Every Saturday Night Live needs a Jane Curtin. Calling the original Not Ready For Prime Time Player a straight-woman doesn’t do the two-time Emmy-winner justice, because while Curtin was, indeed, peerless at displaying icy disdain at the antics of Roseanne Roseannadanna, Irwin Mainway, Emily Litella, the actual John Belushi, and an occasional monkey, she was also damned funny. The former Weekend Update anchor might have been the one sent to negotiate with the network because she was the one “normal-looking” one of the original group, but, as she’s shown in a long career of perpetually solid character TV work alongside the likes of your John Lithgows, every loose cannon comedy performer needs a structurally impeccable wall to blast away at.
Not that Curtin’s professionalism saved her when Saturday Night Live went to Mardi Gras that time. Telling whipper-snapper Update heir Meyers about producer Lorne Michaels’ infamously doomed bright idea to take the second-season SNL superstars to New Orleans for a two-hour live show right from the drunken, vomiting, boundary-less heart of Mardi Gras, Curtin deadpanned, “It was such a good idea. The planning that was involved was so meticulous—I mean, every minute was counted for.” Look, it was 1977, SNL and its cast were rock stars, and—as recounted by everyone involved in the show with half-embarrassed hindsight—there were a lot of drugs in the mix. (although not for Jane.) So why not turn the country’s favorite, groundbreaking live TV sketch phenomenon into an all-out extravaganza of recurring characters and similarly hot guests (Henry Winkler! Laverne and Shirley! Um, Randy Newman!), all mingling with the fine people of New Orleans.
Well, as anybody who’s read about the eventual debacle knows (Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad’s seminal backstage history Saturday Night is a good place to start), they’re not going to be doing anything like that again, much to Meyers’ effusive relief. Curtin told Meyers about how the cast—even notoriously bacchic Belushi—were quickly overwhelmed by the almost complete lack of on-site security, especially when she and early friend of the show Buck Henry found themselves perched upon a rickety scaffolding looking down on a sea of drunken revelers. Make that increasingly furious drunken revelers, who—assuming that SNL’s presence was responsible for delaying the parade Curtin and Henry were there to preside over—commenced pelting the pair with anything (bottles, pee-balloons, probably worse) they could get their boozy hands on. If you want to see Curtin’s heroic effort to maintain amidst the unending barrage, the never-re-aired special is included on the season two SNL boxed set. (Present-day Jane deftly acted out her debris-dodging camera skills.)
Thankfully, according to Curtin—who can laugh about it now, sort-of—a pair of potbellied, very retired New Orleans cops eventually showed up to literally hoist her and Henry onto their shoulders and bull-rush their way through the some 50,000 handsy revelers. (Indeed, Curtin references the fact that fellow SNL women Gilda Radner and Laraine Newman had it even worse—again, Hill and Weingrad’s book details just how genuinely dangerous Michaels’ boondoggle turned out to be.) After all that, the now 72-year-old Curtin (there to promote her new series United We Fall), told Meyers that going back to Studio 8H for the show’s 2015 40th anniversary special was a dawdle. As the too-sane-for-SNL star put it of her tumultuous time in the Saturday Night Live comedy mines, “The scary part of 8H was getting out.”