Live From New York: SNL Turns 40
SNL 40: A look back on how “Saturday Night Live” has left an indelible mark on television, pop culture, and American politics.
On February 15, 2015, NBC reserved 3 ½ hours of its Sunday night programming to acknowledge the fortieth anniversary of its late-night comedy staple Saturday Night Live. When the show premiered on October 11, 1975 (under the name NBC’s Saturday Night), no one knew the impact it would have not only on the medium of television, but also on pop culture and eventually on American politics. The landmark show was born out of desperation, when NBC execs had to scramble to fill in a 90 minute void of airtime at 11:30 on Saturday night that was created when Johnny Carson announced he was shortening his Tonight Show schedule to four days a week, forcing the network to move its reruns from Saturday to Monday nights. NBC decided to create a comedy/variety show to air at that hour, hoping for something along the lines of The Carol Burnette Show or Sonny and Cher’s sketch comedy program. (Rumor has it that impressionist Rich Little was targeted as permanent guest host.) No one at the network was thinking guerilla television for the subversive, but that is exactly what NBC got when Lorne Michaels was hired to be the show’s Executive Producer.
Having written for Laugh-In and a few Lily Tomlin specials, Michaels was looking to create a show aimed at the generation who grew up watching television. With the Vietnam War coming to its disastrous end and still reeling from the Watergate scandal and President Richard M. Nixon’s resignation, America was primed for a new era of biting political satire that was previously unprecedented on network television. The optimism of Woodstock generation had morphed into stoic cynicism, and marijuana was being either joined or replaced by cocaine in most people’s stash boxes. All these occurrences created the perfect storm in which Saturday Night Live was able to not only succeed but eventually emerge as America’s premier program for cutting edge satire where no politician, celebrity, or previously taboo subject was safe from exposure and/or ridicule, and the country would never be the same.
As SNL alumni who have moved onto super-stardom, names like Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy, Adam Sandler, Tina Fey and Will Ferrell (just to name a few) return to Rockefeller Plaza’s famed Studio 8-H to salute the program that launched their respective careers, one might wonder if 210 minutes minus commercials is nearly enough time to truly demonstrate the impact that Saturday Night Live has made. This article will highlight, if even in a small way, some of SNL’s more memorable moments.
THE SKETCHES THAT WILL LIVE IN INFAMY
Saturday Night Live has had many classic and memorable sketches throughout its 40 years on the air, but every now and then it has aired that perfect sketch; one that like a fine wine just gets better with age. The first such example would be 1975’s “Land Shark” (“Candygram!”), followed by 1978’s “Olympia Restaurant”, in which John Belishi, Dan Aykroyd, and Bill Murray shout the diner’s limited menu at each other. “Cheeburger, cheeburger, cheeburger!! No Coke! Pepsi! No fries! Cheeps!!” These now classic lines are still repeated ad nausem by fans of the show’s early days. And how often do you still hear someone say, in their best or worst Christopher Walken impression, “Guess What? I got a fever! And the only prescription is…more cowbell!” It’s hard to believe that classic moment occurred some 15 years ago. Other examples include the 1983 assassination of Eddie Murphy’s Buckwheat, 1980’s “Lord and Lady Douchebag” (marking the first time that word was not uttered but shouted on network TV), and the appearance of Aerosmith on “Wayne’s World” in which frequent guest host Tom Hanks perfectly played a rock and roll roadie, complete with a bandanna on his head and a 7-11 Big Gulp, doing the pre-show sound check. “Check one, one…sivalence, sivalence.” And who could forget Justin Timberlake and Andy Samberg singing “D*** in a Box”, or Alec Baldwin unveiling his “Shweddy Balls” on “Delicious Dish”?
Perhaps the best example would be “Massdave Head Wound Harry”, a throwaway sketch from the 17th season in which Dana Carvey crashes a party while sporting a bloody, garish head wound. The sketch might have been passed off as one of the show’s more tasteless bits, but for a dog who spontaneously begins to gnaw at Carvey’s wound, almost completely ripping the apparatus off his head. The sketch serves as a shining reminder to this day that Saturday Night Live is indeed live.
THE CAREER LAUNCHER
It is unlikely that when Lorne Michaels put together his first cast of “Not Ready for Prime Time Players” that he was aware he would be launching the careers of several comedy legends, as well as many others to come. Nevertheless, within a month of SNL’s premier, a previously unknown Chevy Chase became the biggest star in America. This was primarily due to his pratfall-filled impression of President Gerald Ford and his stint as the first anchor of “Weekend Update”, in which he’d open with the now classic line, “Good evening. I’m Chevy Chase, and you’re not.”
Chase rose to fame so quickly that he became the first cast member to leave the show shortly after the second season began, setting precedent to many other SNL alumni to depart the show that gave them their first taste of fame and experience extreme highs (as well as devastating lows) in their respective movie careers. Hollywood comedic legends such as Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy, Mike Meyers, Adam Sandler, and Will Ferrell would follow suit with their careers, while Jane Curtin, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Seth Meyers, and Jimmy Fallon would find their later successes on their own TV shows.
THE SHOW THAT GOES TOO FAR
Saturday Night Live raised the eyebrows of its more conservative viewers even back in its early days, frequently making light of recreational drug use and casual sex. It was one of the first, if not the first, network programs to joke about such taboo subjects. One of SNL’s earliest controversial sketches was its recurring Uncle Roy character, in which frequent guest host Buck Henry would play a perverted babysitter who would frequently manipulate prepubescent girls into lifting up their nightgowns, proceeding to snap Polaroids of them. Saturday Night Live would continue in this tradition all throughout its run, often generating an onslaught of angry and offended callers jamming up NBC’s switchboard. In 1988 guest host Matthew Broderick and several cast members appeared in a sketch where the word penis was spoken (and sung) dozens of times. A 1990’s sketch where guest host Alec Baldwin, playing a scout master, seduced Adam Sandler’s Cantina Boy generated some of the most complaints in the show’s history. A 1990 episode where foul-mouthed comedian Andrew “Dice” Clay was scheduled to host received many complaints before the program even aired and prompted Nora Dunn’s departure from the show in protest. But SNL is nothing without its air of controversy, and the show continues to be an equal opportunity offender to this day. By constantly pushing the limits of good taste, Saturday Night Live has paved the way for other envelope-pushing TV comedies such as South Park and Family Guy.
OOPS! DID I SAY THAT?!?
When you’re putting on a live sketch comedy show for forty years, it is perhaps inevitable that at some point (or several in SNL’s case) someone will do the unthinkable and drop an F-bomb. When comedian George Carlin, notorious for his “Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television” routine, hosted the show’s premier in 1975, NBC execs were terrified he’d bring his trademark bad language to network television. When Richard Pryor guest hosted later that same season, the network forced Lorne Michaels to air that particular episode on a seven second delay lest Pryor decide to go off script and start using obscenities. While both hosts kept their material relatively clean for network TV, there have been several incidences where the dreaded “F, dash, dash, dash word” slipped out and found its way into millions of living rooms.
The first such occurrence happened in the show’s fifth season, albeit accidentally. Musical Director Paul Shaffer, host Michael Palin, and musical guest James Taylor were all appearing in a sketch where they played medieval musicians who were arguing over their latest songwriting effort. Set up as a parody of the infamous bootleg recording of the Troggs where the band members throw the F-word back and forth at each other numerous times as they tried to record the follow up to their hit song “Wild Thing”, the cast substituted the obscenity with the word “floggin’”. Momentarily losing focus, Shaffer slipped and made television history by breaking the F-word barrier on live TV. This mistake would be repeated 30 years later, when newcomer Jenny Slate appeared in a biker girl talk show sketch where she and Kristen Wiig frequently used the word “frikkin’”. First-show nerves caused Slate to slip, and viewers could immediately see the look of horror on her face that followed. (Slate was let go from SNL later that season.)
While those two slips were clearly accidents, there were other times on Saturday Night Live where the number one TV no-no occurred quite blatantly. When Lorne Michaels and the remaining original cast members departed after SNL’s fifth season, NBC promoted Associate Producer Jean Doumanian to run the program. With the exception of Eddie Murphy, Doumanian hired a cast of comedy duds to replace the legendary Not Ready for Prime Time Players, sending the show into a downward spiral of unfunny moments which nearly killed SNL. One of these cast members was Charles Rocket, who appeared in a “Who Shot J.R.” parody with guest host and Dallas star Charlene Tilton. When the show had a few extra minutes at the end, the cast were directed to vamp at center stage to fill in the extra time. After Tilton asked Rocket what it felt like getting shot, he looked directly into the camera and answered, “Oh, man, it’s the first time I’ve ever been shot in my life. I’d like to know who the f*** did it.” The incident led to both Rocket and Doumanian’s firing by NBC, who promptly put the show on hiatus and brought in Executive Producer Dick Ebersol to retool and eventually save Saturday Night Live from an almost certain cancellation.
Other blatant F-word moments occurred in a 1997 “Weekend Update” segment where anchor Norm MacDonald ad-libbed, “What the f*** was that?” after one of his jokes bombed. Although MacDonald said it under his breath, the boom mike picked it up and he was fired shortly thereafter, prompting a slew of protest letters from fans. On the Christmas episode of 2012, Samuel L. Jackson, making a guest appearance as himself in a “What’s Up With That?” sketch, Jackson shouted, “Man, f*** this!” after Keenan Thompson cut his interview short, following it up by saying, “This is bulls***!” Thompson, still in character, replied with, “Come on, Sam! That costs money!” Jackson has not been asked to appear on the show since.
Various musical guests during SNL’s history have given network censors headaches by performing songs which contain the f-word in their lyrics. Such acts include Prince, who on his first SNL appearance sang it during his song “Partyup”. Prince actually preceded Charles Rocket’s legendary use of the word on the same episode, beating Rocket to the punch by less than an hour. Other musicians who threw caution to the wind and let the f-bombs fly include Aerosmith, Janet Jackson, R.E.M., and the Beastie Boys.
… AND THE BAND PLAYED ON
While the cutting edge sketches of Saturday Night Live have played a huge part in its legendary status through the years, there is the rare occasion where the week’s musical guest steals the limelight from its cast members and guest hosts. This first happened on the 1977 Christmas show, when newcomer Elvis Costello, filling in last minute for the Sex Pistols, practically took the show hostage. His first number “Watching the Detectives” went off without a hitch, but when the time came for Costello to perform his second song, he literally stopped the show. A few bars into “Less Than Zero”, Costello promptly stopped his band the Attractions mid-song. Apologizing to the studio audience, he said, “There’s just no point in playing this song.” Costello then led his band into an impromptu performance of “Radio, Radio”. Although the song could hardly be considered obscene, it was an open slam against the broadcast industry which NBC was a part of. While the incident garnered Costello a ten year ban from SNL, he repeated the moment on the show’s 25th anniversary special, interrupting the Beastie Boys during a performance of “Sabotage” and having them back him up on “Radio, Radio”.
Another musical moment that stole focus was Ashlee Simpson’s lip-syncing bust on a 2004 episode. (Remember her ridiculous hoe-down dance before she slinked off stage?) But perhaps the most famous moment of a musical guest shaking Saturday Night Live to its core happened in October, 1992, when controversial singer/songwriter Sinead O’Connor shocked the audience, as well as those working on the show at the time, by spontaneously tearing up a picture of Pope John Paul II at the end of her second number. The incident, which no one on SNL knew was coming, prompted the most complaints in the show’s history and subsequently ended O’Connor’s musical career.
THE PERFECT EPISODE
When producing a live sketch comedy show for forty years, there inevitably will be some moments that will not shine quite as brightly as others. While Saturday Night Live has become the epitome of cutting edge satire throughout the years, it has never been immune to dropping more than a few comedy bombs, especially in its graveyard 12:50am slot. However, there have been a number of episodes in its history where every minute of Saturday Night Live has been delightfully and classically funny. On April 22, 1978, SNL experienced its first truly perfect episode when Steve Martin hosted and John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd made their first appearance as the Blues Brothers. Every moment from that episode is a classic one, including the “Theodoric of York: Medieval Barber” sketch in which Martin plays a hack physician who’s remedy for any ailment includes a good bleeding, Aykroyd and Martin’s appearance as the Festrunk Brothers (“We are two wild and crazy guys!”), and Martin’s premier of his hit song “King Tut”. The episode proved to even the biggest critics that SNL had moved from a sophomoric sketch comedy show into a comedy powerhouse.
Justin Timberlake’s fifth appearance as host and musical guest in 2013 is yet another example of a perfect SNL episode. It opened with J.T. being inducted into the “Five Timers Club”, a concept that was used years earlier during Tom Hanks’ fifth appearance on the show. The sketch was a who’s-who of SNL’s past cast members and hosts, including Steve Martin, Paul Simon, Alec Baldwin, Elliot Gould, Candace Bergen, Chevy Chase, Martin Short, and Dan Aykroyd. Aykroyd and Martin would reprise their Festrunk Brothers characters later on that evening in a “Dating Game” parody, along with Timberlake and Andy Samberg reappearing as the R&B singers who sang “D*** in a Box”.
Perhaps the most classic of all SNL episodes would come in its 35th season, when comedy legend Betty White hosted the Mother’s Day episode. After appearing in a Super Bowl Snickers commercial, a Facebook campaign was started demanding White be allowed to host Saturday Night Live. When the page generated close to half a million “likes”, Lorne Michaels knew he had to give into popular demand. Ms. White, then 88 years old, hosted and gave the show its highest ratings in years, generating 12.1 million viewers. White’s appearance as host also prompted many female cast members who had departed SNL years before to return just to be able to work alongside the comedy legend, including Maya Rudolph, Tina Fey, and Amy Poehler. Former cast members Molly Shannon and Ana Gasteyer also returned, reprising their “Delicious Dish” sketch in which White’s character reveals her “Dusty Muffin”. The episode exposed Betty White to a younger viewing audience and revived her career.
AND OUR NEXT PRESIDENT WILL BE …
Before Saturday Night Live premiered, television never dared to make fun of politics, much less the President of the United States. Less than ten years before SNL hit the airwaves, CBS cancelled the Smothers Brothers’ comedy show for being too political. All that would change in the fall of 1975, when within weeks Chevy Chase would be tripping and stumbling all around Studio 8-H while lampooning President Ford. One such sketch would be caught by Ford’s Press Secretary Ron Nessen, who in order to prove that the White House did indeed have a sense of humor, agreed to host an episode. This marked the first of many times the job of SNL’s guest host would go to a politician rather than a celebrity, and undoubtedly changed the face of American politics. Other political names that would go on to host SNL include Ralph Nader, Julian Bond, Jesse Jackson, Al Gore, and John McCain. Al Franken, now a Democratic Senator from Minnesota, started out as a writer on SNL’s first season and has appeared on the show many times through the years, most notably as self-help guru Stuart Smalley.
While eulogizing Gerald Ford in 2006, former President George H.W. Bush spoke of Saturday Night Live, saying, “(Ford) had a wonderful sense of humor and even took it in stride when Chevy Chase had to make the entire world think that this terrific, beautifully coordinated athlete was actually a stumbler. Ford said it was funny. He wrote it in his memoir. I remember that lesson well, since being able to laugh at yourself is essential in public life. I’d tell you more about that, but as Dana Carvey would say: ‘Not gonna do it. Wouldn’t be prudent.’”
While Saturday Night Live has certainly played a hand in politics over the last 40 years, some would argue that its impact has gone so far as to affect the outcome of several presidential elections. To this day, many political historians argue that Jimmy Carter might not have beat Gerald Ford out of his second term as president had SNL not capitalized on the public perception as Ford as clumsy and dim-witted. Almost immediately after Alaska Governor Sarah Palin first became a household name in 2008 when John McCain announced she would be his Vice Presidential candidate, political analysts began suggesting that Tina Fey return to SNL and impersonate her. After some convincing, Lorne Michaels got Fey to do just that, and Saturday Night Live began to expose Palin’s ignorance in a more acute way than any other serious news program could. At the same time, SNL, in perhaps its best election year season, also blatantly pointed out how the media was completely in the bag for Barak Obama, airing several sketches that illustrated that very point. With all that in mind, it is difficult to argue that SNL in its own unique way did not help America elect its first black President.
Whether it is putting celebrities in their rightfully humiliating place, giving us the newest comedy legend, or skewering politicians on either side of the aisle, Saturday Night Live has held up a satirical mirror to the American psyche for four decades now. If one were to remove it from the pop culture zeitgeist, the ripple effect would be devastating, and comedy as we know it today would not exist. Over the years, many critics have passed the show off, saying it has run its course and repeatedly referring to it as “Saturday Night Dead”. But after 40 years, Lorne Michaels and his ever-revolving cast of sharp comic minds still continue to allow America to laugh at itself, which is perhaps the greatest accomplishment Saturday Night Live has achieved.