(Pictured: Lorne Michaels and Paul Simon on a 1976 episode of Saturday Night Live. Partially hidden behind Michaels: George Harrison.)
In advance of the 40th anniversary of the premiere of Saturday Night Live this Sunday, I’m rebooting some of the posts I’ve written about the show over the years. Here’s one from 2012.
It often takes television programs a while to figure out what they’re going to be—for the producers to find the feel, the writers to find their rhythm, the actors to find their characters, the technicians to find the look. As a result, the early episodes of many long-running shows look fairly strange in retrospect. None are stranger than Saturday Night Live. Most everybody knows that George Carlin hosted the first episode, on October 11, 1975. Although its pace and timing is odd, it’s at least recognizable as Saturday Night Live. But the second episode is much different, and unlike anything the show would present in any of its succeeding seasons.
The episode, which aired on October 18, 1975, was hosted by Paul Simon, who was a close friend of SNL producer Lorne Michaels. His appearance cut two ways: he would attract viewers to the new show, and the new show would help him plug his new album, Still Crazy After All These Years. Simon brought along several of the performers who guested on the album: Phoebe Snow, the Jessy Dixon Singers, and most important, Art Garfunkel, with whom Simon hadn’t appeared in six years.
Simon and Garfunkel sang “The Boxer” and “Scarborough Fair,” accompanied only by Simon on guitar. They also performed their new single, “My Little Town,” singing live to the record’s backing track. Simon sang “Still Crazy After All These Years,” “Marie,” “Loves Me Like a Rock,” and “American Tune,” and sang “Gone at Last” with Snow. Snow and Randy Newman each got solo numbers.
With so much musical talent, the show featured only a handful of sketches. The Not Ready for Prime Time Players, who had been heavily utilized in the premiere because Carlin didn’t appear in any sketches, got almost no work in the second episode. Chevy Chase opened the show and did Weekend Update, but the rest of the company appeared only in a single, 30-second bit (and were not happy about being largely excluded). Simon appeared with sportscaster Marv Albert and NBA star Connie Hawkins in a too-long-and-not-very-funny film, 60s radical Jerry Rubin turned up in a parody commercial, and the show featured its regular spots for the Muppets and Albert Brooks.
The lack of comedy elements was partly by design: to give the writers a break after the first show, and to counteract the tendency of many shows to fall flat on episode 2 after a strong premiere. But Lorne Michaels had also told NBC executives before the show premiered that he knew what the ingredients would be but not the proportions, so the second show was a necessary step in deciding what SNL should ultimately become.
Coming in the next installment: the lost episode of Saturday Night Live.
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.
(Pictured: Willie Nelson in the Stardust days, 1979.)
“September Song” has an interesting history. With music by Kurt Weill and lyrics by Maxwell Anderson, it first appeared a musical called Knickerbocker Holiday, which premiered on Broadway in 1938. The musical, a political allegory set in 17th century New Amsterdam and comparing the New Deal to fascism, ran for about five months, closing early in 1939. “September Song” was sung in the original production by Walter Huston (father of director John and grandfather of actress Anjelica). In 1946, Frank Sinatra scored a more substantial hit with it. In 1950, the song was featured in a movie called September Affair; it seems a better fit for a sentimental love story than for political commentary. After that, Stan Kenton, Liberace, Dean Martin, and Sarah Vaughan cut popular versions of it. It’s been recorded by lots of jazz players, but also by country singers Eddy Arnold and Faron Young, James Brown, Lindsey Buckingham, Fats Domino, Bryan Ferry, Jeff Lynne, and the Platters. Lou Reed cut a highly unique version, one of the better ones you’ll ever hear, for a Kurt Weill tribute album in 1985.
But Willie Nelson’s version of “September Song” is unmatched. He changed Huston’s reading of the lyric, making it more sentimental, but also more timeless. Producer Booker T. Jones outdid himself, contributing a gorgeous arrangement and providing sensitive and brilliant keyboards. Part of the appeal of Huston’s recording is the age in his voice, although he was only 55 when he recorded it. It accentuates the difference between May and December. But when 45-year-old Willie sings about how “the days dwindle down to a precious few,” it feels powerfully urgent, urgency that can’t be fully grasped by the younger girl he’s singing to.
Willie’s “September Song” is from Stardust, a 1978 album of pop standards that, at the height of the outlaw country movement, twanged barely a whit. The album’s signature sound was not so much Willie’s distinctive guitar—although it was there—but the distinctive keyboard textures of Booker T. It was one of the first instances of a contemporary star dipping into the Great American Songbook, a career move that every aging star makes nowadays. Stardust is filled with songs made famous on Broadway, in the movies, and to a lesser extent on radio, songs that were interpreted and re-interpreted over the years by dozens, if not hundreds, of performers. They encompass a shared experience of mid-century American popular music that no longer exists in our fragmented culture.
“Stardust” itself is on many short lists of the greatest American popular songs. Willie’s version is fine, but my favorite is the one recorded by Nat King Cole in 1957. It opens with a verse not included on many versions:
And now the purple dusk of twilight time
Steals across the meadows of my heart
High up in the sky the little stars climb
Always reminding me that we’re apart
You wander down the lane and far away
Leaving me a song that will not die
Love is now the stardust of yesterday
The music of the days gone by
If you can’t appreciate the emotional power of Mitchell Parish’s words, you and I probably shouldn’t have lunch together anytime soon. And if you can’t dig Cole’s performance (and the beautiful melody written by Hoagy Carmichael), you might want to think about giving up music altogether. Under the proper circumstances—the coming of autumn, for example—Nat’s reading of “Stardust” has staggering mojo.
(Rebooted from a couple of 2009 posts.)
(Pictured: the Four Seasons in the mid 1970s, with Frankie Valli in the middle.)
The Four Seasons had at least one Top 10 hit every year between 1962 and 1967, and some of those rank among the greatest hits of the rock ‘n’ roll era: “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like a Man,” “Dawn,” “Rag Doll,” “Let’s Hang On,” and “Working My Way Back to You.” Frankie Valli launched a solo career during that stretch that included “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.”
As fashions changed, the Seasons tried updating their sound to fit the more psychedelic times, but the hits didn’t come. In 1971, the group signed to Motown, where an album and several singles bombed. By early 1974, a new album was in the can but the label wouldn’t release it. After the Seasons’ contract with Motown was up, Valli tried to buy all of the masters the Seasons had cut for them, but could afford only one, “My Eyes Adored You.” He released it on the Private Stock label as a solo single at the end of the year, and it went to #1.
(Valli’s solo career would truck along nicely for the next few years. “Swearin’ to God” was a Top-10 hit in the summer of 1975, and “Our Day Will Come” made #11 that fall, but Valli’s biggest solo hit wouldn’t come until 1978 with “Grease.”)
After five years without an American hit single of any sort, the Four Seasons signed with Warner Brothers in 1975. Valli’s partner Bob Gaudio had retired from performing by that time, although he continued to write and produce. New members had joined the group, including Gerry Polci and Don Ciccone, who shared vocal duties with Valli. The Seasons been absent long enough that nostalgia had a chance to work some magic. And where their late-60s recordings had them sounding out of place, their mid-70s update put them right on the cutting edge of AM radio pop.
A new album, Who Loves You, produced three great singles. “Who Loves You” made it to #3 in November 1975. It evokes the old-school Four Seasons sound, although Valli sings only the verses and none of the high harmonies. The record features a disco break in the middle that sounds like it came from some other record, after which it careens back into the refrain like a car going around a curve at high speed on two wheels, one of the most exciting moments on record in the 70s. “December 1963 (Oh What a Night)” went to #1 in March 1976. “December 1963″ (with Polci on lead and Valli on the bridge) might be the last great AM radio record. It’s never sounded as good to me coming out of big stereo speakers as it did on a little transistor radio.
You know both “Who Loves You” and “December 1963” because both of them are still on the radio. But what about the third single?
“Silver Star” tries to be neither “Who Loves You” nor “December 1963,″ and it surely ain’t “Big Girls Don’t Cry” or “Let’s Hang On,” either. It’s the Four Seasons’ nod to singer/songwriter rock. You rarely heard an acoustic guitar on a Four Seasons hit, although you hear it here. French horn, too. It might have done better with a more obvious disco beat. Although it’s got plenty of drive, it rose only to #38 on the Hot 100 during this week in 1976. Edited down from an album version that ran over six minutes, “Silver Star” is as ambitious a single as the Four Seasons ever tried to make. And one that is unjustly forgotten.
(Rebooted from a 2007 post.)
(Pictured: the most terrifying thing in the world, to some people.)
Since I wrote the other day about WKRP characters and the extent to which they exist in real radio stations, this next seems appropriate. Partially rebooted from some ancient posts, it contains a few vignettes about radio people I have known.
—A vocal Christian with shoulder-length hair nicknamed “Junior Jesus.” He hosted the Sunday morning religious-music show, and the bluehairs in his audience used to send him money even though he didn’t ask for it, thus fulfilling the dream of low-paid radio guys everywhere. He once lent a CD to another colleague of ours, but insisted that the colleague not tape it because that would be illegal.
—The only person I have ever met whom I would have forgiven for abandoning his family, an incredibly high-maintenance wife and anywhere from two to five incorrigible children. (We were never sure quite how many.) His considerable talents on the air were simply overwhelmed by the chaos in his personal life.
—A sales rep who once asked me if I’d ever written any spots advertising artificial limbs. When I said that I had not, she proceeded to call the Radio Advertising Bureau (an industry group that offers sales and marketing resources to its members) seeking sample copy for artificial limbs, only to be surprised when they laughed out loud at the idea too. I came to admire this woman’s willingness to think outside the box, and also her fearlessness. Once, she was trying to sell our station to a store owner who haughtily told her, “I don’t need to advertise. I already have more business than I can handle.” “Good for you,” she shot back. “Let’s go out front and take your sign down.”
—The very young and very new sales rep who was trying to get a local clothing store on the air. The couple who owned the store could not agree on the image they wanted to project. He wanted a western theme, while she wanted to seem young, hip, and edgy. The rep’s solution was to ask me to produce an ad with a John Wayne voice and Michael Jackson music.
—The college student I hired to tend the automation on Saturday and Sunday nights. I came into the office one night to dead silence—and Elliott, sitting calmly at a desk. “What the hell’s going on?” I asked. Elliott looked blankly at me for a second. “Oh, you mean the monitors? I turned them down. I’m trying to study and the music distracts me.”
—The newscasters afraid of live microphones. The morning crew got to work at 2:30 to completely prerecord the morning news block, then sat in the newsroom drinking coffee while the tapes played starting at 5:30. The hourly newscasts that ran during the day were always recorded a few minutes in advance. After I got there, we scrapped that practice, but it didn’t go down well. One of the news staffers quit rather than speak live on the air. The news director tried to embrace the new way, but she didn’t like it. She was already a nervous person, constantly fumbling for a cigarette, and would nearly jump out of her skin every time somebody walked into the newsroom. One day she came into the studio with a bulletin about a major fire in town. I put her on the air, she read her script, and then I made a mistake: I reflexively asked her whether traffic was being disrupted in the area, the innocuous sort of inquiry any jock would have made in that situation. A look of horror came upon her, and although her mouth fell open, no sound issued therefrom. Then she flipped me off.
(Pictured: Tony Orlando and Dawn. It was this or Nixon.)
Here’s a post from 2005 I found while digging in the archives of my first blog, The Daily Aneurysm. It’s been edited a bit.
On May 17, 1973, the Senate Watergate hearings began. I was in seventh grade that spring, already a news junkie, so if anybody in my school besides the teachers knew about Watergate, it was me. Our social studies teachers, Miss Alt and Miss Odell, made us watch the hearings in class. I am not sure how many students really understood what they meant—and I don’t remember how much I understood about the hearings, either. But I knew major news events when I saw them, so I was interested.
No matter what’s on the front page, above the fold, like the Watergate hearings, life goes on in countless other ways, with events that leave lighter footprints on time. . . .