Still Not Ready for Prime Time

Saturday Night’s Early Years

The eight-disc DVD set Saturday Night Live - The Complete First Season collects all twenty-four episodes of what is apparently considered the first season of the venerable institution, starting with the premiere (first broadcast on October 11, 1975, following an original made-for-TV movie, The Deadly Tower, starring a post-Disney, pre-Elvis Kurt Russell as Texas tower sniper Charles Whitman, unless my memory is playing tricks on me) and concluding with a couple of fairly unsightly episodes that, for some reason, were done in the middle of the summer of 1976, after a two-month layoff. I’m not sure that anyone really ever expected the collection to happen, and there’s been a lot of huzzahing in the media over the pristine completeness of the set and expressions of admiration over how much work must have gone into things like getting clearances on the music rights. It is an impressive object, and I’m glad to have it up there on the shelf, but honesty compels me to point out that there are still some obvious flaws.

To start with, there’s the title. The show that ran in 1975 and 1976 was not called Saturday Night Live. The listings in TV Guide referred to it simply as Saturday Night, and that’s mostly how people on the show refer to it, though it was also sometimes called NBC’s Saturday Night; I remember that’s what Cleveland Amory, the closest thing I had to a connection to H. L. Mencken growing up in a house with no magazines besides TV Guide, called it. (NBC’s Saturday Night is also the designation used on the black & white photos of the hosts that used to appear whenever the show would return from commercial break. I guess someone figured that there’s no point to them when there aren’t any commercial breaks to come back from, because most of them are gone from the discs except for one at the very end of the episodes, before the fade to the host and the cast gathered before the camera to say goodbye. Personally, I miss them. They were part of the homey flavor of the early seasons.)

One day in the spring of 1977, I looked in the latest TV Guide to see who the next guest host would be, and that’s when I first saw Saturday Night Live. This was well into the second season, after the departures of Chevy Chase, the Muppets, and “a film by Albert Brooks,” and I still remember taking an instant dislike to the new title and seeing it as the strongest evidence to appear during my lifetime up to that point that the world was going to the dogs. I did not then know (not having read Doug Hill & Jeff Weongrad’s invaluable chronicle of the show’s early years, which would not be published until 1986) that backstage, the show had always thought of itself as Saturday Night Live but first dropped the “live” from its title so as to avoid being confused with Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell, a prime-time variety show starring the legendary sports broadcaster, which premiered shortly before its late-night namesake and which proceeded to do a fast fade from the airwaves, despite its being the only weekly series that could readily offer such delights as the sight of Mr. Cosell singing a duet with Muhammad Ali. I never had the chance to see the Cosell show — my father despised Cosell because he suspected him of being overly sympathetic to loud-mouthed uppity Negroes, even before he started singing with them — and so I also did not know until I read Hill and Weingrad’s book that it had included a troupe of comedians called the Prime Time Players (whose ranks included Chase’s eventual replacement, Bill Murray), and that by calling its regulars “the Not Ready for Prime Time Players,” Saturday Night was getting its licks in.

It’s too bad that Michaels was too tuckered out from his exertions getting the material free to go to market to sit down and do some DVD commentaries, or even to get on the horn and ask former cast members, hosts and writers to do the same, because I may not be the only person who finds this trivia interesting. If I am, you people are in trouble. I’ve been obsessed with art and entertainment my whole boring life, and for just about every important cultural ripple during that time — from punk and hip-hop to the internet and reality TV — I’ve been a late arriver. Saturday Night was the one time I was present at the creation, out there on the tip of the cutting edge from the word go. I used to wait until my daddy was dead to the world, then tiptoe into the living room, turn the set on and set the volume at near zero, and watch excitedly while sitting way up close to the tube, pleasantly awash in the white bath of the cathode rays. With my right hand I would sometimes have to jiggle the little round dial that controlled the position of our TV antennae, which was twelve feet above the ground and strapped to a pole planted between two peach trees off to the side of the house.

We lived in a little rural area called Jayess, Mississippi, and to watch the show, I had to pick up an NBC affiliate based in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; WLBT, the local NBC affiliate based in Jackson, Mississippi, did not carry Saturday Night at all until 1978, because, according to a statement that the channel’s CEO released to the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, he himself did not think the show was funny. (Shows that the head of WLBT must, therefore, have regarded as a laugh riot, include CPO Sharkey, The Kallikaks, and The McLean Stevenson Show.) Instead, WLBT continued to fill its post-evening news Saturday slot with a selection of the finest films any local TV programmer with a limited budget and a fondness for Karen Valentine could to provide. (The station rethought its position after National Lampoon’s Animal House made John Belushi a movie star, though it continued to show late-night movies on Saturday and ran Saturday Night Live starting sometime past midnight; so much for that “live” business.)

I was not in the show’s desired demographic group at the time, what with being pre-pubescent and all; my other big TV fave was Hong Kong Phooey. I remember, though, that I wanted something from television that I wasn’t getting — a stunning thing to admit considering how much of the time I spent parked in front of the set. It’s long since become a constant in articles about the birth of Saturday Night that it represented a new generation claiming its birthright to airtime and making a small, late-night section of the network schedule safe for hipness. These articles tend to lean heavily on the generational divide angle, and early interviews with cast and crew tend to be encrusted with snotty references to the likes of Johnny Carson and Carol Burnett, to name two performers from who the young whippersnappers still had much they could learn. I never had a dog in that particular race. I just wanted a kind of comedy that, to borrow Pauline Kael’s analysis of the formula that Your Show of Shows and early Woody Allen trafficked in, conferred upon the viewer “the blessing ... of being both smart and ridiculous.” The Bob Newhart Show had that, but I was looking for something looser than a sitcom could be. Carol Burnett had it, particularly in her show’s parodies of old movies, but there was a family-entertainment tinge to her craziness, and I wanted something that carried more of a charge, more — though I wouldn’t have known how to characterize it at the time — disreputable, in the manner of a midnight movie. Also even at age nine, I was enough of a snob to want something with fewer guest appearances by Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme.

Whatever it was I was looking for, I got it from Saturday Night, right from its first uneven, imperfect first episode (hosted by George Carlin, who did several monologues but refused to participate in any of the sketches, and padded out with appearances by various comics — including the amazing young Andy Kaufman — and musicians, including the dire Janis Ian). It’s clear to me now that what was most important about it, and what made it feel liberating — both to its boomerish target audience and someone, like me — was the feel of it all. In its first season, the series felt loose in an incredibly attractive way, and that’s probably why it didn’t seem to matter that it was so uneven or that it took a while to hit its full stride. (That didn’t really happen until the fourth episode, hosted by Candice Bergen. Bergen enjoyed herself so much that she came back a month later to host the Christmas show, and it’s easy to see why the show wanted her back; she has the air of a future prom queen romping in the mud in her best dress, and there are few things in the world more irresistible than a painfully beautiful woman having a great time making a fool of herself. Bergen, who for most of her movie career was one of the worst leading actresses ever, gave the show a bit of stardust, and in return, her appearances on it earned her more of a reputation as a comedienne than all the interminable seasons of Murphy Brown.)

The show felt shaggy and companionable in its early days, and because it was often as good as it was, it could make viewers indulgent during the stuff that dragged or didn’t come off. It had a real “let’s put on a show” vibe. That looseness allowed for a lot of variety, and the amount of territory that it took in may only be more fascinating now that we know what, from a vantage point of thirty years, was groundbreaking and what was just weird. Some of the weird stuff is oddly charming: Bergen taking a moment to have a serious chat with an activist for senior citizens’ issues, or three dancing, lip-syncing moppets called the Shapiro Sisters, and the guy dressed as a construction worker who proceeds to do a striptease (revealing that he’s in bra and panties) while bellowing the lyrics to “I Gotta Be Me”- but maybe we can forgive that one as a prophecy of the coming of the Village People. The talent bookers’ prize catch was definitely Andy Kaufman. He puts in several appearances during the show’s first few months, and it’s great that this material was documented. People who know Kaufman mainly for the posthumous mythology that’s sprung up around his wrestling “career” and the other media pranks he pulled without ever letting the audience in on the gag — a little flaw in the plan that turned the jokes sour and selfish — may be rocked back on their heels when they see how much fun Kaufman was at his peak. In his crowning moment, he pulls four people out of the audience, and though these are young New Yorkers who were hip enough to be present at a taping of Saturday Night, he soon has them lip-synching to a children’s record and looking as if they were in danger of keeling over from an overdose of sheer happy.

Some of the sharpest and most idiosyncratic comedy comes from the series of short films that Albert Brooks contributed, which tend to be both very funny and ingratiatingly rough; Brooks agreed to the idea partly because he was interested in making his own features, and you can practically see him figuring out one end of the camera from the other. According to Hill and Weingrad, Brooks’s connections with the show’s producers cooled after his second short came in way over the agreed-upon length and he used his pull with the episode’s host, Rob Reiner, to get it on the air. The regular cast’s feelings towards the other “name” talent during the first season, the Muppets, were apparently never all that warm, and although Jim Henson created a small cast of characters expressly for the show, their participation is probably best remembered for Michael O’Donoghue’s line “I don’t write for felt.” I remember thinking that the Muppets were a big deal at the time, and the fact that they inspired so much backstage rancor makes me feel inclined to think kindly on them now, but I must confess that, as I’ve made my way through the DVDs, I’ve been timing my bathroom breaks to fall when they’re on.

The steady edging out of the Muppets was a frequent subject for humor on the show itself; it wasn’t long before they abandoned their elaborate, self-contained set to spend their screen time haranguing the guest hosts and lamenting the lack of respect they got. Other sketches centered on the sense among the cast members that Chevy Chase’s celebrity was getting a little out of hand, with specific emphasis on how much John Belushi wanted to kill him for it. Some genius whose name is lost to history thought that it would be both a scream and a reassurance move for the viewers if the cast got into bee costumes once every week; this soon led to sketch after sketch about how stupid the bee costumes were and how much the cast in general (and again, Belushi in particular) hated putting them on. One of the most elaborate of these sketches ended with technical difficulties that were resolved by Michaels ’firing’ the show’s director, Dave Wilson, on camera. Saturday Night used gags about breaking the fourth wall again and again, to the point that, looking back at these shows now, I started feeling that this, more than Emily Litella, was the original running joke that they really hammered into the ground. Yet at the time, it had a lot to do with the excitement the show generated, and so did the way the show seemed to hang its dirty laundry out in public.

It’s hardly a surprise that Chase stood out; he was the tallest cast member, the most conventionally handsome, he opened every show with one of his slapstick pratfalls, and he hosted the centerpiece TV news parody, “Weekend Update,” which gave him the chance to refer to himself by name at least once a week. In the screen tests that are included as a DVD bonus, there’s an ominous moment when Chase, surrounded by people like Dan Aykroyd and others who are giving it their all, just smirks into the camera, delivers a pre-scripted sick joke that will later turn up in a “Weekend Update,” and goes back to grinning confidently at the camera, until someone asks him “Are you proud of your teeth?” It’s pretty much his entire career boiled down to three minutes.

Chase deserves his share of credit for his own and the show’s success, though. His plasticene loveliness may have reassured the network suits (who for a while were touting him as a replacement for Johnny Carson), but it could have easily made him seem out of place in this funky company. Chase was probably the first comedian on regular American TV to demonstrate the post-’60s specialty of performing in quotation marks, sending himself up for the amusement of an audience that wanted to be told that it was enjoying something hipper and more subversive than their father’s entertainment, even if it was just some guy falling off a ladder. (Chase’s career hit a wall almost immediately once he left the show for movies, because he fell into the hands of writers and directors - such as Colin Higgins, who was responsible for Chase’s first movie as a star, the rancid Foul Play - who didn’t know how to keep the quotation marks in place. Without them, Chase frequently just came across as a vain, dumb lug.) It’s too bad that this set stops before the first appearance of Steve Martin, which came early in the second season. Chase may have provided the unlikely proof that it was now possible to become a star by parodying the idea that you were star material, but it was Martin who’d take this stylized, parodistic nobody-home self-mockery to the level of art, and stretch it so far that he could apply it, in different degrees, to everything from a sit-down with Johnny Carson to the lead role in Pennies from Heaven.

The trick of titillating viewers by hinting at what tensions lurked behind the scenes was an idea that the show lifted from National Lampoon (which once put together a “Self-Indulgence” issue devoted to letting the staff settle scores among themselves). Lampoon is the obvious missing link between The Groove Tube and Saturday Night, not least for all the personnel they had in common. Michaels poached his star writer, Michael O’Donoghue, and his associate Anne Beatts, from the magazine, and Chase, Belushi, and Gilda Radner had all done time in the Lampoon stage revues and radio show. Lampoon had done great, thundering work during its early ’70s golden age, when Doug Kenney and Henry Beard dominated the magazine editorially and people like O’Donoghue used it as a communal environment in which they could give full vent to their fantasies. But by 1975, Lampoon was played out; Beard had cashed in his stock options and departed, O’Donoghue had left in an angry huff, and even Kenney was showing signs of running on fumes. Saturday Night didn’t just adapt the Lampoon style, with modifications, to television; it showed up in time to carry on that style after Lampoon had become too enfeebled to hold its banner high.

This is a matter of dismay in some quarters. In his memoir-cum-study of “boomer humor,” Going Too Far (which is probably still the best thing ever written about Lampoon’s salad days), Tony Hendra bitterly denounces Saturday Night as a latter day Laugh-In, a corruption of 60s-style comedy committed by a man — Lorne Michaels — who was whorish, commercially minded, and — shudder! — Canadian! Hendra makes it clear where he stands when he explains that the early Lampoon was always meant to serve as “an alternative to television.” He also made much of the fact that, by writing one of the acclaimed high spots of Saturday Night’s first season, the Star Trek parody “The Last Voyage of the Starship Enterprise,” his old comrade O’Donoghue had stooped to writing about TV itself. (O’Donoghue may have been vulnerable emotionally on this point; in the early ’80s, after Saturday Night Live had gone soft and stale and was being compared invidiously to SCTV, O’Donoghue was not above sneering that SCTV was of no real interest because all they did there was make fun of television.)

The fact is that Saturday Night was never better than when it parodied television, and it was in its TV parodies that it really showed the best of the influence of the Michael Gross-era Lampoon. TV comedians had done skits about TV before, but most of them didn’t really deserve a honorific like “parody.” On his TV specials, Bob Hope and the assembled guest performers would dress up like Batman and Robin or Hoss and Little Joe; thus attired, they would stand around staring at the cue cards off-screen and deliver such like, “Hi, Paw! I just got back from Little Big Horn. Wow, I haven’t seen that many grown men crying since Barry Goldwater’s victory party.” The “Star Trek” sketch, by contrast, was basically a piece of satirical TV criticism, written from a fan’s perspective — it builds to the line, spoken by Belushi’s Captain Kirk after he has been told of his show’s cancellation, “Except for one television network, we have discovered intelligent life everywhere in the galaxy” — and is played out on a set that is as meticulous a reproduction of the look of the original series as anything Gross might have done.

I suspect that the moment I first decided that the show was something special came during its first parodies of TV commercials — which, unlike the spoofs of commercials that cluttered prime time variety shows, were so precise that there was the risk of mistaking them for the real thing. When, years before a million TV comics established the ground rules for a ritual listing of Star Trek clichés, Kirk turns on the intercom to speak to the engine room and we hear Dan Aykroyd imitating James Doohan’s Scottish accent in full, panicked emergency mode (“I canna do it, Captain!”), the live audience has what sounds like a collective orgasm. And this is perhaps the most important thing about the show that made it possible for it to speak both to its intended boomer audience and kids like me: it was written and performed by and for people who had grown up with television and were eager to see it taken apart — but with love, by people who shared the intimate knowledge of it that made possible such shared-recognition moments. Whether he liked it or not, even someone as self-consciously marginal in his stated cultural interests as Michael O’Donoghue had that inside knowledge of the TV culture we’d grown up with; a British émigré like Tony Hendra didn’t, so he couldn’t understand why anyone would be compelled to satirize Star Trek, let alone get the details exactly right. On this, if nothing else, Tony Hendra and Bob Hope were stranded together, uncomprehendingly, on the same side of the river.

The amount of love mingled with the show’s mixed feelings about television is apparent in the episode hosted by Desi Arnaz. The episode would be not just unfunny but bewildering to anyone who doesn’t love Arnaz for his place in pop culture history. It includes not just skits about I Love Lucy (in which the elder Arnaz is represented by his son, Desi, Jr.) but a delectable parody of the Arnaz-produced The Untouchables, featuring Desi as the special guest gangster and a euphoric closing number in which Arnaz, fifty-nine years old and looking older but acting like a man possessed, leads the cast in a conga line while banging his drums and singing “Babalu.” It’s an episode-length tribute, and it goes down a lot easier than the second episode, an almost comedy-free celebration of boomer icon Paul Simon, which comes across as a prolonged act of star-fucking on the part of Lorne Michaels. (To see what it looks like when an attempted tribute goes wrong, you’d have to track down the infamous 1979 episode hosted by Milton Berle, who kicked off the festivities with a monologue built around such zingers as “Three hundred Puerto Ricans in a crash! The bed collapsed!”)

If you shared Hendra’s distaste for comedy about TV and peerless silliness best summed up by the phrase “land shark,” you might well wonder how Saturday Night earned much of a reputation for satire at all. The most memorable “political” sketch of the first season is probably “The Final Days,” a burlesque of material from the Woodward and Bernstein account of Richard Nixon’s crackup that is famous for having saved an unproductive Al Franken and Tom Davis from a firing. The sketch, which is reported to have been written while the partners were stoned to the gills and which features not just the premiere of Dan Aykroyd’s Nixon impression but nifty turns by Gilda Radner and Chase as Julie Nixon Eisenhower and David Eisenhower (“My God, he does look like Howdy Doody!”), Belushi as Kissinger (“Pray with me, Henry!”), and Garrett Morris as Sammy Davis, Jr., has the brio of classic MAD come to life. But like the TV parodies, it’s an exercise in nostalgia; Nixon had been out of office for close to two years when it aired.

Watching this stuff now, I’m constantly brought up short by how much of it I didn’t get at the time — stuff like Radner playing a square housewife who’s hired a leather-clad dominatrix (Jane Curtin) to help with the housecleaning, having seen her ad in The Village Voice. (“S & M — scrubbing and mopping, I suppose.”) What kills me, though, is how much stuff there is that I didn’t understand at the time, but that I thought was hilarious anyway. I had no idea who Generalisimo Francisco Franco was in 1975, and I didn’t know that to have a mock newscaster repeat, week after week, that he was “still dead” was both a joke about the long deathwatches that TV news shows indulge in and a play on the reluctance of authoritarian regimes to acknowledge that the fearless leader might have one foot in the grave, as well as a chance to use the memory of an evil man as a piñata. But I loved it for the same reason that I loved “land shark” — the sheer silliness of it that flirted with the surreal. I felt the same way about the moments when the camera would catch Chase’s newscaster talking to his girlfriend on the phone — about her blow job technique, though I didn’t know that at the time. (“Remember that truck that passed us on the road? I could almost swear they saw your head. Honey, it did not look like you were napping!”) I didn’t even have to know—as I didn’t until I read the Hill and Weingrad book—that there really had been a TV performer called “Professor Backwards” who really had been murdered for me to know that it was funny to hear that witnesses “ignored the Professor’s cries of ‘Pleh! Pleh! ’” (Actually, in that case, it may have helped that I didn’t know that.) I wonder if this process is now being reversed among people who don’t remember, or who are too young to know about, some of the references that I did understand at the time. For instance, how many people today know that there used to be a commercial in which someone would line up a row of cars outside in cold weather overnight, and then show that the sponsor’s car was the only one that started easily the next morning? What, then, to make of the sketch in which a bunch of senior citizens are left outside overnight, and the sponsor’s pacemaker is the one that kicks in right away? For all I know, it may be funnier when it doesn’t seem to refer to anything.

In the fall of 1977, the Baton Rouge NBC affiliate that I watched Saturday Night on jumped to ABC, and for about a year, until the Jackson station relented and began broadcasting the show, I had no way of watching it. When I picked it back up, it felt different. I suspect that if I’d been watching it through that missing year, the changes would have been less noticeable and wouldn’t have bothered me as much. I kept watching faithfully, but I became one of the first cranks to complain that Saturday Night wasn’t what it used to be; I was complaining about it at the same time that most of the people I knew were just discovering it. And of course, the show that I was dissatisfied with was the one that Michaels and his crew were proudest of, the one where they’d worked out the kinks. I missed the kinks; I missed the shaggy looseness. The late original-cast Saturday Night Live still presented itself as countercultural, but by then the boomers were the dominant consumer group, and people who watched TV after 11 PM were no longer regarded as freaks by advertisers and programmers. By 1978, Saturday Night Live was the culture, not the counterculture, and the people once happy to perform under a joke name like “Not Ready for Prime Time Players” were stars.

I don’t want to make too much of this now. I don’t think there’s any way that the show could have maintained its anti-professional aura for much more than a year or so, not unless they’d started booting people — cast members, writers, producers — out the door as soon as they had some name recognition to keep the talent pool flowing; there are a lot of reasons, some of them good, why that was never likely to happen. I do think that Michaels made an artistic mistake in emphasizing recurring characters, even real groaners like Roseanne Rosannadanna, at the expense of fresh ideas. Worse, he came to take under his wing those performers (such as Gilda Radner) who were openly, nakedly willing to do whatever it took to get some love from an audience, at the expense of those who (like Laraine Newman) wanted to do something different every chance they got, and were more interested in exploring the limits of freakishness than in coming across as wuv-me cute. (Some of the most unsettling material in the first season comes in the early episodes where Radner does monologues about what she’s been eating lately, which in light of her battles with bulimia now seem like a nationally televised cry for help. As for Newman, she never did get the opportunities she deserved, even though Greil Marcus once wrote that her nose job was more of a tragedy than John Belushi’s death. At least both Beluishi and Bill Murray eventually became powerful enough that they could torture Michaels a little for having neglected them in favor of his buddy Chevy Chase.) The show also ceded part of its responsibility by becoming too polished and formulaic to really showcase a white-hot comic talent the way it had once been designed to. Among the episodes from the first season that best stand up today are those, such as the ones hosted by Richard Pryor and Lily Tomlin, that are built around a giant at the top of his or her form.

The show turned slick, but that wasn’t enough to kill it. Today Michaels seems to regard it as a farm team where he can develop performers with youth appeal who can be spun off into terrible movies based on godawful recurring sketch characters, but there have been times since the early years — particularly in the late ’80s, when Phil Hartman, Jan Hooks, Jon Lovitz, Nora Dunn, and Dana Carvey were all aboard — that it’s been as good as any comedy on TV. What it lost, sometime around the middle of the second season, and has never gotten back, is the special feeling that comes back to me when I look at the first shows again, and which I can only call romantic. Despite whatever ungodly, high-pressure, drug-addled haze in which those shows were done, they felt playful, like the kids on the block and the rich, famous folks who’d dropped by for a week really were having fun. They went into the show not knowing if they’d still have careers when the dust had settled, and as a boy out in the boondocks who had no access to Variety and never heard the show mentioned by anyone in the real world, I had no idea if it would really be coming back next Saturday.

There’s also the New York factor to consider. At the time, New York was supposedly dying — it was the ungovernable city, teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, the backdrop for urban horror stories like Death Wish and Taxi Driver — and something like the Dunkirk spirit comes through in the shows. At the time, the only thing I knew about New York was that it was where people like this lived and worked, and that was enough to make it seem like a wonderful place. From the ’80s on, the opening credits for Saturday Night Live have followed the model of the city that’s become associated with Donald Trump. They’re big and glitzy, with images of skyscrapers and cast members trying to look cool and being fetishized for what Michaels thinks (maybe rightly) his audience respects now: power — even if it’s only the power of a TV star with a contract that puts him in indentured servitude. I miss the old concrete garret look of the original stage, and I very, very much miss the images that used to go with the opening credits and which are reproduced in the DVD booklet: a stocky guy who looks like Weegee sitting in his cab eating watermelon, a big bald guy kissing a grinning woman who’s biting into a slice of pizza, and especially the last shot of a couple sharing an umbrella. Like I say, romantic. I don’t know if they’d have meant anything to me if I’d been ten years older, or if I’d lived in New York at the time. But seeing them when I did, where I was, they seemed to represent a homey, happy New York that probably never existed except in the head of a small boy who felt very out of place.