Saturday Night Live is not dead

The original Not Ready for Prime Time Players
The original Not Ready for Prime Time Players

It feels like we’ve been celebrating the Saturday Night Live 40th Anniversary for approximately 40 years now, but the biggest bang is yet to come with a four-hour live reunion/tribute show this Sunday night. I’m not sure why we’re doing all of this commemorating now, when the actual 40th anniversary of the debut of SNL is not until Oct. 11. But if it gets Jane Curtin and Laraine Newman back on TV, if only for one night, that’s OK with me.

There have already been so many SNL anniversary pieces and listicles written that one more would be superfluous. But I do have something to toss into the mix. Let me tell you what it was like to watch the debut of SNL on Oct. 11, 1975, as an 18-year-old college freshman.

It’s simple: Before SNL, there was nothing.

The three networks didn’t program in late-night on Saturday nights; old movies aired locally in that spot. And there were no off-mainstream humor shows aimed at baby boomers running in prime time. (Although Home Box Office existed, there was no real cable programming yet.) The closest we came to having a comedy show of our own was the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, which managed to air for three seasons on CBS, despite being under constant threat of censorship and cancellation for its drug references and anti-Vietnam War sentiments. But that was nearly eight years before, and I, for one, had been too young to really get it. Oh, George Carlin, Richard Pryor and Robert Klein were around, performing their boundary-breaking stand-up on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, but none of them had a weekly gig.

The only place to regularly see weird, surreal, sometimes transgressive counterculture comedy was my local PBS station, which aired reruns of Monty Python’s Flying Circus from the BBC. Monty Python was a revelation for me;  it was the first time I fell in thrall to comedians the way I was in thrall to rock stars. Maybe it was their British accents.

Anyway, this was how I got my comedy fill in high school: Python, variety shows like The Carol Burnett Show and Sonny and Cher, Johnny Carson. And then something magical happened. On Oct. 11, 1975, at 11:30 p.m., my boyfriend and I sat down in front of the TV to do what we always did on Saturday nights: make out. But Saturday Night Live wouldn’t let us. The cold open was a very Pythonesque skit in which a foreign man in a hat with earflaps and an overcoat receives an English lesson from a teacher who makes him repeat such phrases as, “I would like to feed your fingertips to the wolverines,” and “I’m afraid we are out of badgers. Would you accept a wolverine in its place?”  The foreign man was played with deadpan innocence by pudgy, impish John Belushi, the teacher by the very unsettling, Ichabod Crane-like Michael O’Donaghue. We were hooked, even before we saw the bee sketch, the “Show Us Your Guns” commercial and Andy Kaufman miming the Mighty Mouse theme song.

Without the assistance of the Internet, without Twitter, without the massive media delivery and consumption machinery we now have in place, Saturday Night Live became an overnight happening, TV’s first cult hit. I had never seen Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, Laraine Newman, Jane Curtin, Chevy Chase or Garrett Morris before, but it was as if I’d known them, loved them, all my life. In the manner of the shaggy-haired and fearless Monty Python, the Not Ready for Prime Time Players had the aura of rock stars, and indeed, it wouldn’t be long before their posters were hanging on every dorm room wall.

To be an SNL fan in those first weeks was like being a member of a club that bestowed instant coolness.  SNL was ours. It was a ritual on campus, a show that was on late at night, that was funny whether you were stoned or straight, that aired some very outrageous, strange things. Everybody was talking about it: Who would the guest host be? Who would the musical guest be?  Will they do the Samurai skit again?  We all started dropping SNL catch phrases into conversation, like spies communicating in code: “I’m Chevy Chase and you’re not”; “Never mind!”; “Cheeseburgie!” I remember watching a comedy night put on by theater students in which every other skit was a blatant knock-off of bits from SNL. But who could blame them? We all had SNL on the brain. We were all besotted. SNL was Must-See TV, years before NBC rolled out that advertising slogan.

SNL in that first season was topical, daring and unreservedly silly. Then, as now, it relied heavily on advertising, TV and movie spoofs and recurring characters, but with more of an edge than similar spoofs on Carol Burnett, say. And then, as now, it could also be juvenile, annoyingly self-referential and self-indulgent. After 12:30, it was sometimes painfully flat. We endured its flaws, because the cool thing, the thing that lit us up, was the anarchy of it all;  watching it was like watching a circus knife-throwing act — there was always the possibility of carnage. (In fact, real blood was shed in a Samurai sketch in 1976 when Belushi accidentally slashed host Buck Henry in the forehead live on camera.) The first three years of SNL represented the changing of the TV comedy guard;  suddenly, Johnny Carson, once the epitome of hip, was looking very square. And, for better or worse, the change spilled over into movies, as Belushi departed to make National Lampoon’s Animal House in 1978, which launched a new genre of youth-pitched (or as the media called them, “gross-out”) comedies.

By 1980, all of the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players had left the show for feature films or network sitcoms;  creator/producer Lorne Michaels went with them, and the show was in disarray. I still watched with my boyfriend (soon-to-be-husband), but it often seemed more like holding a deathbed vigil than true enjoyment. SNL had been eclipsed in our hearts by the Canadian sketch comedy series SCTV (with John Candy, Martin Short, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Catherine O’Hara, et al), which NBC had picked up and slotted at 1 a.m. after SNL to create a hip comedy block. By 1982, when Belushi died of a drug overdose like the rock star he was, those early, stunning seasons of SNL felt very far away, a mind-blowing dream dissolving into the light of day.

I never thought SNL would make it to its 10th anniversary, let alone still be on the air now, as much a pillar of NBC’s broadcast week as The Today Show and The Tonight Show. I’ve sworn it off over the years, but I always come back. Part of what keeps pulling me in is Lorne Michaels’ damnably canny eye for talent; Tina Fey would have been enough, but Maya Rudolph, Amy Poehler, Kristin Wiig, Kate McKinnon … I would have been a fool to miss all that. But mostly, I’m an SNL lifer because, despite cast changes, lost seasons and played-out characters flogged into the ground, there is still nothing as exciting as watching comic actors and writers at the top of their game nailing it on live TV.

It’s strange — as old as I get and as young as the cast members remain, SNL still makes me laugh. Does this mean that SNL is woefully old school?  Well, it does have a comedy formula, from which it never fundamentally deviates. For instance, the misunderstanding-based news commentaries of Emily Litella live on today in the addled commentaries of Drunk Uncle. The marginally talented but lovable Sweeney Sisters have morphed into the inept yet lovable Ex-Porn Stars.

Yet, this old, formulaic show blows up Twitter every Saturday night, as viewers decades younger than me have a virtual, communal watch (or hate watch, as it may be). Which tells me that SNL‘s formula transcends the chronological age of its audience and pitches its comedy-music spectacle to the youthful smart-aleck inside us all. Even now, some part of me is still 18, with a chill of anticipation down my spine for whatever madness may come, whenever I hear the words, “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!”

(The first episode ever of Saturday Night Live will be shown in the SNL time slot, 11:30 p.m., Feb. 14.)

(And, in case you were wondering, this gets my vote for the greatest SNL skit of all time, Chevy Chase and guest host Richard Pryor in “Word Association.” Warning: It contains the N-word.)

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2015

2 thoughts on “Saturday Night Live is not dead

  1. milomiles February 12, 2015 / 4:55 pm

    Bravo! Half the time in the old “Phoenix” days I would rather hear your recap/reflections on the latest SNL than watch the show itself.

    If I may, I would add that Andy Kaufman miming the “Mighty Mouse” theme song (one of the most remarkable pieces of music to appear on TV) was my breakthrough to the concept of performance art. The music played on and he just stood there. What the hell is happenin’? (as we said back in the day) Then, abruptly, all he mimed was Mighty Mouse’s words.

    Perfect.

    Brilliant.

    Can’t exactly explain why.

    Few will agree, but I thought that was the guy’s high point.

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