Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Birth of Saturday Night Live

[talking into the telephone] "What are you wearing right now? No bathrobe? [notices the audience, hangs up telephone] Good evening. I'm Chevy Chase!"

Chevy Chase, Oct. 11, 1975

American television changed 40 years ago tonight. At least on Saturday nights.

In 1975, CBS ruled primetime on Saturday nights with "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "The Bob Newhart Show" and "The Carol Burnett Show" running in a two–hour block from 9 to 11 p.m. (Eastern time), but late night was still a vast, unexplored frontier. NBC's affiliates had been running "Best of Carson" compilations from Johnny Carson's Tonight Show on weekends, but Carson announced in 1974 that he wanted the weekend programs pulled and archived so they could be used during the week when he wanted to take time off.

My memory is that Carson always invited a guest to substitute for him when he took time off, though, right up until his retirement in 1992, and I'm not sure how extensively "Best of Carson" was used, if at all, in some markets. Its weekend schedule was very flexible. Affiliates were allowed to show episodes either on Saturday or Sunday, at their discretion.

In the days leading up to that first show, inaugural host George Carlin appeared on primetime promotional ads in which he was depicted as a participant in a stage construction project. NBC was putting the finishing touches on a new show, he told the TV audience, and he invited everyone to tune in on Saturday night.

If you were a George Carlin fan, you were already familiar with the material he used in the first–ever Saturday Night Live monologues. He didn't deliver an original and topical monologue, as hosts do now. He basically lifted jokes from several albums that had been in circulation for years and compiled them into a monologue.

But it was still a treat to see him doing those routines. And he commanded enough star power to draw audiences. So, too, I suppose did the first show's musical guests, Janis Ian and Billy Preston, both of whom had enjoyed some popularity in the early to mid–'70s.

And that is the primary objective of a new TV program — attract an audience. There certainly was a late night audience waiting to be tapped. In 1975, most of America still had only the three networks, a public broadcasting network in many (but not all) areas and maybe an independent station or two. Cable TV was a presence in only a few areas — and wasn't nearly as extensive as it is today.

Everything about the show was new and evolving. Even the name was different. It started out as just Saturday Night. When the program debuted, there already was a program called Saturday Night Live starring Howard Cosell on ABC, and it remained on the air for the first months of SNL's existence. More than a year after Cosell's program was canceled, the show now known as Saturday Night Live took that name — in March 1977.

What we now know as Saturday Night Live began simply as NBC's Saturday Night. The "live" was a description. Go back and watch Chevy Chase's intros of those early programs. "Live from New York," he always said, "it's 'Saturday Night.'"

If you remember those days, you can probably hear Chevy saying that in your head without having to look up a clip at YouTube or anyplace else. Of course, SNL has been using that inroduce each episode for 40 years now so you don't really have to search your memory bank for an audio file of Chase saying that phrase.

Chase said it that way from the first. Then, as now, the show opened with a skit. That first skit showed two people sitting in chairs facing each other. One was writer Michael O'Donoghue who played a professor giving a European immigrant (John Belushi) English lessons. That skit is remembered as the "Wolverine" sketch because the professor was always giving the immigrant sentences to say that included that word. For example ...
Professor: Let us begin. Repeat after me. I would like ...

Immigrant: [in a thick accent] I would like ...

Professor: ... to feed your fingertips ...

Immigrant: feed yur fingerteeps ...

Professor: ... to the wolverines.

Immigrant: ... to de wolver–eenes.

The English lesson was cut short when the professor clutched his chest and collapsed on the floor.

From off–camera, Chase emerged to announce that it was Saturday Night. Ever since that time it has been a staple of the show to have someone — sometimes several people — break character to utter that familiar phrase.

The show, as I say, was evolving. My memory is that Carlin didn't participate in any skits other than his opening monologue. Today, of course, guest hosts are full participants in that week's show. I don't know when that changed. It probably developed over time. SNL always has been a work in progress.

The skits were handled by the Not–Ready–For–Prime–Time Players, which introduced America to people who became quite familiar in short order — Chase, Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, Jane Curtin, Laraine Newman and Garrett Morris.

Often, SNL has created cultural catchphrases, reaffirming its social relevance after four decades on the air. It has been resilient. In the late '70s, few people thought SNL could survive the departure of Chevy Chase, but it did. It has become a training ground and career launching pad for the stars of tomorrow.

The program's political skits have become so legendary that a compilation program of politically themed skits always airs during a presidential election campaign, and Chevy Chase's early portrayals of a clumsy Gerald Ford are sure to be included.

In countless unexpected ways, SNL has influenced the culture. Who would have thought on this night in 1975 that it would still be on the air in the 21st century?