A Show Trying to Figure Out What It Would Be

Although Saturday Night Live celebrated its 40th anniversary with a special show last winter, the actual 40th anniversary of the show’s premiere is on Sunday, October 11. This is the first installment in a series of reboots of stuff I’ve written about the early SNL over the years.

Most people watching old SNLs today see the sketches on best-of discs devoted to various performers, from Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi to Will Ferrell and Alec Baldwin, where most of the material is reasonably strong. Before that, the show was syndicated for several years in edited half-hours, which made it seem like a continuous parade of genius moments. The 2006 DVD release of Season 1 permitted viewers to see the series as it really was in its infancy. As such, it provided a valuable reminder for students of TV history. Yes, SNL was always innovative, and it was always a showcase for the sorts of acts that didn’t usually find a home on network TV. But it was also hit-and-miss, veering from comedic brilliance on one side of a commercial break to stultifying stupidity on the other, prone to repeating itself, and frequently failing to be entertaining for long stretches of time.

The early episodes depict a show trying to figure out what it would be and how it would work, and they look strange and primitive now. George Carlin hosts the premiere (October 11, 1975), but he appears only in a couple of monologues, allegedly because he was too coked-up to appear in sketches. The second episode, hosted by Paul Simon, features 11 musical performances and only a couple of sketches. Not until the third episode, hosted by Rob Reiner, does it looking like the SNL we know. Candice Bergen hosts the fourth one. She was known primarily as a movie star and photojournalist at that point, not a TV personality—and she looks like she’s frightened out of her mind. (She’s better in the Christmas show just a few weeks later.) It’s not until the sixth episode, hosted by Lily Tomlin, that a truly classic sketch appears—the one in which Belushi as Beethoven writes “My Girl” and “What’d I Say.” At that point, there’s generally at least one fondly remembered sketch per episode, and at least one other one that works fairly well. The episode hosted by Madeline Kahn, which aired in March 1976, is strong from start to finish, and is not just the best show of the season but one of the best of all time.

(The Season 1 DVD set also includes the infamous July 1976 episode hosted by Louise Lasser. Her monologues at the beginning and end of the show, and the interminable film she directs in the middle, weren’t the first time SNL broadcast something pointless or painful. But Lasser brought an extra degree of incoherence and self-indulgence that doesn’t look like an act. She became the first guest host banned from future appearances, although by the time she appeared, her 15 minutes were nearly up anyhow.)

The Not Ready for Prime Time Players were billed as a group until January 1976, when they were finally introduced individually. Chevy Chase was the breakout star, and the writers—one of which was Chase himself—didn’t take very long to realize it. Chase gets more face time in some episodes than all the other cast members combined, even in appearing in sketches where another cast member might have served just as well. His traditional “fall” to open the show is incorporated in various clever ways, but most of the time, he plays variations on a single character—a non-sequitur-spouting doofus—whether he’s anchoring Weekend Update or doing Gerald Ford. Aykroyd and Belushi are more versatile actors and clearly superior talents, as is Gilda Radner.

It’s been well-documented that SNL was a boys’ club, and that the women of the cast had a hard time getting on the air, or being treated with much respect. The best evidence is the under-utilization of Gilda, who’s clearly game for anything and almost always funny doing it. More damning evidence of the writers’ attitude toward women is found in sketches where the laughs are intended to come from the physical abuse of Gilda’s characters by male characters, which seemed funny in 1975, but not so much now. Toward the end of the first season, the female cast members are better served, especially in sketches by female writers, such as “Slumber Party” in the Madeline Kahn episode.

Coming in the next installment: the Saturday Night smorgasbord.

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