In our most recent episode, we mentioned the Saturday Night Live sketch "The Black Shadow," a bit sending up the "social relevance" angle of The White Shadow. The entire episode (Season 5, episode 3) is available on Hulu and is recommended as another reaction to the series.
SNL could be pretty clever about sending up race relations in those days, but it could also be pretty clumsy. This segment is in the series weird fifth season, in which some of the original cast remained, but Belushi and Aykroyd were mostly absent, Bill Murray became the foundation of the program, and featured players like Paul Shaffer and writers Al Franken and Tom Davis were constantly featured out of necessity. So with the show's depth lacking, poor Garrett Morris must have wondered why the hell it took bringing on a black guest host--not even an actor, mind you, but an NBA player--to do these kinds of sketches while he languished in drag roles or in unimportant exposition-type parts.
Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell had made various guest appearances on TV in the 1970s, but nothing like hosting SNL. It's an odd fit considering the contentious relationship he had with the media. At this time, in 1979, he was out of the game, having coached Seattle for several years after leaving the Celtics franchise.
"The Black Shadow" begins with Russell as a basketball coach addressing his all-white team after a big loss, defending his decision to play only 3 guys on the court at once. The guys accuse him of betting against them to get money for his drug habit, and he accuses THEM of saying that because he's black!
A voice-over introduces us to The Black Shadow: "Black coach, white team. He gets in trouble; they bail him out." Meanwhile, Russell sends his players to the showers, then goes through their lockers and takes stuff!
The offenses Russell's Coach Lewis has committed pile up: distributing pornography, assaulting a student, arson (!). We see a 15-year-old student (Laraine Newman) break up with him because he's too old, and he asks, "Is this because I'm black?" Another student (Gilda Radner), visibly pregnant with "Curtis Jr.," accosts him for support, and he brushes her off by saying he's too old for her.
When the team confronts him in the hallway after another missed practice, Coach Lewis says he had to take care of his sick mother, then walks off after telling them to leave him alone but not before offering pot, LSD, and hash to them. So the players decide to visit Mrs. Lewis to verify the story, and I'll give you one guess who plays her.
The segment pokes fun not only at The White Shadow, but at other TV shows that were set in schools and attempted to discuss "issues." A crawl at the end of the sketch notes the producers acknowledge their debt to the following programs: Mr. Novak, Lucas Tanner, Room 222, The Paper Chase, Welcome Back Kotter.
I think one of those shows is not like the other, and I also think that "The Black Shadow" uses the basketball framework of The White Shadow and utilizes Russell to hilarious effect, but it seems to be poking more fun at the other programs. The scene in the principal's office, with the well-meaning whites twisting themselves around trying to figure out how to save Coach Lewis, is a little more overwrought than the kind of well-meaning liberalism on the real White Shadow. Bill Murray's super-earnest teenager is funny but not really indicative of Coach Howard or his players.
I think this sketch is great, though, with a predictable but still funny punchline. Russell's awkwardness as a performer doesn't hurt any, even when he can't keep from chuckling at one of Radner's lines. Stick around for other sketches that are far more offensive to certain minority groups, as well as for the two performances by musical guest Chicago. Peter Cetera's growling vocals on "I'm a Man" are overshadowed by his sweet hairdo, and the big takeaway for me is how much it sucks that NBC/Universal only cleared music for the first 5 seasons, leaving us with butchered versions of every episode afterwards.