Monday, April 11, 2005


You're all probably wondering what that feeling is, the sense that today is somehow different, perhaps momentous, but you're not quite sure. Can't quite nail it down though you think you're getting close . . .

Yes! That's right! Today marks the 25th anniversary of the premiere of "Fridays"!

Huh? You don't remember ABC's attempt to cash-in on "Saturday Night Live"? Well, I do. I watched every episode of that LA-based late night series, which ran from 1980 to '82. 'Course, I was (and remain) a comedy geek, and at that time I was writing and performing in a satirical theater group called Kamakaze Radio, which also ran from 1980 to '82 at the old Broad Ripple Playhouse in Indianapolis. So I saw "Fridays" as sort of our comedy twin, the minor difference being that we performed on a Midwestern stage, and they on national TV.

Though the critics slammed "Fridays," I admit to liking most of it. It was at times very raw, amateurish and seemingly obsessed with drug humor, but it had a real tangible energy and the actors gave it everything. The show's first season overlapped the end of "SNL's" 5th, the final one for what remained of the original cast, and all of "SNL's" 6th, which was the infamous Jean Doumanian death camp year where Lorne Michaels's franchise crashed into the mud. And while "Fridays" used the same format as "SNL," it was much fresher, took more chances, and presented a wide-open West Coast style of comedy that, while uneven, combined visual gags, surreal concepts and scene-crashing slapstick. "Fridays" tore out of the gate trying anything. And while older comedy vets hated it, younger comics like myself found it refreshing.

For me the star of "Fridays" was without doubt Michael Richards, who'd be at home in either a Beckett play or Tati film. Richards did the show's first monologue, where he stood at a mike, smiled nervously, shook and breathed heavily. No words. No jokes. Richards used his body as the punchline, whatever that was supposed to be. From that moment, I knew that "Fridays" would plumb the stranger depths of comedy that "SNL" had abandoned years before.

Richards's most popular character was "Dick," a self-confident loser who viewed himself as the acme of sex while others steered clear of his come-ons.

Dick was Kramer's older brother, and many of Dick's facial takes and pratfalls would be fleshed out and streamlined over a decade later on "Seinfeld." In my view, though, Richards's best character was Battle Boy, a little kid who tortured his plastic soldiers, made bomb noises and got excited by the very idea of death and mutilation. Simple. Direct. Funny. And an early look at what people would later call a "warblogger."

At the time, I thought the weakest "Fridays" cast member was Larry David, who essentially played a gruff, irritated guy in nearly every sketch he starred in.

Who knew that would become his comedy trademark? Or that he would become the TV comedy giant he did? Being a stand-up, David didn't seem to mesh with the rest of the sketch-trained cast. But he did shine in certain pieces, one of which is perhaps my favorite "Fridays" sketch.

David played a jailed convict whose wife comes to visit him. They make small talk until the wife shows David a picture their son drew in school. After looking at it, David's character goes crazy (and I paraphrase from memory): "What are these? Square trees? Have you ever in your life seen a square tree?! Is this kid crazy?! Does he live in the Bizarro World?! SQUARE TREES!!!" David is then dragged off by guards, kicking and ranting about his son's drawing.

"Fridays" was a brief, unusual attempt to push in a different sketch comedy direction. While not as good as "SCTV" (which was more character-driven and boasted a superior cast), it experimented with the sketch format on a regular basis, at times turning entire episodes into one long conceptual piece (this happened whenever Andy Kaufman hosted). Something like that isn't meant for an extended run, so perhaps it's best that ABC, by expanding "Nightline" to Friday nights in 1982, killed the show off. Five, 10, 15 years of "Fridays" would've been unbearable.

Two things came out of "Fridays": 1)"Seinfeld," of course, which not only included Richards and David, but also "Fridays" writers Larry Charles, Elaine Pope and Bruce Kirschbaum (as well as appearances by former cast members Bruce Mahler, Mary Edith Burrell and Melanie Chartoff); and 2) great musical acts. "Fridays" showed us The Clash at the time of "London Calling," Devo, Boomtown Rats, The Jam, The Plasmatics, Stray Cats (before they had a US record deal), King Crimson, The Busboys (remember them?), Jim Carroll Band, Split Enz, Pretenders, The Blasters, The Cars -- most of whom you never saw on American TV. "Fridays" also had its share of mainstream rock, soul and country acts, but the newer, younger bands are what I remember best.

To date, there's no "Fridays" DVD box collection. I'm not sure how much of the show's comedy would hold up today (esp some of the political pieces), but it would make for some interesting viewing (primarily the Andy Kaufman shows, which I just discovered can be purchased here). I'd definitely buy it, not only for the nostalgia value, but to once again see that sketch about square trees.