40 Years Ago: ‘Fridays’ Stumbles to an Unfortunate End
Fridays was meant to be a looser, edgier alternative to Saturday Night Live. Its political satire had more biting wit, and its musical guests had more zeitgeist-shifting currency. The sketch-comedy program was also uniquely positioned to push the envelope within a late-night time slot.
But not at the end.
The final episode of ABC's Fridays aired in prime-time on April 23, 1982, doomed to a graveyard spot opposite the soapy hit drama Dallas. There was no live musical guest. Instead, the last show included the "video premiere" of Paul McCartney's decidedly unhip new duet with Stevie Wonder.
Fridays had once embraced nervy emerging acts like Devo, the Cars, Plasmatics and Split Enz. The Clash and Stray Cats made their American television debuts on the program. That's a far cry from "Ebony and Ivory."
Precious few viewers bothered to switch over while Sue Ellen moved to end her marriage to the scheming J.R. Ewing. Those who did couldn't have been happy to learn that the last Fridays didn't even properly feature cast member John Roarke's then-popular impersonation of Ronald Reagan. (He was seen only briefly during a spoof advertisement for "Federalism Express.")
It was just another opportunity lost for a snakebit show.
Fridays arrived in 1980 just as Saturday Night Live was transitioning away from the original "Not Ready for Prime Time" cast, but still never escaped its lengthy shadow. Talents like Larry David, Rich Hall and Michael Richards would have to go elsewhere to find the successes they deserved.
"Michael was wonderful on the show," cast member Melanie Chartoff told L.A. Weekly in 2013, "and Larry David was distinguishing himself as a writer – but I also think he was a very good character comedian. Larry was a very sweet guy. We were like brother and sister then. He didn't have that misanthropic Curb Your Enthusiasm persona we all know now."
Watch the Clash Perform on 'Fridays'
Some elements were simply too close to the Saturday Night Live template, like the parody-news segment called Friday Edition that Hall would ultimately cohost. Writer and producer Jack Burns even began every episode by intoning, "Live, from the Los Angeles Basin ... it's Fridays!"
At the same time, however, early attempts at standing out could be clumsy and unamusing. The writers too often resorted to shock humor, and some of the skits felt frankly unfinished. They tried stunts that were so unhinged that arguments over whether they were real continued for decades.
Even legitimate elements that differentiated the program from SNL – like eschewing a guest host – were ultimately abandoned. (George Carlin was the first guest host on both shows.)
Luckily for Fridays, however, SNL was in shambles. Its early stars left, followed by creator Lorne Michaels. Meanwhile, the Fridays cast was beginning to gel, and the scripts became more focused.
"I think the writers figured out how to write for us, and they learned how to write to our strengths," Chartoff said. "By the third year, I think we'd hit our stride."
Then ABC decided to expand Ted Koppel's popular Nightline news program to five evenings a week, pushing Fridays to midnight.
Watch Stray Cats Perform on 'Fridays'
Viewers stayed away in droves. "The ratings are just going down, down, down," Fridays director John Moffitt later lamented, "and they just called us in one day and said it was losing money."
Someone at ABC decided that a prime-time special might turn things around. The final nail was hammered in the coffin.
Rather than a buzzy guest like Carlin, the finale featured Marty Feldman and William Shatner – the latter of whom was on hand, as The Washington Post writer Tom Shales noted, only to plug his "wretched ABC series T.J. Hooker." The best moment was as brief as it was telling: A parody of the film Chariots of Fire found a trio of runners again moving in dramatic slow motion while everyone else dashed by at their normal pace.
To critics like Shales, Fridays remained a "fanatically low-rated rip-off of Saturday Night Live" until the bitter end. Reviewing the prime-time special, he said, "Surely six of the most dispiriting words in television are: 'Fridays will continue in a moment.'"
It didn't. The prime-time special marked the 58th and final episode of Fridays.
Ironically, Hall left for SNL after Fridays folded, as did David. (Shales praised Hall's "knack for the whimsically offbeat ... but he sticks out like a whole fistful of sore thumbs in the surroundings of this show.") David and Richards then found much wider fame on Seinfeld, while Hall's turn on Not Necessarily the News briefly popularized the "sniglet."
"I wish we'd been on longer," producer John Moffitt said. "I think we would have gotten better and I would love to have had a couple of people break out from our show rather than later on. I think if we were on another year. Michael Richards would have broken out. Maybe Larry David would have broken out. Maybe somebody else would have broken out."