The late Milton Berle was a TV legend who owes an unlikely debt of gratitude to Steven Seagal. If it wasn’t for the humorless action star’s horrific hosting turn on Saturday Night Live in 1991, it might be the man once known as Mr. Television who’d be remembered as the worst host in the show’s history.
It’s not hard to understand why Lorne Michaels booked the guy. In the early days of television, Berle hosted the comedy-variety show Texaco Star Theater, a Tuesday night powerhouse that garnered as much as 97 percent of the viewing audience. His show was so dang popular that some restaurants and theaters would shut it down for the night when Berle was on — they just couldn’t compete. After Texaco Star Theater debuted in 1948, television sales doubled the following year. No wonder they called him Mr. Television.
But when Berle showed up to host SNL in 1979, it had been 30 years since the comic’s peak. Problem is, no one told Berle. “He came in,” said an SNL writer in Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live, “with the attitude ‘I am TV.’ Not ‘I used to be TV,’ but ‘I am TV.’”
The irritation started right away at the Monday writers’ meeting, with Berle pitching ideas prefaced by the warning, “Now this might be over your heads.” He called everyone “Booby.” During rehearsals, he shamelessly mugged for the camera — crucial in 1948 when broadcast reception was lousy but way over the top in 1979.
John Belushi and Chevy Chase idolized Berle from their childhoods and cut the aging star some slack. Belushi even laid into the show’s writers: “You guys are writing shit for this great man!” The writers disagreed: It was Berle’s mugging that ruined their scripts.
Of course, no Berle saga is complete without tales of his famously large appendage. “I was sent to Uncle Miltie’s dressing room between dress and air to deliver this one simple note, which was: Do not go overboard on the spit takes,” writer Rosie Shuster said in the SNL oral history Live From New York. “He was pacing around in his boxer shorts, very proud to parade in his shorts in front of me. Thank God they weren’t briefs, because it was already too much information.”
Things were much worse for writer Alan Zweibel, who confessed to Berle that he’d heard about the comic’s legendary manhood. “You mean you never saw it?” asked Berle. Before Zweibel could protest, Berle “parts his bathrobe and he just takes out this — this anaconda. … It was enormous. It was like a pepperoni. And he goes, ‘What do you think of the boy?’”
Anyway, as for the show, the monologue showed off the worst of Berle the performer. His jokes weren’t only corny but kinda, sorta racist, with the comic getting off a good one about 44 Puerto Ricans injured in a crash after “the bed broke.”
Finally, before the end of the show, Berle told Lorne Michaels, “Don’t worry about a thing, the standing ovation is all arranged.” Uh-oh. Berle closed with the sappy, sentimental “September Song,” and Michaels remembers the cringe. “I swear to God there were 10 people, which was the number of seats he had, who stood up in the balcony. The only time it’s ever happened. I was quite clear in the booth about not cutting to it.”
And yet somehow, Seagal was still worse.