The Creator of Land Shark, the Only Thing Chevy Chase Couldn’t Screw Up, Has Died
Saturday Night Live really became the SNL we know today on its fourth show. The first few episodes were heavy on musical numbers and stand-up comedy (host George Carlin did multiple sets on the first-ever show). The Not Ready for Prime Time Players barely even appeared in the second episode hosted by Paul Simon — other than the open and Weekend Update, the show was practically all music. But episode four, hosted by Candice Bergen, cracked the code by leaning heavy into comedy. It was the first show where Chevy Chase did his bumbling Gerald Ford. The first Weekend Update that opened with “I’m Chevy Chase and you’re not.” But the cast's favorite sketch that night, according to Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live, was one in the middle of the show featuring Chase in a huge, foam-rubber shark’s head.
Ralph Lee, the legendary New York creator of masks and puppets including SNL’s breakthrough Land Shark character, passed away May 12th after a long illness. He was 87. Lee designed imaginative creations for parades, Off-Broadway shows, the New York Shakespeare Festival, the Joffrey Ballet and the Metropolitan Opera. But his most famous mask was the Land Shark, an SNL recurring character who made a regular habit of devouring Gilda Radner, Laraine Newman and Jane Curtin.
“People still know about that shark,” Lee told The Post-Star of Glens Falls in 2003. “For many people, it is my claim to fame. When I was making it, I thought it would get used once and shucked.”
Instead, the shark head stuck around and made an impression on future cast members like Maya Rudolph. “My mom was Minnie Riperton. She died in ’79. I remember crawling in bed with both my parents and seeing the Land Shark,” Rudolph says in Live From New York: The Complete Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live. “I know my mom was around when I was watching that show. Somehow I was obsessed with it.”
For other future cast members, getting acquainted with Land Shark was a dream come true:
In a 1998 interview with the New York Times, Lee said he knew creative work can be ephemeral, but he hoped for more. “The sculptor in me wants to be immortalized in his work,” he explained. “I think I always had the urge to build things for eternity.” Maybe it didn’t turn out exactly the way Lee envisioned, but as long as there are comedy fans on YouTube, his work will live on in the form of a foam-rubber shark delivering phony candygrams.