Greatest TV Pilots: NBC’s Saturday Night aka Saturday Night Live aka SNL

SNL Season 1 cast

Saturday Night Live, “George Carlin/Billy Preston, Janis Ian”
Written by Lorne Michaels, Michael O’Donoghue, Anne Beatts, Tom Davis, Al Franken, Marilyn Suzanne Miller, Herb Sargent, Tom Schiller, Rosie Schuster, Alan Zweibel
Directed by Dave Wilson
Aired on October 11, 1975 on NBC

Possibly (and very arguably) the most influential television show of all time, Saturday Night Live (SNL for short) is American comedy (albeit with a bit of Canadian help) exemplified: irreverent, absurdist, made for short attention spans, and continually being both panned and lauded by critics. Whether you still lock your door in fear of Land Shark, turned the show off in 1980 and never looked back, or are in need more cowbell, you know the magic that is SNL. Like a boy band or Santa Claus, we each have our favorites and picture a certain cast as the “real” SNL. For example, there are people who swear by the “Cat Laser” videos and see Andy Samberg as the show’s pinnacle performer. Go ahead and scoff, but it is that very reaction that shows how deeply SNL has impacted you and so many others, making it a shared experience across generations.

Rather than being a sitcom or schticky variety hour, SNL combines humor, topical discussion and music to not only entertain, but also reflect on the state of things while managing not to be a complete Debbie Downer. In lieu of a library, you could use a decent season from SNL as a snapshot of culture, public opinion, and politics within the year that that season aired. This is why the first episode is all the more important, marking the beginnings of a program that’s influence pervaded not only our TV screens, but also our country’s ongoing social commentary. With these lofty thoughts on a sketch show, let’s move on to the wolverines!

Not actually called “Saturday Night Live” until 1977, NBC’s Saturday Night premiered on October 11, 1975. The debut episode included three monologues by host George Carlin, songs from Billy Preston and Janis Ian, Andy Kaufman’s now-iconic stand-up, a headline-filled short film by Albert Brooks, an appearance by a few Muppets you’ve probably blocked from your memory, a even less memorable bit of volleyball-themed stand-up by Valri Bromfield, and sketches involving “The Not Ready For Prime Time Players” (Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris, Laraine Newman, and Gilda Radner).

saturday_night_live_wolverines_cold_open_season_1-1

One of the best cold openings in the show’s history, the “Wolverines” sketch was hilarious with absurd dialogue between John Belushi and head writer Michael O’Donoghue (“I would like… to feed your fingertips… to the wolverines.”) and a meta quality (Chevy Chase steps into the scene as a “Stage Manager” and looks into the camera to exclaim “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!”) that set a surrealist tone for rest of the episode. Speaking of surreal, Andy Kaufman stood on a bare stage and lip-synched to a “Mighty Mouse” record, one of the first of countless “love or hate” moments for SNL. Other highlights include Weekend Update with Chevy Chase (introducing America to the charismatically quick-witted comedian, remember this was 1975), the Bee Hospital sketch (featuring the show’s first recurring characters: The Bees, aka the Players dressed in bee costumes) and the fake ads (although six seems a bit excessive).

George Carlin on SNLAs for the host, George Carlin is a comedic genius, but his SNL stint wasn’t his best, mainly consisting of three rambling, pedantic monologues, which weren’t helped by him being admittedly coked-out at the time. Albert Brooks’ short film “The Impossible Truth” was funny, but again felt somewhat misplaced as more “let’s make a statement” satire. Oh, and the Muppets. There were Muppets, not the Muppets you remember, but a green monster king Ploobis, his crony Scred and their deity the Mighty Favog in “The Land of Gorch”. Rather than digging into their sketch more, just forget it as part of “What were they smoking?” SNL history. This isn’t to say that any of these are low points particularly, but that they haven’t stood the test of time in relation to the rest of the episode. Also, if you’re bored of laughing, check out Janis Ian performing “At Seventeen” and “In The Winter,” both are great anthems for when you really need a good cry.

For SNL nerds, here’s some trivia to end on. Gilda Radner was the first Not Ready For Prime Time Player to be hired, while Jane Curtin and John Belushi were the last two. Albert Brooks was originally approached be the show’s weekly host, but turned it down in order to make short films and suggested that they have a different host each week. Due to a longer-than-planned dress rehearsal, Billy Crystal’s stand-up act was cut from the final taping. The concept of a three-blade razor parodied in the fake ad “Triple-Trac” became reality in the ‘90s. Last and most likely least, in regards to the Muppets, head writer Michael O’Donoghue said, “I won’t write for felt.” Also for more information on behind-the-scenes at SNL‘s Studio 8H, Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live, as Told By Its Stars, Writers and Guests is a good place to start.

- Dianna Drumm
This article is part of our month long theme dedicated to the greatest TV pilots.

By Diana Drumm

Diana Drumm is a film journalist and screenwriter based outside of Baltimore, Maryland. She is a graduate of the University of St Andrews and her areas of expertise include Classic Hollywood and British Cinema. She likes daydreams and fake sunflowers and Michael Fassbender’s jaw.

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3 Responses to Greatest TV Pilots: NBC’s Saturday Night aka Saturday Night Live aka SNL

  1. Bill Mesce June 30, 2013 at 8:15 pm

    I was around for those first episodes. I was in college and SNL was the equivalent of (what was then a very different animal) FM radio: something for late at night, that was a bit naughty, a bit taboo, and something only “we” — our generation — got. It was the first TV that seemed to be directed squarely at us (even Laugh-In and The Smother Brothers owed something to traditional vaudeville/variety show formats respectively). It was — or at least seemed to us — truly subversive.
    Interesting note: I know somebody who wrote for SNL in the 90s. The show has had its up and down cycles, periodically rising from seeming on its last legs to rejuvenate (remember the Phil Hartman years? Great stuff), but one sad turn it made in its 90s was writers were given the edict not to reference anything more than three years earlier; the young audience that was reading less and was less connected to pop culture pre-dating their generation wouldn’t get those jokes.

    Reply
  2. Jack Deth June 29, 2013 at 10:43 pm

    SNL was a superb live variety, skit and music series for its seasons that has Belushi, Aykroyd and to a lesser extent, Chevy Chase.

    Writing was eclectic, cutting and ahead of its time mostly due to many of the writing staff of ‘National Lampoon’ magazine double duty with such ideas as ‘The Dead String Quartet’ and many parody advertisements.

    Once Belushi, Aykroyd and Chase left, the series slowly degenerated into something that should have cancelled a decade ago.

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    • Deepayan Sengupta June 30, 2013 at 3:02 pm

      You know, as long as SNL continues to give a platform to hilarious individuals like Tina Fey, Bill Hader, and Kate McKinnon, I cannot really advocate for its demise. Maybe a leadership change, but it’s still producing enough quality comics to not be kicked off the air altogether, I think.

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