When Saturday Night Live Infiltrated the ‘Brat Pack’

In June 1985, a New York Magazine cover story famously coined the term “Brat Pack” to describe a group of young Hollywood actors who, in writer David Blum’s words, “[M]ake major movies with big directors and get fat contracts and limousines. They have top agents and protective PR people. They have legions of fans who write them letters, buy them drinks, follow them home. And, most important, they sell movie tickets.”

But would the same hold true for television?

An affirmative answer seemed to be what Lorne Michaels was banking on when, after a five-year hiatus, he returned to his rightful place as Saturday Night Live‘s showrunner. And brought along three faces who would be familiar to any fan of the so-called Brat Pack’s movies: Anthony Michael Hall, Robert Downey Jr., and Joan Cusack.

“The Manhattan Project”

In 1980, Michaels left SNL, and New York City, to pursue new opportunities in Hollywood. He used the time to write The Three Amigos with Steve Martin and Randy Newman (who also wrote its music). He also developed The New Show, a primetime sketch show that debuted in early 1984 and lasted just nine episodes despite featuring such impressive talents as Martin, John Candy, Gilda Radner, Jeff Goldblum, Catherine O’Hara, and Teri Garr. 

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In his time away, SNL had survived thanks in large part to Eddie Murphy who, at 19 years old, talked his way onto the show in the first post-Lorne season. The addition of Billy Crystal and Martin Short after Murphy’s own exit in 1984 also helped, but by the time Michaels was back, the deck was clear and he was looking to tap into something fresh.

When asked by the Los Angeles Times how his first season back might be different, Michaels wasn’t sharing too many details. “I would like it to be The Manhattan Project,” he said in an interview published on September 7, 1985. “Everybody knows they’re working on it and that it’s important, but nobody knows quite what it is.”

At some point over the next two months, even Michaels seemed to have become confused about what he wanted. Because while he had indicated to the Los Angeles Times that his goal was to keep going for the “smart audience,” naming Paul Reubens’ Pee-wee Herman as an example of comedy that was “different” from what they wanted to do, Reubens hosted the third episode of the season. In fact, according to brief cast member Dan Vitale, Reubens was chosen over legendary actor George C. Scott.

Michaels also said he had wanted to bring back familiar faces for guest spots and that he had been “talking to most of the former Not-Ready-for-Prime-Time-Players.” But in the end, only Chevy Chase made an appearance as host with Don Novello and Al Franken briefly popping up on-screen.

“I don’t know what was happening in Lorne’s head when he put that cast together, but I think he was consciously going after youth,” said Franken in James Andrew Miller and the late Tom Shales’ Live From New York, seemingly voicing frustration with the tools given to the writers.

A Pop Culture Transformation

In Michaels’ defense, 1985 was a moment of pop culture transformation. MTV was a force and the world’s biggest movie stars were Murphy, Michael J. Fox, and the teens from The Breakfast Club

You can question the players Michaels chose, but his fascination with the youth movement, and the so-called “Brat Pack” that was born from it, made sense. So the show’s 11th season, which premiered on November 9, 1985, kicked off with 17-year-old Anthony Michael Hall and his Weird Science co-star, Robert Downey Jr., in prominent roles.

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Joan Cusack and comedians Damon Wayans and Jon Lovitz rounded out the twenty-something side of the cast. The slightly more seasoned Terry Sweeney, Nora Dunn, Danitra Vance (who told The New York Times that she’d taken a leave of absence from her job at Bloomingdale’s for the show), Dennis Miller, and character actor Randy Quaid (who had received an Oscar nod for his role in 1974’s The Last Detail) rounded things out.

Quaid, who had appeared as a co-host on an episode of The New Show, was the first person cast and even helped with auditions.

Once the season started, critics eviscerated the show. Los Angeles Times critic Howard Rosenberg proclaimed that the show was, “more than desperately unfunny, it’s merely desperate.” He bemoaned the loss of Crystal from the cast and expressed his disappointment in the show’s writers.

Unsurprisingly, Michaels defended this new, still-evolving vision, telling The New York Times in December 1985, “I made a very conscious decision that rather than continue to preach to the converted, I would try to redefine it as an ’80s show and let a new generation create it in its own image.”

The article was titled, “Struggles At The New Saturday Night,” and featured a bunch of criticism from inside Michaels’ team, with returned writer Michael O’Donoghue saying, “It’s like watching old men die. It’s sad, sluggish, old, witless, and very disturbing. It lacks intelligence and it lacks heart. And if I were grading it, I’d have to give it an F.”

They were barely a month in. 

Reconsidering the Criticism

While some of the criticisms were fair, the season fares better upon revisitation. Lovitz, for one, became a star even if he’d eventually be overshadowed in later years. A catchphrase guy in the great SNL tradition, he had even booked a movie around his liar character.

Interestingly, Lovitz’s rookie season actually could have gone better had he kept the job originally planned for him: anchoring “Weekend Update,” and possibly depriving us of Dennis Miller-isms like, “I don’t think I’ve seen choreography that stiff since the Lee Harvey Oswald prison transfer.”

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Miller was made for that desk and he proved it from the jump, flashing gargantuan command and endless snark reserves. Still, the thought of Lovitz in the chair presents one of the ‘80s SNL era’s most interesting “What if?” questions.

Michaels wasn’t afraid to make bold moves, like approving a Robert Smigel sketch in the season finale that trapped most of the cast in a fire as a cliffhanger or letting Francis Ford Coppola take over the show for an episode (which is a must-watch for comedy anthropologists).

But with risk came overindulgence. In one of SNL‘s weirdest moments, Robert Downey Jr. gives an overly passionate monologue while trapped in a suitcase, delivering the line, “I know why whales beach themselves—Spider-Man told me!” (Looking back on it now, this could be considered his official MCU debut.)

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For what it’s worth, while Downey Jr. was a forgettable cast member, he saw value in the experience, telling Sam Jones, “I learned so much in that year about what I wasn’t,” citing his inability to generate catchphrases or do impressions.

Hall echoed Downey’s message when talking with The Independent in 2021, saying, “I’m grateful for the experience, but I didn’t have a breakout season.”

In 2000, Cusack told NPR’s Terry Gross that she was miserable while on SNL, though she noted that she appreciated having done the show for the confidence it gave her. 

While NBC stood behind the show without too much interference, at the end of the season, the network found itself more closely aligned with SNL‘s detractors. They contemplated canceling the show altogether but reconsidered due to their faith in Michaels’ ability to turn the ship around, according to then-NBC exec Warren Littlefield in Live From New York. It was one of a few times where SNL narrowly escaped death. 

So, what was Season 11 of SNL? A failed experiment aimed at getting younger viewers and a needed nudge to get back to the show’s roots in terms of how it built its talent roster? Maybe, but if there’s an enduring knock on SNL, it’s that it’s frequently criticized for being in danger of falling out of touch and that they don’t experiment enough. 

Season 11 was not a success by any metric, and it underutilized some pretty outstanding actors and comics. You could write 2,000 words alone on how the show never gave Cusack enough of a chance to tap into her abundant talent as a comedic actress and all they lost out on by sidelining and then firing In Living Color legend Damon Wayans after he switched characters mid-scene.

Saturday Night Live‘s 1985-1986 season was more interesting than it was funny, but is less of a blight than it’s often framed. Looking back now, the SNL “Brat Pack” year had value.

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