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How Bill Murray Saved ‘Saturday Night Live’

It’s hard to imagine now, but in 1977, Bill Murray was struggling to fill Chevy Chase’s shoes, so much so that he delivered an on-air plea for support from the “Saturday Night Live” audience. His rebound not only marked the beginning of a ready-for-primetime career, but also helped set a template that turned the NBC franchise into one of TV’s most renewable resources.

Murray, then in his mid-20s, joined “SNL” after Chase — thanks to his prat falls and “Weekend Update” segment, the program’s first breakout star — had left to pursue a movie career.

In the early going, Murray was generally deemed a failure, which is why his pitch — tongue in cheek as it was — had a slightly uncomfortable ring of truth about it.

“I don’t think I’m making it on the show,” Murray said, telling viewers it would be a big help — not just to him, naturally, but the widowed mother he supports — “If you could see it in your heart to laugh whenever I say something.”

Murray, of course, rallied spectacularly from his early misfires, and his “SNL” characters remain some of the most indelible the program has produced. Even now, it’s hard not to smile thinking about his Todd & Lisa sketches with Gilda Radner, or Murray’s obnoxious lounge entertainer putting lyrics to the “Star Wars” theme.

More significantly, however, in terms of “SNL’s” longevity, was the message Chase’s exit and Murray’s ascent delivered — namely, that the show could weather the loss of talent. People could come and go, usually to pursue movie careers, and their replacements would fill the void.

Moreover, many of those new “Not Ready for Primetime Players” would blossom into stars themselves, establishing Lorne Michaels’ creation not only as a launching pad for movie headliners (and thus a magnet for performers) but also a commodity that was bigger than any single or even combination of cast members. Eventually, even characters introduced within the program became fodder for movies, such as “Wayne’s World.”

Obviously, there have been arid patches in terms of “SNL’s” makeup over the years, and not all those who have sought to make the leap from the show have enjoyed equal success. For every Eddie Murphy, there’s been a Joe Piscopo — whose movies ultimately led to taking refuge in talkradio — or two.

The basic blueprint, however, has endured. And while “The Daily Show” has come to rival “SNL” both as a vehicle for minting viable comedy talent and a source of satire with an inordinately large cultural footprint, the fact the NBC series remains this formidable as the college students who first watched it age into their 60s is a feat rivaled by few TV franchises — even fewer if you omit news, such as “Today” or “60 Minutes,” from the mix.

Indeed, realizing that “SNL” has remained on the cutting edge of the youth-obsessed comedy game makes its longevity all the more surprising. And while “The Tonight Show” has a longer history, the epic tenures of its hosts — with Johnny Carson and Jay Leno holding down the fort for a half-century between them — has required less adaptability than “Saturday Night” has exhibited in needing to reload every few years.

Murray was just the first addition to keep the show humming along, and singling him out isn’t intended to diminish Michaels and company’s role in consistently finding budding stars across two generations. Still, who’s to say all that would have played out quite so serendipitously had Murray not recovered from his foundering start to become a standout player.

So as Lisa might have told Todd, way to go, Pizza Face.

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