Saturday Night Live

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Saturday Night Live

A landmark of the 1970s, NBC's Saturday Night Live challenged America's comic sensibilities with its outrageous and satirical humor in skits such as "The Samurai Warrior," "Wayne and Garth," "The Coneheads," and "Deep Thoughts by Jack Handey," and launched the careers of many of the brightest comedy performers America has ever known, including Chevy Chase, Eddie Murphy, Bill Murray, Adam Sandler, and David Spade. Saturday Night Live made President Gerald Ford into the world's clumsiest man. Mock commercials satirized anything and everything. The show made it a policy to feature musical talent usually not found on network television. Its increasing popularity meant that first-season musical guests such as Harlan Collins and Leon Redbone were replaced by the likes of Aretha Franklin and Billy Joel in the 1994 season. Saturday Night Live continues to feature bands that are on the cutting edge of new music: the same 1994 season featured Tony Toni Tone and Crash Test Dummies. For a show that debuted in a dead-end spot on NBC's schedule, Saturday Night Live has become an institution that seeks to constantly redefine American comedy.

Producer Lorne Michaels first conceived of Saturday Night Live as a reaction to the staid, prime-time comedy of American television. Inspired by Britain's Monty Python's Flying Circus, Michaels wanted to produce a comedy show that would break all the rules. He wanted to bring the dangerous energy evident in America's comedy clubs to a television industry that he instinctively distrusted. He was lucky to get the moribund 11:30 p.m. Saturday evening slot, and he began to create a comedy variety show. He was constantly quoted as saying he knew the ingredients of the show, but not the recipe. Michaels scoured the underground comedy scene for his writers and performers, and found many in Chicago's Second City comedy troupe. He established a Saturday Night Live repertory of actors, the Not Ready for Prime Time Players, and a core of writers who were raised on TV but were ready to break its rules. They were all aware that few comedians with anything serious to say got to do so on network television, where humor was safe and orderly.

On October 11, 1975, Saturday Night Live debuted from the NBC studios in New York City's Rockefeller Center. From the first moment, with its trademark cold opening (no credits or titles), the audience knew something different had arrived on late night television. John Belushi played an immigrant who came for English lessons from writer Michael O'Donoghue's professor. As O'Donoghue was teaching Belushi how to say "Would you like to feed your fingers to the wolverines," he suddenly died of a heart attack. A tremulous Chevy Chase, playing the stage manager, walked into camera shot, looked at the audience with a grin, and bellowed: "Live from New York, it's Saturday Night."

At first, the cast took second place to the guest hosts. The exception in the first few episodes was Chevy Chase, a performer who was originally hired as a lead writer. His suave, sophisticated looks and his recurring role as the anchor of the Weekend Update news parody segment soon set him apart from the rest of the repertory cast. The others, Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris, Bill Murray, Laraine Newman, and Gilda Radner, got their chance to shine on the third show, hosted by Rob Reiner. The cast felt the host was being dictatorial, and when John Belushi came up to him on stage, as a Bee, their backstage resentment poured out on camera: "[W]e didn't ask to be Bees … But this is all they [the writers] came up with for us. DO YOU THINK WE LIKE THIS? No, no, Mr. Reiner, we don't have any choice … we're just a bunch of actors looking for a break, that's all! What do you WANT from us! Mr. Rob Reiner, Mr. Star! What did you expect? THE STING?"

Saturday Night Live was determined to challenge all the standards. Michaels himself stepped from behind the camera in April 1976 to offer the Beatles $3000 to appear on the show and sing three songs. He later came back and upped the offer to $3200. In November, George Harrison showed up and tried to claim all the money himself. Michaels again appeared to say that if it was up to him, George could have the money, but NBC wouldn't agree. When Paul McCartney appeared on the show in 1993, he and Michaels were seen talking about the offer during the monologue.

The cast of Saturday Night Live went through numerous changes over the years. At the end of the first season, Chevy Chase departed for Hollywood. Bill Murray joined the repertory, but it was John Belushi who ended up star of the show with his manic weatherman, Samurai Warrior, and Joliet Jake Blues characters. In 1979, Belushi and Aykroyd left to make the The Blues Brothers film (1980), followed at the end of the fifth season by Lorne Michaels and virtually the rest of his cast and writers. The season that followed saw the show fall in ratings, but it also saw the debut of the brash young Eddie Murphy. Murphy was hidden for most of his first season on Saturday Night Live. His first break came during a commentary he co-wrote for Weekend Update. His "Yo, baby," was belted out with force, and his character of Raheem Abdul Muhammed proceeded to steal the show. Murphy appeared in virtually every other Update segment for the rest of the season, and when new producer Dick Ebersol took over the show in the next season, Murphy was the undeclared star. It was Ebersol who moved away from Michaels's repertory idea, hiring tried and true comics to star as part of the cast (including Billy Crystal and Martin Short), but they did not stay with the show for long.

Michaels returned in 1985 as executive producer. He proceeded to reinvent Saturday Night Live as America's one true comedy factory, where new and untried performers and comedians could experiment with their art and in the process reinvent television comedy standards. It was Michaels who brought to the show the likes of Dana Carvey, Chris Farley, Phil Hartman, Mike Meyers, and Dennis Miller. In fact, he continued to add to his repertory even when his actors stayed with the show. It has been suggested that he decided to overstaff this time around to protect himself should more of his stars head for Hollywood. Whatever the reason, the show overcame its legendary past to produce some of its most memorable moments: Carvey presented the viewers with his razor-sharp caricatures of "wouldn't be prudent" George Bush and Ross Perot, while Hartman responded with an uncanny President Bill Clinton. Meyers, with Carvey, brought the world into the basement of "Wayne's World" and was shocked at how big the segments became—Aerosmith came to the show as musical guests in February 1990 and demanded to be included in a "Wayne's World" sketch. Two Wayne's World movies followed in 1992 and 1993.

Saturday Night Live was still going strong at the turn of the century, while the early shows were being rerun on cable.

—John J. Doherty

Further Reading:

Beatts, Anne, and John Head, editors. Saturday Night Live. New York, Avon Books, 1977.

Cader, Michael, editor. Saturday Night Live: The First Twenty Years. New York, Houghton Mifflin 1994.

Hill, Doug, and Jeff Weingrad. Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live. New York, Beech Tree, 1986.

Partridge, Marianne, editor. Rolling Stone Visits Saturday Night Live. Garden City, New York, Dolphin Books, 1979.