“Live, from New York, it’s ‘Saturday Night!’ “
Oct. 11, 1975, was the date.
The TV and comedy cultures merged in a dynamic way that first night of the first season, 1975-76, to forge one of the longest-lasting institutions in television history and spawn a couple of generations of comic stars — talents who created such a following that their gags would be recounted in America’s diners, bars and school hallways through each following week.
The original Not Ready For Prime Time Players — Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris, Laraine Newman and Gilda Radner — became household names across America practically overnight, as the irreverence, spontaneity, vigor and hilarity of “Saturday Night Live” took a giant-sized mallet to America’s funnybone.
Many of 22-year-old-and-going-strong “SNL’s” alumni have gone on to the big time — Chase, Aykroyd, Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy, Albert Brooks, and the late John Belushi and Gilda Radner — but many members of the old gang are joining for a reunion that promises to be a highlight of the third annual U.S. Comedy Arts Festival.
“I’m really looking forward to this,” says Lorne Michaels, the show’s producer from 1975 to 1981 and 1985 through to the present. “The show has meant and continues to mean so much to me.” The reunion, presented by the American Film Institute, is scheduled for 9 p.m. March 1 in Wheeler Opera House.
Stellar turnout expected
Confirmed ready for Aspen are original Not Ready for Primetime Players Chase and Newman, as well as later contributors Al Franken, Chris Farley, Will Ferrell, Jan Hooks, Jon Lovitz, Steve Martin, Tim Meadows, Mike Myers, Norm MacDonald, Kevin Nealon, Cheri Oteri, Molly Shannon, David Spade, Martin Short, executive producer of the initial 1975-76 season Dick Ebersol, and Michaels.
A montage of classic “SNL” clips will be shown, and a Q&A with the alumni will be moderated by Steve Kroft, co-editor of “60 Minutes.” Portions of the show will air March 2 as part of an HBO special on the festival.
“The ‘SNL’ tribute is a fabulous thing,” says Robert “Mortie” Morton, former longtime executive producer of “Late Night With David Letterman” and now operator of Panamort Prods., which has a deal to produce comedy programming for ABC. “Paying Lorne Michaels his due is long overdue. Without ‘Saturday Night Live,’ you wouldn’t have seen any of the things that have followed in the resurgence of comedy in America.”
Norm MacDonald, a present “SNL” cast member who said he’s going to the reunion to see his idol, Chase, feels that Michaels — whom he watched on TV as a boy growing up in Quebec on “The Hart and Lorne Goodtime Hour” — owns an uncanny instinct for recognizing talent.
Singing Michaels’ praises
“He gave me the job, and I can’t do auditions,” MacDonald says. “He trusts funny. It was like, whoever is funny in the office, he’d put them on TV. He did that with Chevy Chase, who was originally a writer. He did that with me. And he’ll back you up to the network when they want to change material. Lorne gave me the opportunity to write, and then for me to perform what I write. Where else on TV can you do that all the time?”
“SNL” created many running gags that have become ingrained in comedy history, including “Weekend Update,” initially with Chase as host (“Good evening, I’m Chevy Chase and you’re not”), as well as Gilda Radner’s lisping Baba Wawa, Don Novello’s too-hip Father Guido Sarducci, the legendary Blues Brothers, the Bees and Coneheads, Belushi’s Samurai Warrior, Radner’s Emily Litella (“Never mind”), Lovitz’s chronic liar Tommy Flanagan (“That’s the ticket!”), Murphy’s pimp Velvet Jones, Myers and Dana Carvey’s Wayne and Garth (“Schwing!”) of “Wayne’s World,” and many others.
Martin and Aykroyd’s horny Czech swingers — “We are wild and crazy guys!” — seemed to be equipped with some sort of shoulder-gyrating mechanisms beneath their loud, unbuttoned shirts. Billy Crystal’s sleazy interviewer Fernando was always quick to praise with his trademark phrase, “Mahvelous, just mahvelous!” At the Billy Goat Cafe, everyone seemed to order “Chee’burger! Chee’burger!” from Belushi’s fry-cook. The memorable bits run into triple figures.
Hippest gig in America
Broadcast live from NBC’s Studio 8H in Manhattan’s Rockefeller Center, the show attracted a huge variety of guest hosts and cutting-edge musical talents, who caught on to the fact the “SNL” forum was the hippest gig in America. Albert Brooks, who made short films that were shown on “SNL” during the debut season, gave Michaels and the network the idea of having revolving hosts.
“They wanted me to be the host and, at that point, I wanted my acting career to grow, and I was doing so much TV,” Brooks says, “that I didn’t want to be the host when they came and asked me. I said, ‘Use revolving hosts.’ To me, it was an excuse. But they bought the idea.”
Repeat guest stars were honorary Not-Ready-for-Prime-Timer Steve Martin, as well as Elliott Gould, Buck Henry, Robin Williams, Candice Bergen and John Goodman. But the show also proved to be a new challenge to conquer for such seasoned dramatic sides of beef as Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas, George Kennedy and Broderick Crawford, as well as such other unique choices as Ronald Reagan Jr., Julian Bond, Ralph Nader and Ron Nessen.
The American public saw quite an eclectic mix of musical talents, from Devo to the Talking Heads to Aerosmith to Carly Simon. Filmmaker Gary Weiss and his claymation films featured the misadventures of Mr. Bill and his dog, Spot, usually at the hands of the sadistic Mr. Sluggo.
Strong writers’ stable
The “SNL” writers stable included many of the era’s most ubiquitous comic scribes. Some of their names are Anne Beatts, Tom Davis, Marilyn Suzanne Miller, Michael O’Donoghue, Tom Schiller, Rosie Shuster and Alan Zweibel, as well as Michaels and many of the performers, including Aykroyd, Belushi, Murray, Brian Doyle-Murray, Garrett Morris and Christopher Guest.
When the show lasted and lasted — defying critics who wrote it off as stale or having lost impact at various points — some new talent or running gag would usually emerge to capture the public’s attention. The popularity of the “Wayne’s World” episodes repeated the spinoff movie-hit phenomenon of “The Blues Brothers” (1978) a decade and half later with two big moneymakers, “Wayne’s World” (1992) and “Wayne’s World 2” (1993).
Even august encyclopedias have taken notice of the show’s influence, popularity and irreverence. “In some way,” comments Alex McNeil in “Total Television,” “it represented the boldest leap in television comedy since ‘Your Show of Shows.’ ”