Ok, so I was born in the 1980s, my parents never really watched Saturday Night Live and by the time I was old enough I neither had TV nor the time to watch each episode when it was on.
I’ve seen a few full episodes here and there, but mostly just the funnier clips and highlights of the last 10+ years. Tina Fey, Will Ferrell, Kristin Wiig, Andy Samberg and the like.
But a few months ago I was on Netflix, looking for a TV show I could have on in the background while I blog and edit photos. Something that has a lot of seasons, and not one of the shows that Andrew and I are planning on watching together.
I would prefer a show that’s not currently on the air – it’s hard to keep up with TV shows when you don’t have TV – but I figured with 35+ years of seasons of SNL this show will last me awhile.
The first season is a little …. hit and miss. There is a very funny Paul Simon episode, but otherwise they are really just trying to find their feet and figure out the regular structure to the show.
But. I wanted to start at the beginning.
I want to see the development. I want to see the show’s progression. I want to see the actors’ progression. I want to see the recurring characters show up.
I love it.
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.
The highlight of the first season is Chevy Chase.
He did the opening bit for basically all of the first season. He did Weekend Update all first season. And his Gerald Ford impression is one of my favorites. Andrew and I still quote it to each other.
Young Chevy Chase is delicious. I watched a bunch of his early movies over the summer. (I don’t yet watch Community and don’t really know his current story, but I’m totally in love with young Chevy Chase)
And of course, SNL made him a big big star so he left at the end of the first season. Bummer.
(note: I believe he was banned from the show later, and the season 3 episode that he hosted is NOT available on Netflix. Fishy)
But then Bill Murray showed up at the beginning of second season. And he is HILARIOUS.
He’s magic. His various old man impressions and his crooked mouth hillbilly characters and his Nick ______ recurring lounge singer (the last name changes depending on where the lounge is). He and Gilda Radner have AMAZING chemistry (check out The Nerds clip below).
Young Bill Murray is pretty fantastic too.
And Dan Aykroyd. Holy geez I love him. His fast-talking salesman (the bass-o-matic or kill your own steer restaurant) and his sleezy executive character (selling kids bags-of-glass and then trying to explain why baby dolls are just as dangerous) and the Coneheads (Aykroyd recently tweeted that was his favorite character).
Aykroyd also did the Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter impressions while on the show. Again, I wasn’t old enough to watch these episodes when they were on, so basically my ideas of Nixon and Carter are heavily colored by Aykroyd’s impressions.
I love love love Dan Aykroyd.
Plus, OF COURSE, his recurring character with Steve Martin.
(fun side note. Steve Martin was never in the SNL cast, but he hosted so many times he has a recurring character and a lot of people assume he was on it.)
Anyway, the Festrunk brothers – Martin and Aykroyd – are ridiculous and so fun. There’s a clip below.
John Belushi. Obviously. He’s very very talented. Not exactly my style of humor, but clearly he was a star for a reason.
The 4th season, every few episodes there was a joke about him dying early. In hindsight it’s just hearbreaking.
Make sure you watch the clip below of Belushi’s Samurai character. One of his most popular. He also was the proprietor of a Greek restaurant that got a running series of episodes.
Garrett Morris. Very funny but not given a huge range of roles. Apparently he really felt hemmed in and stereotyped. Too bad. Excellent (excellent) singer, though.
Laraine Newman. She still does voiceover work, I learned. She didn’t have a whole lot of really great characters, but she was the Conehead daughter and tended to get a lot of the little-girl parts when needed.
Jane Curtin. Another Conehead. She also did Weekend Update after Chase left. I think she’s probably very talented, but she got basically all the cranky-mom/older woman characters. Her Weekend Update-self was overserious and quick to anger. I didn’t find that very funny, but I’m sure it’s not HER fault.
Apparently she was actually thrilled when Belushi and Aykroyd left because she was able to do so much more. Sad it had to work out that way.
Gilda Radner. ADORABLE. I just love her. Her Roseanne Rosannadana character was one of her more popular. She also did a lot of little-girl roles, as well as quite a few idiot-girl roles. Her recurring NERD character (Lisa Lupner) with Bill Murray was so much fun. Watch their clip below too. I just love Gilda so much. So sad she died so young.
Andy Kaufman. Appeared every so often. That guy is just so strange. Fascinating. But bizarre.
Another interesting bit of trivia from these first few seasons… The show started off a little rough but very quickly became very popular.
(from Wikipedia): On October 30, 1976, Weekend Update played the 1974 broadcast of Ford pardoning President Richard Nixon – many backstage felt that decision was instrumental in helping Jimmy Carter win the ’76 election, especially among younger voters.
Favorite hosts from the first few seasons that you should check out
- Steve Martin. Obviously. Any of them. There’s 5 or 6 just in these first 5 years
- Buck Henry. I actually have no idea who this guy is, but he also hosted 5 or 6 times and was fantastic on all of them.
- Christopher Lee (it was a bit bizarre)
- Elliot Gould. Love him.
- Walter Matthau
- Eric Idle and Michael Palin each hosted a handful of times … Strange and fun.
- Madeline Kahn
- Ruth Gordon
And just in case you have no idea what I am talking about because you were born in the 1990s, here are some AMAZING highlights from the first 3 or 4 seasons:
(warning. Assume these are all offensive. Watch at your own risk. Also, commercials. Thanks NBC)
My understanding from reading the history is that the show more or less fell apart during the 5th season (I’m only a few episodes in). Chase and Belushi and Aykroyd were gone, which left Murray playing all the big scenes. Half the cast addicted to cocaine. Radner exhausted because she was doing the show plus working on a Broadway show.
So at the end of the 5th season more or less everyone left – including Lorne Michaels. I still intend to watch on through the 1980s and 90s and 200s and on…. But I think it’s clear that the magic of the very beginning is special.
Watching the first 5 seasons of SNL plants a seed of inspiration to:
- Watch both Ghostbusters movies, Animal House, Stripes and all those fantastic late 70s/early 80s movies
- read through all the entries on BillMurrayStory.com
- watch ALL the seasons of SNL (oh yes I will. I’m partway through season 5 now)
- read Gilda Radner’s memoir
- read this SNL history
- work up a collection of impressions. Andrew tells me I’m good at impressions, but really I just imitate the people around me.
- make friends with Dan Aykroyd on Twitter. I mean, that’s what it’s there for right?? I love him.
Do you watch SNL? Have you seen these early episodes?