I wanted to do a more modern show other than Life On Mars…and this would qualify as it…kinda. It has been on the air since 1975… a whopping 47 years. It’s been on life support at times but has always pulled through. It’s an institution at this point. There is not enough room on a post to go over every cast. Everyone has their favorites some were extremely funny and some were extremely bad (1980 – 1981 cast) and they all make up the history of this show.
I’m going to concentrate on the original cast and how the show became SNL. Most of you have favorite different casts…usually, the one you grew up with.
Even if you don’t like this show or what it’s become…it was a cultural landmark and no one can deny that. It changed television forever. The show started because Johnny Carson wanted more time off. NBC had been airing reruns of Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show on the weekends to fill space in their lineup. This allowed them to double-dip on profits from Carson’s outrageously popular show without spending another dime on production costs. He told NBC he would only be making four shows a week, which meant that best-of Carson shows that had been airing on Saturday nights would now need to be moved to a weeknight.
NBC executive Herbert Schlosser sought to create a new show with an old format…a variety show to fill the slot on Saturday Night. He picked Lorne Michaels, a Canadian writer who only had a handful of credits to be the producer. Michaels started a show that was far different than Schlosser imagined but to his credit… Schlosser was behind it and pushed for it to be on the air. The first two shows were experiments but by the third show, they found the format they would keep to this day. The funny thing is…Johnny Carson never liked the show.
Lorne Michaels made the show to appeal to baby boomers with a touch of Avant-Garde and “guerrilla-style comedy.” It was a game-changer much like All In The Family was to sitcoms. Late-night was never again a wasteland. This show helped open the doors for David Letterman and other shows to follow it.
It started out as “Saturday Night.” The Saturday Night Live title belonged to ABC for a show hosted by Howard Cosell who was out of his league. After Cosell’s show was cancelled, ABC let Saturday Night have the “Live” part.
Who was the best cast through the years? This is a question that is debated over and over again. People argue and usually pick the cast they grew up with. I grew up in the Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo era. Personally, I always thought the original cast was the best era of the show. Yes, I thought the Murphy and Piscopo casts were very funny along with later casts that had Dana Carvey, Michael Myers, Chris Farley, Chris Rock, and many others that followed. The first five seasons had something extra that others would not and could not have. It had an underground feel that vanished after it became a pure comedy show. They had a massive amount of talent in that first class.
John Belushi, Dan Ackroyd, Chevy Chase (though I liked his replacement better…Bill Murray), Gilda Radner, Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris, and my favorite overlooked cast member Laraine Newman. They were the perfect cast for that time.
Why do I like the original cast the most? They tried new things and went out on a limb. Some of the skits succeeded some fell flat but they were different from anything on TV at that time…and also at this time. That cast pushed the envelope and made the network executives worry. The host each week was usually under the radar actors, writers, comedians musicians, and sometimes athletes. The musical guests were mostly rarely seen performers that weren’t on tv…prime time or otherwise. Frank Zappa, Leon Redbone, The Kinks, Patti Smith, Ry Cooder, Kinky Friedman, and others. You would have more popular musicians like Paul Simon but the show gave you a great variety.
No way would Michaels ever dream of that now…he usually gets whoever is the most popular to draw in ratings. He can no longer do what he did in the 70s because of that. He also used the complete ensemble. It was not Eddie Murphy, Joe Piscopo, and everyone else of the early eighties. It was about building an unknown cast and all of them having a shot…not a star-driven show that gave all the best bits to the big names. He made sure the entire cast had a lead in skits and parody commercials. Dick Ebersol who followed Lorne Micheals, was famous for getting stars in the cast and the show revolving around them.
A lot of the skits are now famous… Ackroyd’s Bassomatic, the Samurai, the uncomfortable but funny Word Association with Richard Pryor, The Killer Bees, The Mr. Bill Show, Weekend Update, Roseanne Rosannadanna, Land Shark, Bag of Glass, The Wild and Crazy Guys, the Coneheads, The Lounge Singer, Mr. Mike, The Blues Brothers and many more.
The writers for the show were not in the variety show comedy vein..they were not in the current SNL vein either. The style was more aggressive, especially with Michael O’Donoghue. He was a comedy trailblazer with National Lampoon and added black humor to SNL. Other writers were Franken and Davis, Rosie Shuster, Alan Zweibel, Marilyn Miller, Anne Beatts, Herb Sargent, Tom Schiller, and also Ackroyd and Chase.
The original group also did some serious skits along with comedy and trips into the bizarre (See the ultra-dark “Mr. Mike”). …It separated the original from any other cast.
I like the feel of the underground the first five years had but you can only be that for so long…popularity takes over. Those first 5 years (the first four were great…the fifth very good) set the foundation that holds to this day…just without the daring and danger.
Ann Beatts was one of the original writers who saw the popularity of the show rise beyond anything she ever imagined. She knew the risk-taking traits in the show would have to end because of it. “You can only be avant-garde for so long until you become garde.”
By the 5th season (1979-1980), it was a circus grown out of proportion. The cast by that time were usually bigger stars than the guest hosts. Everyone left after that season along with Lorne Michaels. The show went on without him until 1985 when he rejoined. It was never the same again. Sometimes it was funny and sometimes not but it was never the same experimental show it was at the start.
What other show would introduce “Acapulco Gold” and “Orange Sunshine” to a national television audience?
The Bassomatic…something you cannot explain with words.
The best Star Trek parody…