First part of a series where we try to figure out where NBC went from must-see TV to must-cancel entertaining well-written shows and put on crap.
Saturday Night Live is one of those unusual occurrences–born in part out of desperation and nearly ignored in its first few months. But NBC’s late-night weekend sketch comedy proved to be a fertile ground for fresh, new talent. Consider how many former SNL regulars have gone on to notable film or television careers. Or how during election years, SNL has set the pace in helping to define the funny among the various political figures. And in a television world when shows come and go, Saturday Night Live has managed to hang on through good times and bad for more than three decades. Still going strong today, SNL deserves to be called a television classic.
Saturday Night Live was created because of a complaint by one of NBC’s biggest stars. Johnny Carson was angry that reruns of his Tonight Show aired at 11:30 PM on Saturday nights. Carson wanted the reruns to air on weekdays, allowing him to take time off from Tonight. Since the popular late-night host contributed heavily to NBC’s profits, network executives were in no mood to upset Carson and set about creating a new show that would air in the Saturday slot.
NBC decided on a variety show tailored to a younger audience, airing three times a month (a youth-oriented news magazine called Weekend would air in the same timeslot once a month). Dick Ebersol (a protégé of ABC’s legendary sports chief Roone Arledge) was tapped to produce the variety show. It would air from NBC’s famed Studio 8-H at the network’s 30 Rockefeller Plaza headquarters in New York City (once home to a number of early NBC television hits and the home base of Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Orchestra).
Ebersol hired a young Canadian producer named Lorne Michaels to oversee the new series. It was decided the new show would have a structure different from Tonight–each episode would start off with a skit before the opening credits, followed by a welcome and short monologue from the guest host (no permanent host would be hired). The rest of the show would consist of various sketches and short films from the rest of the cast (including film, television and commercial parodies), along with a song or two from the guest musical act of the week. One of the recurring features of SNL would be a mock newscast (“Weekend Update”) and characters created by the writers and cast that could be used on an occasional basis. SNL’s history can be divided by decades, with highs and lows in each one. While not a complete account, the following is a summary of the notable events that have defined the show-- for better or worse.
1975-80: MAKING ITS MARK
The first cast members were relative unknowns chosen from auditions and recommendations from writers and staffers. Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi and Gilda Radner were part of the famed Second City comedy troupe; Chevy Chase was an alumni of the “National Lampoon” entertainment umbrella. Relative unknowns Jane Curtin, Laraine Newman and Garrett Morris rounded out the new SNL cast and became known as the “Not Ready For Prime Time Players.” The show’s first head writer was a “National Lampoon” refugee named Michael O’Donoghue. Lorne Michaels continued to fight efforts by NBC executives to make the show more conventional; Michaels argued that young viewers would tune out such fare and felt that material, guests and musical acts needed to be aimed at a young audience.
When it premiered on October 11th, 1975, the show’s official title was NBC’s Saturday Night, because ABC already had a prime-time variety series called Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell. (After Cosell’s short-lived series went off the air, NBC obtained the rights to the Saturday Night Live name, which was used beginning in 1977.) Comic George Carlin was the show’s first host; Billy Preston and Janis Ian were the original musical guests. The following week, Paul Simon was both the guest host and the week’s musical act. There were some acts that were soon dropped (the Muppets, for example), and the comedy troupe eventually dominated SNL, which began to build an audience through both critical notices and word-of-mouth recommendations from teens and college-age students.
Chevy Chase became the show’s first “breakout star,” thanks to his anchoring of “Weekend Update” and his portrayal of a bumbling, uncoordinated President Gerald Ford. In the second season, Ford’s press secretary Ron Nessen was a guest host, with Ford featured in a pre-taped segment. But it didn’t help Ford in an election year when he was beaten by Jimmy Carter.
According to several books and staff accounts, Chase did not get along with either Lorne Michaels or co-star Belushi (and as far as Belushi was concerned, the feeling was mutual). Chase left SNL at the end of 1976 for a film career, the first cast member to do so. In January 1977, writer Bill Murray made his on-camera debut as the newest “Not Ready For Prime Time” player; Murray was initially awkward and fans wrote him hate mail, some blaming him for Chase’s departure. But Murray soon found his footing and created some quite memorable characters. And most of the cast had their moments in the sun–Belushi’s “Samurai” sketches and his Bee impersonation; Aykroyd and Curtin as the new “Weekend Update” anchors; Radner and Murray in various sketches both separately and together. (Newman was relatively under-utilised, while Morris–the only African American in the cast–seemed to get the least time on camera; he also complained some of the sketches he appeared in were racist).
During the show’s fourth season, Belushi and Aykroyd broke out with their “Blues Brothers” impersonation, which led to a hit record and a successful film–the two left the cast after the fourth season. By the 1979-80 season, Radner appeared in only a handful of shows (she had found her own fame with the hit Broadway play “Gilda Live,” which featured a number of her SNL characters). Michaels promoted several writers (including Al Franken and Don Novello, the latter creating the very popular “Father Guido Sarducci”) to on-air status. The ratings were still high at the end of Season Five, but Michaels was worn out and the remaining original cast members were more than eager to move on. Michaels asked then-NBC President Fred Silverman for the show to go on hiatus for at least six months so that a new cast and producer could be hired for SNL. Silverman refused. By this time, Saturday Night Live was one of NBC’s few hits anywhere in the schedule. Silverman wanted to keep the show going, even though he was angry about some of SNL’s skits making fun of his leadership and NBC’s ratings problems. So on May 24th, 1980, the remaining original cast members and Michaels said their on-air goodbyes, ending the first era of Saturday Night Live. The road ahead would get bumpier before lightning would strike again.
1980-90: A DISASTER, EDDIE THE SAVIOUR, AND NEW STARS ARRIVE
Lorne Michaels’ replacement as Saturday Night Live’s executive producer was a long-time staffer. Jean Doumanian was a talent scout for the show before she moved up in the ranks. But she was not a popular choice among the staff, and NBC made her job even harder by cutting the show’s budget by two-thirds, while forcing her to create a whole new programme–writers, talent, the works–in just two months. Doumanian would later say she never received the support she needed from NBC. (Staffers were already pushing to get Doumanian fired even before a single episode aired). Still, she went on to hire a new cast for SNL, again relying on unknown and untapped talent. Charles Rocket was groomed to become the show’s new Chevy Chase; others in the Doumanian cast included Denny Dillon, Gilbert Gottfried, Gail Matthius, Joe Piscopo and Ann Risley. Soon after the new cast was hired, staffers received a call from a 19-year-old comic named Eddie Murphy. He auditioned for Doumanian, who liked his talent and pushed NBC to make him a regular. The network refused, but did allow Murphy to be hired as a “featured” cast member.
The revised Saturday Night Live ‘80 made its debut on November 15th, 1980. Guest host Elliott Gould was reportedly surprised when he found that the show’s entire cast was replaced. But that was the least of the show’s problems. Critics tore into the poorly executed scripts and the performance of many of the new cast members. The bad notices resulted in falling ratings; it wasn’t long before SNL was overtaken (briefly) by ABC’s copycat sketch programme Fridays. The final nail came with the February 21st, 1981 show. During a parody of the popular prime time soap Dallas. Charles Rocket–the cast member whom NBC hoped would be the next breakout star from SNL–uttered the “F” word on-air. It turned out to be the final straw. Within a week, NBC fired Doumanian and tapped Dick Ebersol, the man who developed SNL, to save the programme. Ebersol cleaned house immediately, firing Rocket, Ann Risley and Gilbert Gottfried. He hired newcomers Robin Duke, Tim Kazurinsky, Brad Hall and Tony Rosato, and elevated Eddie Murphy to regular status. Writers Al Franken and Tom Davis were also shown the door. By the fall of 1981, the revamped show–now reverting back to the Saturday Night Live title--was snappier, faster paced and more consistent in quality. (Ebersol was also skilled at keeping the show on budget and dealing with NBC executives, allowing the cast and crew to work without interference from “the suits”).
Eddie Murphy quickly became the new breakout star SNL badly needed; not only did Murphy shine in solo sketches, he and Piscopo were teamed in a number of skits and the two worked extremely well together. So well, in fact, that the rest of the ensemble took a back seat to Murphy and Piscopo. Murphy’s star rose even faster after the success of his first film 48 Hours; the comic ended up actually hosting SNL after his 48 Hours co-star Nick Nolte called in sick (reportedly from a hangover after partying at the club “Studio 54"). Murphy was also highlighted in a 1983 skit featuring NBC’s entertainment chief, Brandon Tartikoff, who begged him to stay at the network. But the 1983-84 season proved to be Murphy’s last on SNL (many of his appearances were pre-taped that year), and at the end of the season, Ebersol fired Piscopo, Duke, Hall and Kazurinsky.
The fall of ‘84 became what was known as SNL’s “all-star season.” The new cast included Billy Crystal, Martin Short, Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer, and Rich Hall, all of whom had major success on TV and film before joining the show. Short’s character of nerdy Ed Grimley (whom Short created on the skit series SCTV) and Crystal’s dead-on impression of actor Fernando Lamas (“Yoo look mahvelous!”) were the highlights of what became a very good season for the show. But it was short-lived. Shearer departed in early 1985 (he later found even more fame voicing various characters on The Simpsons) while Ebersol requested a format change for the 1985-86 season, with more pre-taped segments and the end of guest hosts. He also wanted NBC to shut down the series for six months so that his changes could be implemented. But Tartikoff refused and nearly decided to cancel SNL altogether. Fortunately, Tartikoff changed his mind and went in a different direction by returning the show to its roots.
Lorne Michaels was rehired as producer; Al Franken and Tom Davis returned as co-producers. Michaels took a chance and hired an entirely new (and impressively talented) cast, including Randy Quaid, Joan Cusack, Robert Downey Junior, Anthony Michael Hall, Dennis Miller, Damon Wayans, Nora Dunn, Jon Lovitz, Danitra Vance (the first African-American woman to become an SNL regular) and Terry Sweeney (the first openly gay cast member). Unfortunately, the new cast and writing team proved unable to maintain a consistent level of humour and there were very few breakout characters.
Michaels again cleaned house, keeping only Miller, Dunn and Lovitz for the following season. But Tartikoff was again making noises about cancelling SNL; and once again, he changed his mind at the last minute. Tartikoff ordered just six episodes for the new season with the promise of more if Michaels could turn the show around. This time, Michaels took no chances, hiring a very talented but relatively unknown of “Not Ready For Prime-Time Players.” They included Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman, Jan Hooks, Victoria Jackson and Kevin Nealon. Miller continued as “Weekend Update” host, giving that segment more visibility than it had since the Chevy Chase days. Madonna was guest host for the season opener, and told the audience the entire 1985-86 SNL season was a dream (not unlike Bobby Ewing’s return to Dallas that same year). The new cast exceeded expectations, and NBC didn’t cancel the show. Carvey, Hartman and Nealon proved to be very talented additions, while Hooks and Jackson brought a renewed female sensibility to the usually male-dominated show. Hartman was a perfect go-to guy, proving his versatility in skit after skit. But it was Carvey who brought SNL some of its most famous characters, including the judgmental and pious Church Lady (“Isn’t that CONVENIENT!”) and (with Nealon) the Germanic bodybuilders Hans & Franz.
Carvey also helped to define Saturday Night Live when it came to political satire. Chevy Chase helped build the show in its inaugural season with his bumbling Gerald Ford, while Ackroyd did a pretty good Jimmy Carter during the first five seasons of SNL. But the Reagan years were hit-or-miss as far as politics went. That changed with the election of George H.W. Bush as president in 1988. Carvey’s dead-on impression of Bush 41 proved to be a fan favourite (with help from SNL’s writing team). Carvey also excelled with his take on third-party presidential hopeful Ross Perot in 1992, giving SNL a reputation for hard-edged political takes.
In 1989, a young Canadian named Mike Myers joined the cast, and he and Carvey created a pair of slacker teens named Wayne and Garth. The Wayne’s World sketch became so popular, it spawned two hit films. (In fact, no other television series in American history has spawned such rich talent in both film and subsequent television projects as Saturday Night Live.) Wayne’s World would help SNL enter the 1990's in style–before more problems set in.