Before Mandy. Before The Wicker Man. Before Face/Off. Hell, before Fast Times at Ridgemont High and anything else he did, Nicholas Cage appeared in this blast of odd, a failed TV pilot from 1981 that was supposed to be the Laugh-In for the video generation.
This absolute mess was directed by Don Mischer, who today is better known for being the master of big scale appointment TV. From Motown 25 to the Emmys, the Billboard Music Awards, Superbowls, the Academy Awards, the Kennedy Center Honors and more, Mischer is the go-to guy for these glitzy events. But before that, he was directing specials for Donna Summer, Barry Manilow and Goldie Hawn. Which makes sense, as he was also trying to get Laugh-In relaunched in 1977 and was part of the Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell that kept the SNL trademark name until it went off the air in just three episodes.
In addition to the future Nick “Kinski of the West Coast” Cage, here billed as Nicholas Coppola, we have one of my favorite actors ever, Crispin Glover as the wacky host of the show. There are moments where he acts ridiculous, such as dancing to a cassette of the Talking Heads — the music being played is notably not played by the Talking Heads but instead probably some library music — but he shows none of the undercurrent of menace that would soon inform so many of his characters.
Here where this gets really odd — the teenagers on the show play themselves, with even Glover’s real-life mom playing the voice of his show mom. However, the few adults in the show, such as Mr. O’Reilly, the owner of the store where everyone gathers, who is played by Jackie “I ruined Caddyshack 2” Mason. Actually, I kid. Everything ruined Caddyshack 2.
In addition to Cage and Glover, there’s Jill Schoelen — yes, from The Stepfather and Popcorn — playing the cute girl of the bunch, plus original Facts of Life cast member Julie Piekarski, future CSI writer David Rambo, Kevin Cortes, Lisa Hope Ross and rocking guitarist Janet Robin, who was actually a student of Randy Rhodes and was Jennifer Jason Leigh’s guitar coach for The Hateful Eight.
The show starts with Glover breaking the fourth wall and speaking right to the camera, somewhat awkwardly, about the plight of the kids in 1981: “Well, we’re all teenagers and we’re all treated as faceless members of this society. Our parents bug us at home, our teachers always hassle us at school, and when we drive, the cops are always on our backs. And everyone thinks you’re on dope! Well, I just want you to know that teenagers are woven into the fabric of American life, and, without us, there’s no future.”
There are plenty of these dialogue-heavy soliloquies that break up the show, which is somewhat episodic, somewhat bursts of sketches (again, think Laugh-In), such as a moment where Cage flexes for the camera and drops a heavy dose of reality on the show:
“But you don’t think there’s gonna be a war, do ya? I wish my dad wouldn’t talk about it all the time. My mom looks at me and starts to cry! And dad says the Army’ll make a man outta me. Look at that! Huh? I thought I was a man already.”
This wildly uneven collection of material continues with a moment discussing teen runaways that goes from upsetting to jokey to, well, upsetting again and then, there are musical numbers. That’s right — you haven’t lived until you’ve seen Nick Cage wearing overalls and no shirt singing the most soulless version of “9 to 5” ever committed to video. There’s also an equally milquetoast rendition of “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” just to cement the fact that this show is going to hit you with musical choices on the level of Cop Rock.
The Best of Times is a true oddity, but it’s also a pop culture time capsule of what Hollywood thought that youth culture was before MTV even rocketed into space just three weeks after this show aired for the first and only time.