History of Saturday Night Live (1975–80)
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From the beginning, SNL was a success. While, at first, creator Lorne Michaels commanded a more traditional variety show with an emphasis on musical performances, the show soon developed its own identity with help from the "Not Ready For Prime Time Players". After an unstable first season, more and more sketch comedy got on the air, and SNL became something of a New York institution. The first four seasons of the show were a hit both commercially and critically, catapulting the original cast into stardom.
For the 1979–80 season, cast members Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi left the show. This season is considered underwhelming by most standards, possibly due to the exhaustion of much of the cast and crew. After this season, Michaels attempted to take a break and appoint featured player/writer Al Franken his successor, only to be replaced behind his back with associate producer Jean Doumanian for the 1980–81 season.
- 1 The 1970s
- 2 Season breakdown
- 2.1 1975–1976 season
- 2.2 1976–1977 season
- 2.3 1977–1978 season
- 2.4 1978–1979 season
- 2.5 1979–1980 season
- 3 Presidential parody: The early years
- 4 Timeline
- 5 References
Conception and development
In 1974, NBC Tonight Show host Johnny Carson requested that the weekend broadcasts of "Best of Carson" (officially known as The Weekend Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson) come to an end (back then, The Tonight Show was a 90-minute program), so that Carson could take two weeknights off and NBC would thus air those repeats on those nights rather than feed them to affiliates for broadcast on either Saturdays or Sundays. Given Carson's undisputed status as the dean of late-night television, NBC heard his request as an ultimatum, fearing he might use the issue as grounds to defect to either ABC or CBS. To fill the gap, the network drew up some ideas and brought in Dick Ebersol – a protégé of legendary ABC Sports president Roone Arledge – to develop a 90-minute late-night variety show. Ebersol's first order of business was hiring a young Canadian producer named Lorne Michaels to be the show-runner.
Television production in New York was already in decline in the mid-1970s (The Tonight Show had departed for Los Angeles two years prior), so NBC decided to base the show at their studios in Rockefeller Center to offset the overhead of maintaining those facilities. Michaels was given Studio 8H, a converted radio studio that prior to that point was most famous for having hosted Arturo Toscanini and his orchestra in the 1950s, but was being used largely for network election coverage by the mid-1970s.
Season 1 (1975–1976)
When the first show aired on October 11, 1975 with George Carlin as its host, it was called NBC's Saturday Night because ABC featured a program at the same time titled Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell. After ABC cancelled the Cosell program in 1976, the NBC program changed its name to Saturday Night Live on March 26, 1977 (and subsequently picked up Bill Murray from Cosell's show in 1977, as well). The lead-in announcement for the first show introduced the cast as the "The not for ready, prime time players" instead of their actual name as "The Not Ready For Prime Time Players."
The show was intended to have just six episodes. The original concept was for a comedy-variety show featuring young comedians, live musical performances, short films by Albert Brooks, and segments by Jim Henson featuring atypically adult and abstract characters from the Muppets world. Rather than have one permanent host, Michaels elected to have a different guest host each week (Albert Brooks was originally booked to be a permanent host, and claims it was his idea to have a different host each week). The first episode featured two musical guests (Billy Preston and Janis Ian), and the second episode, hosted by Paul Simon on October 18, was almost entirely a musical variety show with various acts. The Not Ready For Prime-Time Players did not appear in this episode at all, other than as the bees with Simon telling them they were cancelled and Chase in the opening and "Weekend Update". Over the course of Season 1, sketch comedy would begin to dominate the show and SNL would more closely resemble its current format.
Original cast members
The original (1975–1980) repertory company was called the “Not Ready for Prime-Time Players.”
The first cast members were Second City alumni Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, and Gilda Radner and National Lampoon "Lemmings" alumnus Chevy Chase (whose trademark became his usual falls and opening spiel that cued the show's opening), Jane Curtin, Laraine Newman, Garrett Morris and George Coe in the first episode. The original head writer was Michael O'Donoghue, a writer at National Lampoon who had worked alongside several cast members while directing The National Lampoon Radio Hour. The original theme music was written by future Academy Award–winning composer Howard Shore, who – along with his band (occasionally billed as the "All Nurse Band" or "Band of Angels") – was the original band leader on the show. Paul Shaffer, who would go on to lead David Letterman's band on Late Night and then The Late Show, was also band leader in the early years.
Much of the talent pool involved in the inaugural season was recruited from the National Lampoon Radio Hour, an inventive, nationally syndicated comedy series that often satirized current events. Actors and writers from Radio Hour received much more exposure and recognition on Saturday Night.
Formula for success
Michaels fought and cajoled network executives to accept his vision for the show, which was far removed from standard variety-show conventions (one executive, visiting a dress rehearsal, noticed that the band was in blue jeans and asked when their tuxedos would arrive). Before the show began Michaels had remarked that he knew what the "ingredients [of SNL] would be, but not the proportions", and that the show would have to "find itself" on-air. Indeed, the Not Ready for Primetime Players were hardly featured in the Premiere, but quickly became the focus of the show, with the guest host and musical act playing a secondary role. Albert Brooks and the Muppets were also dropped after Season 1 and the beginning of the Season 2, respectively, but short films by writer Tom Schiller continued to be shown under the title "Schiller's Reel", as well as Walter Williams' popular budget claymation segment "Mr. Bill".
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Perhaps due to his recurring news parody sketch "Weekend Update," (which survives to this day, albeit with new anchors) Chevy Chase was the first breakout star of SNL, appearing on magazine covers, doing interviews, and receiving two Emmy awards in 1976 (one for performing and one for writing). His signature sketches were his hosting of the Weekend Update news parody feature, as well as opening the show with a pratfall. On Sept. 18, 1976, during the Ford-Carter debate sketch Debate '76, Chase tumbled off his podium. Because it wasn't padded, he broke his groin. Dan Aykroyd, playing Jimmy Carter at the time, tried to help him but he fell, too. During the next two episodes, Chase appeared by phone, and by a picture of him calling from the hospital, with captions saying "VOICE OF CHEVY CHASE." He returned on Oct. 16, 1976 via wheelchair, and John Belushi, who flipped Chase's wheelchair forward.
Michaels later said that "[w]e both knew that [SNL] could go in one of two directions. It would either stay what it was ... or it would morph into The Chevy Chase Show." Chase received offers to star in films. NBC offered a prime-time series, but because he had signed a one-year contract, Chase was free to leave television for a film career.
Though Chase had never been friendly with most of the cast (a rivalry with John Belushi went all the way back to their work on The National Lampoon Radio Hour, and by the time he left for greener pastures early in Season 2 he couldn't even get along with Lorne Michaels), Chase returned to host the show several times over the next two decades, and relations were often strained; the cast (whatever their own personal conflicts) would usually unite in opposition or disgust towards him, even hiding en masse so that they would not have to share an elevator with him.
In 1978, Chase got into a brawl with Bill Murray mere moments before broadcast, and in 1985 he horrified many of the cast by suggesting a sketch where openly-gay performer Terry Sweeney develops AIDS and then show the audience how much weight he loses each week. In 1997, Chase was banned from ever hosting again. Despite this, Chase would occasionally make cameos following his ban from the show, most recently in the February 15, 2015 "Saturday Night Live 40th Anniversary Special" in season 40.
Bill Murray's first appearance was on January 15, 1977 after Chase left to pursue a movie career. Murray had a shaky start, forgetting his lines and seeming awkward on-camera. Many fans of Chase saw Murray as a replacement for him, and had been sending hate mail as well. By the end of the second season, he began to develop a following with a sleazy know-it-all persona. Many of his characterizations, such as Nick the Lounge Singer and Todd DiLamuca (originally Todd DiLabounta but the real DiLabounta threatened to sue), were instant classics.
By Season 2, SNL had developed into something of a television phenomenon. Like "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In" seven years earlier, it was, in many ways, a show that appealed to a younger audience, making it very attractive to advertisers. Recurring characters and catch-phrases (see below) soon entered the popular vernacular. It was also one of America's only mainstream national TV shows that consistently featured topical political satire. In 1976, Ron Nessen, press secretary for President Gerald Ford, hosted the show. Ford himself appeared in a pretaped opening sequence. The show had been very critical of Ford and promised to give him a break that night. On Oct. 30, 1976, Weekend Update played the 1974 broadcast of Ford pardoning President Richard Nixon and many backstage felt that decision was instrumental in helping Jimmy Carter win the '76 election, especially among younger voters.
Two notable "featured players" on the show included writer Al Franken (later elected US Senator from Minnesota) and (for Season 5) Harry Shearer, who later acted in several films (including This is Spinal Tap) and television series, including The Simpsons. The show also featured frequent guest appearances by comedians Steve Martin and Andy Kaufman.
Aykroyd and Belushi departed after Season 4 and subsequently found worldwide fame in the movie version of the Blues Brothers sketch. Belushi famously died of drug-related causes in 1982. Aykroyd had major roles in several hit comedies and even earned an Academy Award nomination (for 1989's "Driving Miss Daisy").
The final season with the remnants of the "Not Ready" crew was underwhelming by most standards. Drugs were a major problem backstage during the first five years. Aykroyd later said:
The cocaine was a problem. Not for me, it was never my favorite ... but it was around a lot, and it was affecting the work, the performance, the quality of the scripts ... wasting time, and that was bad.
Michaels later said:
The value system that was around there was, as long as people showed up on time, did their job, it was nobody's business what they did in their bedroom or in their lives. That value system turned out to be wrong.
Laraine Newman had developed serious eating disorders as well as a heroin addiction – she spent so much time in her dressing room playing Solitaire, that for Christmas 1979, Gilda gave her a deck of playing cards with a picture of Laraine on the face of each card.
Garrett Morris, who felt degraded from years of small roles and what he saw as racist sketches (at one point the writers were going to have him do a fake ad for "Tar Baby" toothpaste, which would make blacks' teeth stop glowing in the dark – only when black crew members walked off the set in protest did Michaels drop the idea), began free-basing cocaine and became unreliable. During rehearsals for the Kirk Douglas show, Morris ran screaming onto the set, saying that someone had put an "invisible robot" on his shoulder who watched him everywhere he went. He pleaded with them to get the robot off him.
Radner, meanwhile, was resented by many because she and Michaels had spent much of the year working on a Broadway play, and album, Gilda Live. She had recently broken off a relationship with Bill Murray, and they could barely speak to one another. Murray resented that the other male cast members had left him stranded and essentially forced him to play every male lead on the show. Exhausted, Gilda had few starring roles in Season 5.
Indeed, the most energetic and diverse performer in Season 5 was Jane Curtin, who was thrilled to see the "Bully Boys," as she called them (Aykroyd and Belushi), depart and who debuted a number of new characters and impressions while she had the chance (she became noted this season for her impersonation of Nancy Reagan). Other major contributors included Harry Shearer as well as writers Al Franken and Tom Davis (longtime writing partners who had given themselves meatier roles as the heavyweights departed) and Don Novello, a writer whose "Father Guido Sarducci" character was especially popular and appeared repeatedly during the fifth season.
In May 1980, the show was finishing up Season 5 and Lorne Michaels was ready for a break. Knowing that most of the cast and many of the writers would be departing, he attempted to persuade the network to put the show on hiatus for six months to re-cast; NBC refused this attempt to let the show survive in reruns for half a year. Michaels' contract was up for renewal, and he felt somewhat slighted by NBC in negotiations. Michaels had always had a tense relationship with then-NBC President Fred Silverman, and it was not helped by SNL's numerous on-air taunts about NBC's abysmal prime-time performance during Silverman's tenure. In fact, SNL was one of the few truly-popular shows on the network during this period, but Michaels and his representatives felt renewing his contract was a secondary priority to NBC executives behind Johnny Carson's, which was also up for renewal.
Michaels subsequently took his name off the show and left at the end of Season 5 along with the rest of the original cast and the writing staff, most of whom followed suit due to loyalty towards Michaels. Among these was Franken, whom Michaels had originally hand-picked as his successor; however, Franken had earlier in the season written and delivered a monologue on the show called "Limo for a Lame-O" that directly insulted Silverman, who had not been warned about the sketch and thereafter despised Franken. Harry Shearer, who had zero allegiance to Michaels, informed the incoming Executive Producer, Jean Doumanian, he would stay as long as she let him completely overhaul the program. Doumanian refused, so Shearer also bid farewell (he would return briefly in 1984–85).
The remaining "Not Ready For Primetime Players" appeared together for the last time on May 24, 1980 for the final episode of Season 5. The episode, hosted by longtime loyal host Buck Henry, gave a heartfelt goodbye from all the members of the cast, and Henry himself who – after hosting 10 times in five years – has yet to return to the show again, except for an appearance in the Sept. 24, 1989 15th Anniversary Special. At the end of the episode, the entire cast, writers, and Henry stood onstage for the goodnights. After a short farewell speech, Buck Henry signed off saying, "Goodnight … and goodbye … "
The band began playing the traditional closing music as Henry led the cast and crew off the stage, and through the studio exit. The camera tilted upward above the door to the flashing "On-Air" light, which shut off for the final time that season and signaling what was indeed the end of an era.
SNL's first opening montage basically consisted of different pictures from around New York, with plain white lettering for the titles. At this point the cast members did not have pictures, and were simply listed on the screen all at the same time. When the show first began, the "Not Ready For Primetime Players" were considered secondary to the host and musical guests. By mid-season, the players had made a name for themselves and became the focus of the show. Around this time, each cast member was individually announced with his/her picture.
- Dan Aykroyd
- John Belushi
- Chevy Chase
- George Coe (final episode: October 25th, 1975)
- Jane Curtin
- Garrett Morris
- Laraine Newman
- Michael O'Donoghue (final episode: November 15th, 1975)
- Gilda Radner
- Though they were only credited for the first few shows of the season, Coe and O'Donoghue appear regularly throughout Season 1. O'Donoghue would also appear regularly until the end of Season 4 but was never again credited as a cast member.
- The one common thread to all of the opening montages during this period was that Gilda Radner's image, whether still or moving, always had some variation of her biting into an apple.
This montage originated in the latter part of the 1975 season, and carried over into 1976. This version is from later in the season, and does not include Chevy Chase. Another version of this was used in Spring 1977 and uses the SNL title that it finally was able to use beginning in early 1977. Bill Murray's photo was added in late January 1977.
- Dan Aykroyd
- John Belushi
- Chevy Chase (final: October 30, 1976)
- Jane Curtin
- Garrett Morris
- Bill Murray (debut: January 15, 1977)
- Laraine Newman
- Gilda Radner
- Bill Murray joins the cast in January 1977, two and a half months after Chase's departure.
- The February 20, 1977 episode is the only one in the program's history to have never broadcast from New York. It was broadcast instead from the middle of Mardi Gras festivities in New Orleans, Louisiana, on a Sunday.
- Starting with the March 26, 1977, the show begins to call itself Saturday Night Live, instead of NBC's Saturday Night.
1977's opener had three different variations of a lighted marquee theme. The first consisted of the cast members in Times Square standing in front of their names being displayed on the large screen as they are introduced. Another showed the cast members' names and animated portrait on a binary-light marquee with their face superimposed over the display (used only in two episodes). The third simply introduced each cast member as they walked out of the subway (with the exception of Aykroyd and Radner who, curiously, were introduced using their Times Square shots from earlier in the season).
- This was the last season on which the cast members were called "Not Ready for Primetime Players".
The montage for the 1978 season was somewhat of an "oil painting" theme. Various photos from around New York were again shown, but had an oil painting overlay. This montage would carry over into the first part of the 1979 season with a few minor changes.
- Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi leave the cast after this season. Belushi and O'Donoghue (who also departed at season's end) make a cameo in the 100th episode in Season 5.
- Starting with this season, the host's name is announced first, and the non-hosting guests are announced after the cast members.
1979 had two montages. The first was much like the 1978 opener, but with a few different pictures and paintings. The second was a semi-animated opener, which also had somewhat of an oil painting theme. It was used only during the latter part of the 1979-1980 season (possibly because it took several weeks to complete).
- Peter Aykroyd (first episode: January 26, 1980)
- Tom Davis (first episode: November 17, 1979)
- Jim Downey (first episode: January 26, 1980)
- Brian Doyle-Murray (first episode: January 26, 1980)
- Al Franken (first episode: December 15, 1979)
- Don Novello / Father Guido Sarducci
- Tom Schiller (only episode: April 19, 1980)
- Paul Shaffer (first episode: November 17, 1979)
- Alan Zweibel (only episode: April 19, 1980) 
- Shearer joins the show as a featured player and is promoted to regular player in February.
- Shaffer is a major part of the show's band and had a role in several sketches (mainly a Don Kirshner impression) before 1979. Schiller was a longtime filmmaker for SNL (off and on from 1976–1994). Downey had been a writer and bit player since Season 2 would continue to write for SNL on and off for the next 25 years. Zweibel had been a writer since the beginning. Brian Doyle-Murray (Bill Murray's older brother) will return to the cast two years later for a season.
- Almost every writer and cast member on the show, including Lorne Michaels, left SNL at the end of the season. Brian Doyle-Murray was the only writer from Season 5 to stay on for Season 6.
Presidential parody: The early years
Since its debut episode, Saturday Night Live has dabbled in political mockery, often parodying the president and his White House officials. At the time of the show’s premiere in 1975, Gerald Ford was the nation’s commander-in-chief, having succeeded to the presidency after Richard Nixon's resignation in August 1974. As president, Ford's well-documented clumsiness was a source of national amusement, and thus subject to light mockery by the show’s writers; in the show's second episode (October 18, 1975), Chevy Chase announced during the Weekend Update that Ford's presidential vehicle had been involved in an accident. No injuries were reported, Chase said, but "when the President got out to see what had happened, he tore his jacket sleeve on the...car bumper, bumped his head, and stuck his thumb in his right eye. Alert Secret Service Agents seized the thumb and wrestled it to the ground. Said Mr. Ford, quote: "I just assumed my thumb was in my pocket with the rest of my fingers"."
During his tenure on SNL, Chase portrayed Ford as a bumbling fool who tripped over his podium, fell down steps, and stumbled through speeches; Chase's departure from the show early in Season 2 coincided with the 1976 presidential elections, in which Democratic candidate Jimmy Carter was elected the 39th American president. Cast member Dan Aykroyd was selected to portray the new president in the subsequent seasons, all of which overemphasized Carter's southern roots and the country twang in his voice. An episode hosted by Ralph Nader on January 15, 1977 depicts Carter as a die-hard Confederate general, using his status as president-elect to take over the nation and declaring "Finally, the flagrant rape of the Confederacy by the Yankee war dogs is gonna be avenged...".
Political parody was something relatively new to American mainstream television in 1975; comedy shows in the past had rarely dared to push the envelope and engage in political mockery that could be construed as offensive and un-American. By satirizing the head of the nation, SNL redefined the parameters of acceptable television content, and became, according to NBC executive Dick Ebersol, "the first television show to speak the language of the time".
Repertory Cast Members
Featured Cast Members
- "Live From New York: The First 5 Years of Saturday Night Live". 2005-02-20. NBC. Missing or empty
- "The SNL Archives: 1979-1980". Retrieved 8 April 2015.
- Lonergan, Patrick
- Lonergan, Patrick; snltranscripts.jt.org
- Miller, James Andrew and Shales, Tom. Live From New York 2002. Pages 19–20