Everything good gets ripped off eventually, and so it was that in 1980, ABC began airing Fridays, an irreverant sketch comedy show remarkably similar to Saturday Night Live. Fridays was a critical flop and didn't survive for long, but it built a cult following, exposed us to some great music, and played unwitting host to one of the greatest TV pranks of all time.

Fridays' format was lifted shamelessly from SNL: A cold opening, a fake newscast halfway through the show, a musical guest with two (sometimes three) appearances, a 90-minute time slot. The primary difference was Fridays' emcee, the aging Jack Burns, who replaced SNL's opening monologue with a "Let's get ready to rumble" diatribe to rev up the crowd.

Fridays lasted three seasons. The cast:

There's lots of nostalgia today for the show, and people reflect about how great it was -- which puzzles me, because I recall it being just terrible. Forced, unfunny writing; desperate attempts at developing catch phrases; and just plain bad acting, especially from Blankfield, who tried hard to be a physical comedian but lacks the aptitude for it. (His efforts continue to this day.) Emcee Burns came across an an aging, desperate square, a sad turn for a former partner of George Carlin (who I think hosted Fridays' debut, just as he'd done for SNL). And the show's Los Angeles location rang as phony as, well, Los Angeles.

That's not to say Fridays was all low points -- after all, I did watch the entire run, and not just because I was stuck at home with no driver's license:

  1. Some cast members were good. Chartoff and especially Roarke were decent actors, and Roarke was an expert mimic who impersonated Ronald Reagan like no other. Richards basically played Krameresque characters but often with a vicious streak -- very edgy. And you might recognize Larry David as the guy who co-created Seinfeld and later Curb Your Enthusiasm; he was just as detatched and cynical on Fridays but didn't always fit with the show's "pump up the volume" aesthetic.

  2. Some recurring sketches were excellent. Much as I disliked Blankfield, his pharmacist character was hilarious, taking essentially random drugs and saying "I can handle it!" while wigging out. Igus -- another mediocre actor -- scored big with his Rasta Chef, who would eventually smoke whatever he was supposed to be cooking. And I loved David and Mahler as crime-fighting kung-fu rabbis. You've seen Mahler as a rabbi on Seinfeld, by the way.

  3. The music was early '80s bliss. This show was my introduction to King Crimson, Split Enz and The Jam. They had Devo on at least twice and may have helped "Whip It" become a hit. And they arguably discovered Brian Setzer by hosting the Stray Cats before their albums were available in America. Even the lousy acts like The Plasmatics had a freshness that SNL's music would never regain.

  4. The Andy Kaufman incident. While I've painted the show as a copycat flop, it deserves praise for trying a lot of experimental ideas that just didn't gel. (Let me digress: One particularly prescient sketch presented Bob Balaban as a professional rhymer doing recitals for a dinner crowd: "Moon, spoon, June, dune ... and balloon, thank you very much!" Rap music hadn't hit the mainstream yet, and freestyle rap was a long way off. Probably by accident, Fridays presaged a major artistic movement.)

    Fridays' place in history was cemented when Andy Kaufman hosted on Feb. 20, 1981. Here's my recollection: In the show's final sketch, Kaufman was supposed to act stoned but instead froze up. "I can't do stoned," he mumbled repeatedly, looking embarrassed and scared. Cast members tried to walk him through his lines, but Kaufman continued to melt down. Finally, a fed up Richards walked offstage, grabbed the cue cards, and threw them in front of Kaufman in disgust. Humiliated, Kaufman exploded with anger, first throwing a glass of water at Richards, then charging him. Other cast and crew dove in to keep Kaufman and Richards from killing each other. Fridays cut to commercial, and (if memory serves) Kaufman and Richards were still in the background taunting each other when the show came back for signoff.

    The "experimental" part? It was fake. Kaufman's breakdown was planned, and Richards was in on it -- but the rest of the cast and most of the crew weren't. They all responded earnestly, first to Kaufman's apparent disintegration and then to the donnybrook. It was exactly the kind of weirdly manipulative performance Kaufman was famous for, and it's remembered as one of his greatest moments.

    Fridays actually beat SNL in the ratings duing its first season, but only because 1980 was the year Jean Doumanian ran SNL into the ground (see Charles Rocket). Critics lambasted Fridays from the beginning, and it wasn't long before the audience lost interest. Fridays' final episodes were aired during prime time in a last-ditch effort to win new viewers -- you can guess how well that worked.

    Few of the cast members went on to fame and fortune. David and Richards did, with Seinfeld, and they brought on Burrell, Mahler and Chartoff as guest stars. You can hear Chartoff's voice on Rugrats. Rich Hall went on to do SNL and Sniglets.

    One last piece of trivia: Fridays was created by John Moffit and Bill Lee, whose agent was Bernie Brillstein, and it was Brillstein who pitched the show to ABC. Problem was, Brillstein was also the agent for Lorne Michaels, creator of SNL -- who felt horribly betrayed that his own agent/mentor would create an SNL rip-off. They managed to stay friends, but it was probably quite awkward for a while.

    -- Nearly all of this is from memory, as I can't find reliable sources about the show. Corrections appreciated -- but I stand by my opinion that the show sucked. :-)
    -- Saturday Night by Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad, 1986
    -- http://andykaufman.jvlnet.com/fridays.htm: Andy Kaufman site with detailed description of the brawl
    -- The ubiquitous IMDb

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