‘SNL’ star Tim Kazurinsky relives the classic Eddie Murphy-hosted 1982 Christmas episode
Live from Illinois… it’s Tim Kazurinsky! Forty years ago, the former Not Ready for Primetime Player helped give Saturday Night Live fans the gift of what’s arguably the show’s most famous Christmas episode ever. Airing on Dec. 11, 1982, that evening’s festivities were supposed to be hosted by Nick Nolte, who had just starred opposite breakout SNL star Eddie Murphy in Walter Hill’s hit action comedy 48 Hrs. But Nolte had to bow out, and Murphy took over emcee duties — the first and still only time that a current member of the cast doubled as the host.
“We found out about Nick on Monday morning,” Kazurinsky tells Yahoo Entertainment on the phone from his home in Evanston, just outside of Chicago. At the time, the story given to the viewing public was that the actor was too sick to fulfill his hosting duties. But Kazurinsky now says Nolte’s illness wasn’t viral in nature. “He went into detox, which is why he couldn’t do the show,” he recalls. “He was a hopeless alcoholic, which is not a surprise to anyone anymore! So [then-SNL producer] Dick Ebersol said, ‘We’re gonna have Eddie host the show.’ And the rest of us were like: ‘Why the hell not?!'”
Murphy’s meteoric rise from SNL featured player to cast member/host had started two years earlier, when he made his first appearance on a Nov. 22, 1980 episode that one of its own writers called the “nadir” of the show. By 1982, he was the star attraction in Studio 8H and the success of 48 Hrs. sent him even further into the stratosphere. Murphy cheekily acknowledged the career glow-up in the Christmas episode’s cold open. “Live from New York… it’s The Eddie Murphy Show!” he boasted with a grin.
According to Kazurinsky — who joined SNL in 1981 as a writer and performer, and went on to have a scene-stealing role in the Police Academy franchise — the rest of the cast didn’t take that joke personally. “Eddie was a really sweet kid, and very generous,” he says. “He was always telling the producers, ‘I’m in the show too much!’ He was not greedy in that way. And we were grateful to have Eddie, because the show was losing sponsors at that time. Eddie was our golden ticket, so we were happy to have him host.”
SNL‘s ’82 Christmas episode, isn’t the only Yuletide anniversary that Kazurinsky is celebrating this year. Ten years ago, the actor and writer had a small, but memorable role in Scrooge & Marley, a 2012 re-telling of the Charles Dickens classic A Christmas Carol that took place in the present day and recast Ebenezer Scrooge (played by David Pevsner) as a contemporary gay man who re-connects with the spirit of the season with the aid of three actual spirits. Kazurinsky plays Scrooge’s former colleague, Jacob Marley, who sets him on his nightmarish nighttime journey.
“I really had a blast doing it,” he says of the low budget production, which was shot in the Chicago area and features many actors from the city’s vibrant theater scene. Kazurinsky was particularly excited by the overt embrace of LGBTQ themes that directors Richard Knight Jr. and Peter Neville brought to the original text. “That was sort of radical and innovative ten years ago,” admits Kazurinsky, who is married to fellow Chicago stage performer, Marcia Lynn Watkins. “People would ask me, ‘Are you gay?’ I’d say, ‘No,’ and they’d say, ‘Then why’d you do it?’ And I always said: ‘Well, you know, it’s Charles Dickens — it’s a pretty great story!'”
In a lively interview, Kazurinsky opened up about his turbulent childhood in Australia, where he moved with his family at a young age; the jokes you could never tell on today’s SNL; and why Police Academy is one of the few ’80s franchises that probably won’t get a reboot.
I’ve seen a lot of versions of A Christmas Carol, and Marley always seems like the most fun character to play. Was that your experience?
It was great fun! I was acting in a production of Hairspray at the time, and there was this one crazy day where the were electrical failures on set, and I had to be at the theater by 7:30. The filmmakers were begging me to stay, and we got the scene, but when I left I was still in full Marley make-up with peeling latex skin and everything! I had to drive to the theater at 90 miles an hour with all that crazy makeup on. I looked like a zombie! When I got there, the rest of the Hairspray cast had to help peel the latex off of my face and help me get dressed. I made it onstage with just two minutes to spare. So it was a wild time, but really fun to do.
Do you have any aspirations to play Scrooge now that you’ve played Marley?
You know, I’m age-appropriate for Scrooge now. [Laughs] But I’m not sure I can memorize all those lines; it’s been awhile since I’ve had to memorize an entire script. I’m 73, so I’ve been wondering about that. I don’t know if we’ll ever find out.
A Christmas Carol is a classic for a reason — what’s always been your favorite part of the story?
What I’ve always loved the most about it is Tiny Tim, and not just because my name is Tim! I remember being indigent and poor when I was young. When I was six, I spent a year in an orphanage in Australia. So I’ve always really identified with Tiny Tim.
Why were you in an orphanage?
I grew up in Australia until I was 16, and my mother had a nervous breakdown while we were there. All five kids ended up in an orphanage, and we were there for an entire year before she got out [of the hospital]. It left a mark, as they say. That’s always been my link to Tiny Tim: I’m like, “They have to take care of that boy!”
My kids are always on me to write down the story of my crazy life and crazy journey, because it’s pretty wild. I also ended up with an ulcer when I was 14. My doctor said, “Your parents are drunks, so you’ve gotta get out of the house as soon as you can.” Back then, they thought ulcers were caused by stress, but they are actually caused by bacteria! But I was thankful for his advice, because I quit school, got a job and when I turned 16, I ran off to America.
America has been very good to me: I’ve led a charmed life since I got here. I started as a reporter in Pennsylvania, and then an ad man at [the advertising agencies] Leo Burnett and McCann Erickson. I actually went to Second City in Chicago to get over my fear of presenting my TV commercials to the heads of the agency. A year later, Second City offered me a job for an 80% pay cut, and I said, “I’d be a fool to pass up this opportunity.” [Laughs]
So I went to Second City and loved and three years later, I ended up on Saturday Night Live. I’m one of the few people that never auditioned for the show, because John Belushi told Dick Ebersol to take a look at me onstage in Chicago. I didn’t even know that until months later! Dick told me that John had recommended me.
You joined the show at an interesting time, because Lorne Michaels had just left and the original cast members were also all gone.
Yeah, Ebersol had just taken over and he never gets enough credit for keeping the show alive for the next five years. And then when Lorne came back, he never re-ran any of our episodes. I know that, because I never made a nickel on them. I thought I would be able to put my kids through college with the residuals, but they never came. [Laughs]
I thought I’d been hired as a writer, until Ebersol asked me: “Do you have your AFTRA card? Everyone in the cast has to have one.” I told him, “You hired me as a cast member?” And he said, “Why did you think I hired you?” I had never even thought of myself as an actor at that point, because Second City was like writing on your feet. So it was really a shock to me to be performing on the show.
Jumping to the 1982 Christmas episode, you appear in a bunch of sketches, starting with the Nutcracker ballet one where Joe Piscopo assumes the dancers are blind, but it turns out they’re just terrible dancers. You take a tumble off the stage in that sketch — were you afraid of injuring yourself?
Oh no, not at all. I thought: “If Chevy Chase can take falls, why the hell can’t I?” [Laughs] That one was fun to do, because I stuffed my leotard with two pairs of socks. I thought that somebody was gonna make me take them out! But I had the biggest balls in my leotard, and I’m sure crew was like, “Is that all him?” I got away with it, but it makes me laugh whenever I think about it. I was sure the wardrobe was going to make me take the socks out of my crotch.
One of your recurring characters was Dr. Jack Badofsky, who would pop up on “Saturday Night News” — the temporary replacement for “Weekend Update” — and make terrible puns. Was that a role you were fond of playing?
Oh, extremely. I named him after a friend of mine: the real Jack Badofsky was the head of an ad agency in Chicago. He hired me to do voiceovers, because he liked talking with me and would make all of these terrible puns. I did the character at Second City first, and I named the character after him, because he was the worst punster I knew. It turned out he was flattered — it was the crowning glory of his career! He loved to impress his friends and his son with the fact that he had a character on SNL named after him.
I’m also a hopeless punster, so I loved doing those skits. I remember Ebersol coming up to me one time and saying: “We should cut out these three puns because they didn’t get a laugh.” I said, “Dick, they weren’t supposed to get a laugh! I wanted the audience to go into groaner mode, and then hit them with a good one.” And he was like: “OK, I’ll shut the f*** up and leave you alone.” After that, he kind of let me do my own thing.
In the Christmas episode, he makes some pretty politically incorrect puns out of the names of classic Christmas carols at the expense of Africans and gay people. Could SNL get away with any of those jokes now?
Oh god, I don’t even remember doing those! You know, I also used to play this Indian guru on the show, and I’d do an Indian accent. I did four or five of those sketches, but I never caught any heat for that. I think I played a Puerto Rican one time. It never entered our conscious at that time. I was looking at some Monty Python stuff recently and there’s one sketch about Australian wines where Eric Idle compared one wine to an “aboriginal’s armpit.” I was like, “That’s so crude!” I realized how much things have changed. It should have been unacceptable then, and certainly now it would be like: “Oh my god.”
You’re also in one of the last sketches of the night where you, Eddie Murphy and Mary Gross are a family of herpes living in someone’s body. Was that an homage to the sperm sketch from Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex?
It probably was inspired by that — it’s certainly chronologically appropriate. And who hasn’t stolen from Woody Allen at some point? Well… not so much anymore. You know, sometimes imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and sometimes it’s just theft. [Laughs]
You play Eddie’s son in that sketch, and it’s so fun to watch you interact with him: you’re jumping on his back and just hanging all over him. Were you good friends off-camera?
I loved Eddie and I think Eddie liked me, because I would always tell him the truth. I think he respected that when people were falling all over themselves to please him. There was one occasion where I wrote this sketch inviting people to send in postcards asking for Martin Luther King’s birthday to become a national holiday. I had Eddie read it, and perform it on “Saturday Night News.” In the dress rehearsal, he came down and had on a leather jacket and a bunch of chains and performed it sort of angrily. I kind of snapped and went “No, no Eddie. What are you thinking? This is Martin Luther King — you’ve gotta put on a suit and do it straight!”
He didn’t yell back or anything. He just said, “You’re right — that’s the way to go.” And then he did it so magically and wonderfully. I always tried to level with him, because he was so young and having such success that young can turn a kid’s head. But he remained a really nice guy and shared his talent and the spotlight with the rest of the cast. I really appreciated that!
You mentioned that you were surprised to join the show as a writer and a performer. Was there a point in your career where you felt you were doing one more than the other?
By the time I left SNL in 1984, I had been working for years on adapting David Mamet’s play Sexual Perversity in Chicago into a film, and it was finally shot in 1986 [as About Last Night]. I think my having been on SNL helped that get made. And I was also in three Police Academy movies because of my SNL connection. [Kazurinsky appeared in the second, third and fourth Police Academy films between 1985 and 1987.] But after those movies, I was married with kids and realized I didn’t want to leave Chicago. So I transitioned into being a screenwriter, which I did for the next twenty years before I started doing more stage acting.
But thank god for those Police Academy movies! Two other SNL writers, Barry Blaustein and David Sheffield, wrote the second one [1985’s Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment] and I was on my honeymoon when they called my representative and asked if I could do a day on the movie as a lamp store owner, Carl Sweetchuck. They were friends, so I said yes. And then on the day I shot, they fired the original director, and brought in Jerry Paris. He said: “I like the gang leader and the lamp store owner. Keep him around.” [The gang leader was Zed, played by Bobcat Goldthwait.]
So six weeks later, I was still there! [Laughs] Whenever we were on set, Jerry would come over to Bobcat and I and say things like: “OK, we’re in a supermarket today. What do you guys want to do?” He encouraged us to improvise and asked for our ideas and input. With Police Academy 3: Back in Training, Zed and Carl ended up joining the police academy and I was very grateful for that. Those movies ended up paying for my house!
Police Academy 4: Citizens on Patrol had its 35th anniversary this year. That one has a really crazy plot, with the cops training the public how to do police work. That’s definitely a plot you couldn’t play for laughs now!
Oh yeah. [Laughs] But it was great fun to make. We shot the third and fourth movies up in Canada, and Bobcat and I ended up becoming good friends. He just moved out here, so I see him heaps now. We’re still best pals.
Two of your big gags in that movie are the bird that’s constantly pooping on you and then the ending where all of the cops are in airplanes and hot air balloons chasing after the bad guys. What do you remember about those scenes?
The bird stuff was done by a guy on a very precarious ladder dropping paste down on me. It took about two hours to get that sequence and I was constantly changing clothes after getting s*** on with this fake paste. The ladder was so shaky, and I was afraid that the guy was going to die while dumping poop my head! For the ending, I went up in a balloon a couple of times with my wife on set, but all of the plane stuff was done on the ground. I did run after the plane and jump on, but we never actually took off. That was all faked.
That was Steven Guttenberg’s final Police Academy movie and you and Bobcat didn’t return for the next one either. Did something happen behind the scenes?
Bobcat was kind of bad-mouthing the movies, calling them Police Lobotomies — something that he probably regrets to this day. But we weren’t invited back for the fifth one. I think they were a little miffed with Bob. But he’s done well — he’s a movie director now.
People have often speculated about whether or not the Police Academy franchise could be revived now given that policing is a very controversial subject. Do you think there’s a way to do it?
I’ve probably heard twenty different times that people are going to do another version of it, but nothing has ever survived. And I think after Rodney King and George Floyd, it would be really difficult to do something with wacky police and their relationship to diverse cultures. So I think that ship has sailed. The whole notion of a “gang comedy” with a lot of funny people in it is kind of gone now. I think they’d fly again if somebody made one. You get the right mix of people in it — a whole passel of crazies and not just a team — and I think it would still fly. Reno 911 had some of the same spirit as Police Academy.
Maybe you can Bobcat can bring them back!
That’s right! He’s made some wonderful movies. World’s Greatest Dad with Robin Williams is great. And I was in his first movie, Shakes the Clown, which he calls the Citizen Kane of alcoholic clown movies. I played the dad at the first birthday party, and he was supposed to slap my face, but wouldn’t. He said, “I can’t hit you!” And I told him: “John Belushi made me punch him in the belly when we made Neighbors. If John Belushi can do it, I can take it so just slap me for God’s sake!” So he did, and it worked! [Laughs]