||SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE
Late-night sketch comedy and variety show filmed in New York City.
Over 650 shows since 1975
‘Saturday Night Live’ was initially compared to ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’ for its attempt to stretch the comedy formula into new territory and showcasing fresh, original talent. Although it has experienced ups and downs in a nearly four decade run, SNL remains a fixture of NBC’s late night schedule, and has continued to thrive by refreshing itself both in front of and behind the camera.
'SNL' was created because Johnny Carson told NBC he no longer wanted reruns of his ‘Tonight Show’ airing Saturday nights at 11:30 PM. Carson wanted to use the reruns on weekdays so he could take time off. Since Johnny contributed heavily to NBC’s profits, network executives were in no mood to upset the star. They instead settled on launching a new variety show that was as different as ‘Tonight’ as possible, aimed at a younger audience. Dick Ebersol (a protégé of ABC’s legendary sports chief Roone Arledge) was hired to produce the variety show, airing live from NBC’s famed Studio 8-H at the network’s 30 Rockefeller Plaza building in New York City. Ebersol then hired a young Canadian producer named Lorne Michaels to oversee the new series. Both men decided there would be no permanent host (a guest star would appear as the host every week); followed by various sketches and short films from an ensemble cast (including film, television and commercial parodies), along with a song or two from the musical act of the week. One of its recurring features would be a mock newscast called “Weekend Update,” spoofing news events of the previous week.
The first cast members were chosen from auditions and recommendations from writers and staffers: Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Chevy Chase, Jane Curtin, Laraine Newman and Garrett Morris, who became known as the “Not Ready For Prime Time Players.” When it premiered on October 11th, 1975, the show’s official title was ‘NBC’s Saturday Night,’ because ABC already had a prime-time variety series called ‘Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell.’ (After Cosell’s short-lived series went off the air, NBC obtained the rights to the ‘Saturday Night Live’ name.) Comic George Carlin was the show’s first host; Billy Preston and Janis Ian were the original musical guests. The following week, Paul Simon was both the guest host and the week’s musical act. But the “Not Ready For Prime Time Players” eventually dominated SNL, which began to build an audience through both critical notices and word-of-mouth recommendations from teens and college-age students. Chevy Chase became the show’s first “breakout star,” thanks to his anchoring of “Weekend Update” and his portrayal of a bumbling, uncoordinated President Gerald Ford. But Chase left SNL at the end of 1976 for a film career, the first cast member to do so. During the show’s fourth season, Belushi and Aykroyd broke out with their “Blues Brothers” impersonation, which led to a hit record and a successful film; the pair also left the cast. By 1980, ratings were still high but Michaels was worn out and the remaining original cast members were more than eager to move on. 'Saturday Night Live' was one of NBC’s few hits anywhere in the schedule, and NBC President Fred Silverman wanted to keep the show going–despite the show’s on-air jabs about Silverman’s leadership and NBC’s ratings problems. So on May 24th, 1980, the remaining original cast members and Michaels said their on-air goodbyes, ending the first era of 'Saturday Night Live.'
Jean Doumanian, originally a talent scout for the show, was named the new SNL producer. But she was not a popular choice among the staff, and NBC made her job even harder by cutting the show’s budget by two-thirds. Doumanian and her team scouted for a new cast and came up with Charles Rocket, who was groomed to become the show’s new Chevy Chase; other new cast members included Denny Dillon, Gilbert Gottfried, Gail Matthius, Joe Piscopo and Ann Risley. An aspiring 19-year-old comic named Eddie Murphy auditioned for Doumanian, who liked him but NBC refused to hire him as a regular cast member; he was seen initially as a “featured” player. Critics quickly tore into the revised 'Saturday Night Live ‘80' after its November 1980 debut, citing inconsistent quality in both the scripts and performances. It wasn’t long before SNL was overtaken in the ratings (briefly) by ABC’s copycat sketch programme Fridays. The final nail in the coffin came on the February 21st, 1981 show, when Charles Rocket uttered the “F” word on-air (in the East and Midwest time zones). NBC fired Doumanian and hired Dick Ebersol back to save the programme. Ebersol hired new writers and fired Rocket, Ann Risley and Gilbert Gottfried. Replacements included Robin Duke, Tim Kazurinsky, Brad Hall and Tony Rosato. He also elevated Eddie Murphy to regular cast status. By the fall of 1981, SNL regained audiences with a snappier, faster paced and more consistent format. Murphy quickly became the new breakout star SNL badly needed; he excelled in solo sketches and worked together with Joe Piscopo in a number of skits. Unfortunately the rest of the ensemble took a back seat to Murphy and Piscopo until the pair left the show in 1984.
That same year became SNL’s “all-star season,” featuring Billy Crystal, Martin Short, Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer, and Rich Hall, all of whom had major success on TV and film before joining the show. But Ebersol requested a format change for the following year, with more pre-taped segments and the end of guest hosts. NBC Entertainment President Brandon Tartikoff refused and was on the verge of cancelling SNL. Fortunately, Tartikoff changed his mind and rehired Lorne Michaels as producer. Michaels assembled an entirely new (and talented) cast, including Randy Quaid, Joan Cusack, Robert Downey Junior, Anthony Michael Hall, Dennis Miller, Damon Wayans, Nora Dunn, Jon Lovitz, Danitra Vance (the first African-American woman to become an SNL regular) and Terry Sweeney (the first openly gay cast member).
Unfortunately, the new cast and writing team proved unable to maintain a consistent level of humour and there were very few breakout characters. Michaels again cleaned house, keeping only Miller, Dunn and Lovitz for the following season. Newcomers included Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman, Jan Hooks, Victoria Jackson and Kevin Nealon. The new cast exceeded expectations with Hartman becoming the show’s most versatile performer ever. Carvey brought SNL some of its most famous characters, including the judgmental and pious Church Lady (“Isn’t that CONVENIENT!”) and (with Nealon) the Germanic bodybuilders Hans & Franz.
Carvey also helped to define ‘Saturday Night Live’ when it came to political satire, with his dead-on impression of President George Herbert Walker Bush Bush 41 proved to be a fan favourite (with help from SNL’s writing team), while Carvey scored again with his take on third-party presidential hopeful Ross Perot in 1992. He was joined by young Canadian Mike Myers in 1989; the pair developed a pair of slacker teens named Wayne and Garth who aired a low-powered TV show from a home basement. “Wayne’s World” was a very popular sketch that spawned two hit films.
By the early 1990's, there was more diversity than ever in the “Not Ready For Prime Time Players,” which now included Chris Farley, Tim Meadows, Chris Rock, Adam Sandler, Rob Schneider, David Spade and Julia Sweeney. When Sweeney, Dana Carvey and Phil Hartman left the cast a few years later, the show relied more on the sophomoric male-oriented humour that Farley, Sandler, Schenider and Spade were doing. But it received a mixed reaction from both viewers and critics. Lorne Michaels heard the complaints and tried to put new heft into the show, adding comic actors Chris Elliott and Michael McKean to the cast. They lasted just one season. Michaels then added newcomers Ana Gasteyer, Darrell Hammond and Will Ferrell to the ensemble; they and the returning regulars helped usher in some of SNL’s best-ever characters and sketches.
A major sea change came when Tina Fey was hired as the show’s first-ever female head writer. Coupled with the addition of newcomers such as Tracy Morgan, SNL enjoyed another banner presidential election year in 2000. Will Ferrell’s George W. Bush and Darrell Hammond’s Al Gore were so dead-on, the real life presidential candidates studied their sketches before their televised debates. (Both Bush and Gore appeared on SNL just before the controversial election.)
But humour and satire took a back seat immediately after the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The 27th season premiere episode started late (September 29th), and featured members of the New York Fire Department and the city’s mayor Rudy Giuliani, urging both the Big Apple and SNL to carry on despite the tragedy. (On-air, producer Lorne Michaels asked Giuliani “Can we be funny?” His Honour’s reply: “Why start now?” Tina Fey finally became a on-air cast member during the season and teamed up with Jimmy Fallon to co-anchor “Weekend Update.” Fallon left the show a few years later and Fey departed SNL to create her own sitcom for NBC, ‘30 Rock’ (starring the comic as the producer of a fictional late-night comedy sketch show).
In the fall of 2008, NBC took the unusual step of airing several half-hour SNL episodes on its Thursday schedule, delaying the season premiere of ‘30 Rock.” But while Tina Fey’s series was out of sight, she was still in the public view–returning to the sketch programme to portray the Republican vice-presidential candidate, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. Fey bore a striking resemblance to Palin, and she proved to be effective portraying the governor as a bubbly but vapid political figure. SNL’s special programmes did well in the ratings, as did the new season of the sketch show. (Both Palin and GOP presidential hopeful John McCain showed a sense of humour when both appeared on the show just before the November election.)
In the wake of the Republican Party’s loss to Democrats Barack Obama and Joe Biden, some pundits noted that Tina Fey’s portrayal of Palin hurt the Alaska Governor’s image with independent (and Democratic) voters. According to University of Southern California political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe in an interview with Reuters, “I would expect that the McCain campaign would be much happier if Tina Fey wasn’t so popular with her impersonation of Sarah Palin.”
As it approaches its third decade on television, 'Saturday Night Live' is as vital as ever for America’s popular culture–and continuing proof that satire is indeed what closes on Saturday nights.
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