Shave, select clothes that will be seen across the nation tonight – and I think that’s probably the last time today that I consciously stop and think about the awesome accessibility of TV. The number of homes all over America who will be looking at me, tonight, in these jeans I’m just hauling myself into. The number of friends whom I may never see again, who will see me, after their dinner party, or as they row, or because they can’t sleep. The number of film stars I idolise, sports heroes, ex-Presidents of the World Bank, Watergate conspirators (Dean), authors I’m reading at the moment (Bellow), boxers, test pilots, Mick Jaggers, Senators, Congressmen, criminals, who may be looking at this shirt, or these white sneakers, before this day is out, is a thought too colossal to comprehend.
So I don’t. I get going. My philosophy of the day is that this is a cabaret. And the words are all on cards.
To the studio around lunchtime. Almost the first person I see is John Belushi – he is a regular member of the team and probably the best- known now Chevy Chase has left. He has flown in overnight from LA, where he has been working on a movie, and he returns tomorrow.
The Chilites dance routine does not please Lorne and is cut just before the dress rehearsal. ‘You’ll thank me in years to come,’ says Lorne. I’m thanking him now.
My main worry centres around a Sherlock Holmes sketch which is not just a rather long one joke item, but which requires a certain amount of playing and elaborate use of cue-cards. I find it hard and unrewarding work. Lorne said yesterday that it’s a sketch which will not work until the show. Brave words.
We still have sketches unblocked when the audience come in for a full-house dress rehearsal at 7.30. For the first time today I feel nervous.
At eight we roll – the cold opening – an encouragingly funny retrospective look at the Academy Awards with Vanessa Redgrave (Jane Curtin) introducing a splendid Yasser Arafat from Belushi. Then titles – my name in lights on an electric billboard in Times Square (oh, Lorne the showman), the cast and then the rich, trusty tones of announcer Don Pardo – ‘Your host for tonight … Michael Palin.’
This is the moment of truth. For the next five or six minutes it’s just me. The monologue goes averagely. The show speeds on – no major boobs, but a poor audience. However, I appreciated the psychological boost of a full-audience dress rehearsal. Most of the terrors are gone now. From now on there’s no time to think.
First there is a meeting of technical staff in Lorne’s office. Briskly, but unhastily, Lorne runs through the show. Two sketches disappear altogether. ‘Holmes’ is still there and didn’t go too well at dress. Lorne remains confident. Writers are sent scurrying off to rewrite material. By 10.15 a smart, new, typed running order is issued. Decisions on material that have taken three days of the week are reversed or replaced by other decisions in the space of 30 minutes.
Then to the dressing room – and Nancy and Al Lev and telegrams from Terry and Eric – ‘Please Stay In America’ – and into the wonderful, baggy, shiny grey suit with the specially protective cat lining in front. It could be a Python recording. I feel strangely and completely at home as 11.30 nears. I’m moved into position by Joe Dicso, the dependable, refreshingly un-camp floor manager, and at 11.30 we’re off. The cold opening, the big build-up – ‘And now your host …’ – and out I go – into America.
A warm reception, the monologue intrigues them, but I can’t wait to get to the dance with the cats and sea-food salad. All is going well, but the cats have stage fright and, as I gyrate and at the same time try and coax these pussies into my trousers, I become aware of a frightful smell, and a warm, brown mess all down my arm. Even as I am grinning manically and pushing it down, the cat is shitting more violently. I can’t hear the audience reaction above the band, but I know that the worst is happening. This is going to be tele-embarrassment on a monumental scale.
The offending cat leapt away, and I was left stroking the other one’s little marmalade head as it peeked out of my trousers. I caught sight of myself on the monitor and it looked nightmarishly obscene. But the red light of the camera shone unblinkingly at me – revealing to the entire US a man who looked as if he was masturbating with an arm covered in shit. Awful. An awful, monumentally awful, moment.
No time after it to stop, think, question – I had to run into a one- minute costume change (the show could never work without commercial breaks) to become an RC priest in a confessional. I reached the confessional with five seconds to spare, slid back the partition and suddenly realised my arm was still stained with cat nerves. In a split second I changed arms – which must have greatly thrown the director – and the stink in the cramped little confessional grew by the minute.
Even after the confessional there was no time for the scrub I needed, for I had to be raced the length of the studio, tearing off my soutane as I rocketed through the audience, in order to make a change into a Very Famous Actor. This time I was locked in a trunk with my smell.
Half an hour of high-pressure insanity had gone by before I was able to stop and think and gauge reactions to the hideous occurrences during the opening monologue. Lorne, who was on the floor throughout the taping, was the first to try and convince me that the opening had been hilarious – and I realised that nobody knew the hell of embarrassment I’d been through. After all, you can’t smell on TV and the camera was never close on my arm – and anyway, it all looked like sea-food salad. No … it was great, they all said.
The ‘Holmes’ sketch came to life – or as much life as it’ll ever come to – which was especially rewarding as we approached one o’clock. Lorne was cutting and changing and reshaping even as we were on the air, and we lost a sketch before one, and the farewells and thank yous and it was all over.
Nancy had a huge magnum of champagne ready, but I hardly had time to drink any. Many congratulations, but I think mainly just the joy of relief – of having done it. Completed this ‘dangerous’ show, as Lorne called it. ‘Come and meet a fan’, I was asked, and rushed from my champagne, which everyone else was drinking anyway, to meet a scrawny, freckled youth in loose clothes, who was introduced as Jeff Carter, the President’s son.
Up to Lorne’s office to see the tape. It did look monstrously funny. Bill Murray thought it was the best show this year. Everyone very happy.