Although it’s almost hard to fathom now, the very first episode of “Saturday Night Live” was as much “The George Carlin Show” as anything else.
When the latenight series went on the air, the cast wasn’t called the “Not Ready for Prime Time Players” just because it was cute. It was out of genuine fear for some that then-unknowns like John Belushi, Jane Curtin and Chevy Chase didn’t have enough pull for viewers. So a number of guests were recruited, led by Carlin, who was the show’s official first host.
Of course, relying on the, shall we say, forthright Carlin as your lead performer on live television in 1975 brought along its own level of fear, so for that very first episode of the celebrated live show, a six-second delay was put on the table so that any offending material could be bleeped. And the concerns didn’t stop there.
“The major focus of the night, weirdly enough, was over a directive we got that Carlin had to wear a suit on the show,” Lorne Michaels recalled in the James A. Miller/Tom Shales book “Live From New York.” “He wanted to wear a T-shirt. … The fear was that if George was in a T-shirt and it looked like the wrong kind of show, we would lose affiliates, and we weren’t anywhere near 100 percent as it was. And the compromise was a suit with a T-shirt instead of a tie. That was a much greater distraction than can possibly be understood right now.”
Emerging from all the chaos was a memorable first show (including Andy Kaufman’s “Mighty Mouse” routine) that was also a showcase for Carlin, who did four segments of standup. The football-baseball bit, the “What do dogs do on their day off? They can’t lie around — that’s their job, man,” the “Why is there no blue food?”, the thinkpiece on religion — it was all brilliant. The “SNL” cast showed its remarkable potential, but it’s not to diminish them to say that in Carlin, we saw a comedian fully formed, at the peak of his career. That he kept it clean to satisfy the censors didn’t disable him one bit. This man roughed up conventional wisdom in a way that was almost sweet, the way he brought you along for the ride.
It’s hard to believe that was more than 32 years ago, and it’s hard to believe Carlin is gone.
Oh.. there’s a moment.. coming. There’s a moment coming, it’s.. it’s not here yet. It’s on the way.. It’s still in the future. Here.. here it is! [ a beat ] Oh.. it’s gone, man. There’s no present, man. Everything is the near future and the recent past. No wonder we can’t get anything together, we’ve got no time, huh?
— Jon Weisman