Until last week it looked like Charlie Rocket had successfully completed a leap to network TV that Podunk newshounds only dream about. Eighteen months ago he co-anchored the weekend news for Nashville's WTVF, but lately, in a solemn-to-silly switch, he has been the deadpan host of Saturday Night Live's satirical "Weekend Update" and the revamped show's new primus inter parodist. There's only one flaw in this remarkable metamorphosis: Rocket's launch pad may be going up in smoke. Critics have regularly savaged the show, ratings have dropped by a third over last year, and last week NBC cataclysmically fired SNL's controversial producer and cast mentor, Jean Doumanian. "We knew the critics would be angry with us for having the audacity to replace the greats," shrugs Rocket, 31, of his baptism by ire. "It's hard."

Undeniably. Belushi, Aykroyd, Radner and crew—not to mention Beldar the Conehead—changed the history of TV in their five seasons. Although Rocket recently struck a nostalgically gauche spark—and riled the Moral Majority—by uttering a four-letter "gutter term" on camera, SNL now seems less irreverent than irrelevant. When Bill Murray became the first alumnus to return as guest host, the show improved—but not as much as ABC's once-clonish upstart, Fridays, which recently surpassed SNL in the ratings for the first time. By a bizarre coincidence, just before Doumanian was sacked both shows ran skits based on the movie Altered States. Fridays' was hilarious, SNL's ho-hum. So it was no wonder that frustrated and disappointed SNL cast members burst into tears when they heard the Doumanian news and that NBC had postponed the next four shows. The question now is whether SNL has a future at all.

Doumanian's replacement, Dick Ebersol, 33, who six years ago was NBC's youngest vice-president, was freed for SNL when NBC suddenly decided not to renew Midnight Special, which he produced, just three days before firing Doumanian. Ebersol wasted little time before starting to try to turn things around. The night he took over, he met from dinner right through to 7 a.m. with Lorne Michaels, SNL's departed wunderkind creator. Ebersol then told the cast that he wanted to restore SNL's "family" atmosphere. Ominously for Rocket, he also said the show needs a leading man. "I am thrilled to be part of SNL again," said Ebersol. "I can only hope to emulate the work of Lorne Michaels." Michaels, certainly, has made no secret of his view that Doumanian, despite her reported $16,000-per-week salary, was "just in over her head."

"My feeling is that Saturday Night came to mean something, and the new version apparently doesn't mean anything," laments Michaels, who points out that Doumanian, associate producer in his regime, was then principally responsible only for booking hosts and musical acts. "The job was important, but it had nothing to do with the spirit, the improvisation, what the show should be about." In his day, Michaels adds, "the writers and performers were a family, but Jean was never really a part of that group." Michaels also claims that some SNL veterans might have stayed after last season if Doumanian had handled the transition more delicately. "After Jean was named producer, all the staff received telegrams to vacate their offices," notes Michaels. "It could have been done with much more class." In rebuttal, Doumanian, a Woody Allen confidante, recalls that "the performers made it clear they couldn't wait to go on to something new...the writers all had three-picture movie deals."

Two new writers hired, and later fired, by Doumanian came away dismayed. "The going joke was that she was the Mark David Chapman of TV comedy," says one tastelessly. Another sacked scriptor, National Lampoon veteran Sean Kelly, found Jean's domain "like Stalag 17." Adds writer-composer Mason {Classical Gas) Williams, who was brought in for five weeks of script doctoring: "Jean's not a writer and not a performer. It's like an ad salesman running the network."

Doumanian retorts that her assailants just couldn't hack the show's furious production pace. "I equate their behavior with temper tantrums," she says. "They were told unequivocally not to come if they weren't prepared to work six days a week as long as they could." Rocket supports that view. "It's unfortunate that the negative impressions are based on opinions of people no longer with us," he says. "I'm forever impressed with the people who put this cast together—and, mainly, that means Jean," continues Rocket. "The group has been together long enough to hate each other, but that hasn't happened."

Rocket's vita indicates that he doesn't stick around when he isn't happy. Born Charles Claverie to a Bangor, Maine farm family, Rocket ("Someone gave me the name during the space-age days of the '60s, and it stuck") attended the Rhode Island School of Design, "mostly to protect myself from ending up at business school." He soon switched to acting and starred in a series of homemade newsman spoofs, The Rocket Reports, videotaped by a friend. When he sent one to local station WPRI, they hired him "as a straight news guy," he recalls. "I guess the satire was too subtle."

After marrying his college sweetheart, Beth Crellin, aboard the decommissioned battleship U.S.S. Massachusetts ("It rented for $125"), Rocket moved to KOAA in Pueblo, Colo. in 1977 and then to Nashville in 1978, working under the name Charles Kennedy. "I never did my Rocket persona on the air," says Charlie. "I didn't want to lose my credibility." But when management failed to renew his contract, he decided "to head for the Big Apple to make my move." He wound up painting cars at a Yorktown Heights, N.Y. body shop before submission of another Rocket Report landed him on SNL—this time as a comedian.

Despite a salary now estimated at $3,000 a week, Rocket, Beth and son Zane, 4½, still reside in a $200-a-month apartment over a Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y. drugstore. "We decided not to make any major lifestyle changes until things are a little more settled," says Beth understandably. Ebersol's unknown plans for the show (and his cast decisions) have everyone more than a little edgy. "In the situation the show faces," Rocket understates, "it's hard to do the right thing."