of material about drug use and homosexuality, the latter of which haven't aged well. Reading comments on YouTube from viewers that fondly watched the show back in the day, it seems teenage boys were a large part of the demographic which may explain the popularity of the off-color humor. 

Some of the recurring characters, such as Ken the Monster, with his dangling tongue and hunched back, and the Drugs R Us pharmacist, whose sampling of the merchandise keeps him perpetually high ("I can handle it!") get old fast. 

Then there was the occasional gross humor, such as two men dribbling their drinks all over themselves while having a conversation in a bar, or cannibalism as depicted in a stomach churning skit titled "Diner of the Living Dead." This sketch appeared in the third episode and caused many stations to drop the show from their schedule: 

The show excelled when the writers thought out of the box and crafted a punchline you didn't see coming, such as in this sketch where you think Richards' character is visiting his father (watch to the end):

By 1981 the writing got tighter, the sketches funnier, and the show had found its stride. The series was known for breaking the fourth wall (in one sequence, a couple moves into an apartment that comes with an audience—the actual studio audience.) Like SNL, it also poked fun at political figures; President Ronald Reagan was in office at the time, so they had plenty of material to draw from.  

In fact, the show is responsible for perhaps the most ambitious sketch to ever open a live show: "The Ronny Horror Picture Show", a 18-minute parody of The Rocky Horror Picture Show with John O'Roarke doing an amazing impression of a transvestite Reagan who aspires to create the perfect Republican man. 

No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, you have to admit this production is unlike anything else you've seen on a comedy show before. It was never allowed to air a second time, as it ruffled the feathers of Richard O'Brien who conceived and wrote the screenplay for TRHPS musical and film.  

Unlike SNL, there is something about viewing Fridays that feels more intimate and personal. The camera often showed cast members scuttling backstage for a costume change before cutting to a commercial. The closing credits showed Polaroids of every single person, including the crew, involved in the production. 

By 1982, critics and viewers agreed that Fridays was kicking SNL's butt, especially after the latter's dismal ratings during its sixth season. 

Celebrity Guests on ABC's Fridays

Fridays featured celebrity guest hosts starting in 1981 with comedian George Carlin, who also hosted the very first episode of SNL in 1975. Other notable names included Don Novello aka Father Guido Sarducci, Valerie Bertinelli, Mark Hamill, Marty Feldman, Karen Allen, Billy Crystal, William Shatner, Peter Fonda, Brooke Shields, and Jamie Lee Curtis. 

Andy Kaufman's Bizarre Appearance on Fridays

Fridays is also known for the bizarre episode where comedian Andy Kaufman served as the celebrity host on February 20, 1981. After slipping into his Latka character from Taxi and performing his Mighty Mouse routine, he then brought out Lawrence Welk singer Kathie Sullivan, introducing her to the audience as his fiancee, after which they performed a Christian song together. 

This was, of course, one of Kaufman's many hoaxes that he was notorious for. Later in the show he pissed the audience off by delaying The Pretenders' musical performance by prattling on about how drug use masks deep emotional problems. 

He capped off his hosting duties by pretending to mess up a sketch that was about two couples dining out together that take turns getting high in the restrooms. Kaufman went off-script, saying "I can't play stoned" which prompted Michael Richards to grab the stack of cue cards off camera and throw them on the table in front of Kaufman. Kaufman responded by throwing water on Richards which lead to an on-stage scuffle with Jack Burns before cutting to a commercial break. 

It was all planned—none of it all that particularly amusing, mind you—and was recreated in the 1999 Jim Carrey biopic about Kaufman, Man on the Moon

An interesting footnote to this story is that the very next evening was when Charles Rocket said the f-word on SNL. Perhaps he was inspired by Kaufman's stunt or he just wanted to be fired after the producer that hired him was let go. 

Musical Guests on ABC's Fridays

Even if the humor isn't your cup of tea, there is still one compelling reason to stream episodes of Fridays and that is the musical performances. The list of musicians and bands that appeared on the show read like a who's who of early '80s radio: Devo, Pat Benatar, The Cars, Quarterflash, Eddie Money, Kool & the Gang, Kenny Loggins, Heart, Al Jarreau, Dire Straits, Split Enz, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, The Four Tops, and countless other legends. Paul McCartney performed on the show's last ever episode, which aired during prime time on April 23, 1982. 

There isn't a bad performance to be found. All songs were played live; there was zero lip-synching taking place on this show. Fun fact: The Stray Cats made their American television debut on the show (as did The Clash and AC/DC) but they were not signed with a record company yet; the show's producers crawled contact info on the bottom of the screen targeting any interested record executives. 

Why Was ABC's Fridays Cancelled?

In the end, it wasn't Saturday Night Live that killed off Fridays. The show probably would have survived a little longer had it not gotten pushed to a midnight start time after the network decided to expand the news show Nightline to five nights a week. The prime-time special, which was a last ditch effort to keep the show alive, got pitted against Dallas, which crushed it in the ratings. 

Ironically, every cast members received an invite from SNL's executive producer Dick Ebersole to join the rival show but all of them turned it down. This speaks volumes about how loyal the performers were to their production.  

Several of the cast members did go on to enjoy lucrative careers in film and television. Of course, we all know what became of Larry David and Michael Richards. 

Where to Watch Fridays

Shout Factory released 16 episodes of Fridays on DVD in 2013 (The Best of Fridays). As of this writing, most of the episodes are available to stream on Tubi and Pluto as well as on YouTube. 

Fridays to this day has somewhat of a cult following. Even if you're a SNL devotee, it's well worth checking this overlooked show out. 

1 comment:

  1. That RHPS parody justified their entire existence.


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