1 9 7 5 – current (USA)
“Hi! I’m Chevy Chase and you’re not”.
Saturday Night Live first aired on 11 October 1975 on NBC and has continued since to hold that spot in the line-up despite major cast changes, turmoil in the production offices and variable ratings.
A comedy-variety show with an emphasis on satire and current issues, the programme has been a staple element of NBC’s dominance of late-night programming since its inception. What Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In did for the form of US TV variety shows, Saturday Night Live did for content. Disaffected youth of the 60s were finally free to express themselves in front of TV cameras.
The programme was developed by Dick Ebersol with producer Lorne Michaels in 1975 as a result of NBC’s search for a show for its Saturday late-night slot. The network had long enjoyed dominance of the weekday late-night slot with The Tonight Show and sought to continue that success in the unused weekend time period.
With the approval of Johnny Carson, whose influence at the network was strong, Ebersol and Michaels debuted their show, which was intended to attract the 18-to-34 age demographic.
Baba Wawa (the late Gilda Radner) was a famous TV interviewer, ring-tossing Coneheads (Prymaat, Beldar and Connie) came from France, Land Sharks delivered Candygrams, and Shimmer was a floor polish and a dessert topping.
SNL thumbed its nose at tradition and more than any other show on US TV, it had Attitude.
Though it began to run out of steam by the end of the 70s (but regained it later), SNL did make American television ready for anti-Establishment satire of the Dave Letterman ilk. They even had their own cartoon short, way before Tracey Ullman had The Simpsons.
Mr Bill was the supreme tragic character. It was the story of a naive Play-Doh man with a high pitched whine (pictured below) and a cute dog called Spot, trying to make it in this hard, cruel world. He was truly the ultimate victim, and continuously suffered at the hands of Mr Hand – a godlike father figure who pretended to be Mr Bill’s friend: He wasn’t!
Chopped, baked, blended, boiled, smashed and destroyed – Mr Bill and Spot had it worse than Wile E. Coyote. Strange to think that a man made from clay being endlessly destroyed was adult humour at the time. Or maybe not.
Saturday Night Live was one of the landmark programmes of the 1970s, an attempt to bring fresh, often outrageous comedy and the excitement of live TV (from New York) to late-night viewers. It featured “The Not Ready for Primetime Players,” a repertory company of wacky comics who presented 90 minutes of topical satire, straight comedy, and music every Saturday night.
The original Not Ready for Prime Time Players included Chevy Chase, Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Jane Curtin, Gilda Radner, Laraine Newman and Garrett Morris, all of them from the New York and Toronto comedy scenes.
Featuring a different guest host each week (comedian George Carlin was the first) and a different musical guest as well, the programmes reflected a non-traditional approach to television comedy from the start.
The cast and writers combined the satirical with the silly and nonsensical, not unlike Monty Python’s Flying Circus, one of Michael’s admitted influences.
The programme was produced live from NBC’s Studio 8H for 90 minutes. This difficult schedule and pressure-filled production environment resulted in some classic comedy sketches and some abysmally dull moments over the years. Creating comedy in such a situation is difficult at best and the audience was always aware when the show was running dry, usually in the last half hour.
But this sense of the immediate and the unforeseen also gave the show its needed edge.
By returning to TV’s live roots, Saturday Night Live gave its audiences an element of adventure with each programme. It acquainted the generations who never experienced live television programming in the 1950s with the sense of theatre missing from pre-recorded programming.
For the performers, crew and writers, the show was a test of skill and dedication. The show has undergone several major changes since its beginning. The most obvious of these being the cast changes. SNL’s first “star,” Chevy Chase, left the show in the second season for Hollywood. Aykroyd and Belushi followed in 1979.
The rest of the original cast, including Bill Murray who replaced Chase, left when Lorne Michaels decided to leave the show after the 1979-80 season.
Michaels’ departure created wide-spread doubt about the viability of the show without him and his cast of favourites. Jean Doumanian was chosen as the new producer and her tenure lasted less than a year.
With the critics attacking the show’s diminished satirical edge and the lacklustre replacement performers, NBC enticed Ebersol to return as producer in the spring of 1981.
Ebersol managed to attract some of the original staff for the 1981-82 season, particularly writer Michael O’Donoghue. With the addition of Eddie Murphy, the show began to regain some of its strength, always based in its focus on a young audience and the use of relevant material.
Michaels rejoined the show as producer in 1985 and oversaw a second classic period of Saturday Night Live. With talented performers such as Dana Carvey, Jon Lovitz, Jan Hooks and Phil Hartman, the programme regained much of its early edge and attitude.
But the nature of the programme is that the people who make it funny (the performers and writers) are the ones who tend to move on after a few years of the grind of producing a weekly live show.
As the programme moved into the 1990s, this trend still affected the quality. But Michaels’ presence established a continuity which reassured the network and provided some stability for the audience.
From the beginning, Saturday Night Live provided America with some of its most popular characters and catch-phrases. Radner’s Roseanne Roseannadanna (“It’s always something”) and Emily Litella (“Never mind”), Belushi’s Samurai, Aykroyd’s Jimmy Carter, Murphy’s Mr Robinson, Billy Crystal’s Fernando Lamas (“You look mahvelous”), Martin Short’s Ed Grimley, Lovitz’s pathological liar, Carvey’s Church Lady (“Isn’t that special?”) and Carvey and Kevin Nealon’s Hans and Franz (pictured above right) have all left marks on popular culture.
The programme’s regular news spot has been done by Chase, Curtin, Aykroyd, Nealon and Dennis Miller, among others and, at its best, provided sharp comic commentary on current events. It was particularly strong with Miller as the reader.
Saturday Night Live has seen many of its cast members move on to success in other venues. Chase, Aykroyd, Murray, Murphy and Crystal have all enjoyed considerable movie success. Short, Lovitz, Carvey, Jim Belushi, Chris Farley and Joe Piscopo have been mildly successful in films. Curtin, Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, Hooks and Phil Hartman moved on to other television shows.
Among the notable comics to emerge from the constantly changing cast in later years were Chris Rock (1990), Adam Sandler (1991), David Spade (1991), Chris Elliott (1994), Janeane Garofalo (1994) and Molly Shannon (1995), the latter best known for her nervous Catholic schoolgirl Mary Katherine Gallagher.
As a stage for satire, few other American programmes match Saturday Night Live. As an outlet for current music, the show has featured acts from every popular musical genre and has hosted both old and new artists (from Paul Simon, The Rolling Stones and George Harrison to REM and Sinead O’Connor.)
Due to its longevity, SNL has crossed generational lines and made the culture of a younger audience available to their elders (and the opposite is also true).
Ultimately, Saturday Night Live must be considered one of the most distinctive and significant programmes in the history of American television.
Jim Henson’s Muppets
Anthony Michael Hall
A. Whitney Brown
G.E. Smith & the Saturday Night Live Band