On This Day

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On This Day: “Saturday Night Live” Debuts

October 11, 2011 05:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Oct. 11, 1975, the sketch comedy show “NBC’s Saturday Night,” later “Saturday Night Live,” made its debut with host George Carlin.

“Live from New York—It’s Saturday Night!”

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On the night of Oct. 11, 1975, tensions ran high in Studio 8H at 30 Rockefeller Center. NBC’s fledgling sketch comedy show was set to premiere, but no one was sure how it would pan out.

“The months leading up to SNL's debut were anarchistic at best and chaotic at worst, but that didn't matter; it was exactly the spirit that Michaels was going for: raw, on edge, political, conscious, alive,” says the NBC Web site.

Comedian George Carlin was chosen to host the debut show, with Billy Preston and Janis Ian appearing as musical guests. Carlin decided against acting in sketches, choosing instead to perform several monologues from his stand-up comedy act.

The show opened with a sketch featuring head writer Michael O’Donoghue and John Belushi, ending with Chevy Chase declaring, “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!”

During the opening credits, announcer Don Pardo mistakenly announced the cast, the “Not Ready for Prime-Time Players,” as the “Not for Ready Prime-Time Players.” Carlin, “while reportedly stoned out of his mind,” according to SNL Transcripts, took to the stage and performed his “football and baseball” monologue.

The rest of the show featured sketches, “Weekend Update,” a now-famous performance by Andy Kaufman in which he lip-synched part of the “Mighty Mouse” theme song, a “Muppets” short, and a short film by Albert Brooks.

Background: Developing “SNL”

After a decade of airing reruns of “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson at 11:30 p.m. every Saturday, NBC was eager for some new programming to fill the hole. With shows like “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In” and “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” drawing in audiences, NBC wanted an original comedy sketch show of its own.

Producer Dick Ebersol turned to comedy writer Lorne Michaels to develop a show that would be edgy, current and, of course, funny. Michaels began recruiting some of comedy’s up-and-comers: from National Lampoon he tapped Michael O’Donoghue and from West Coast comedy clubs he found writers Al Franken and Tom Davis. The first cast was almost entirely from Chicago’s The Second City comedy troupe.

I wanted a show to and for and by the TV generation,” Michaels told Time magazine in 1976. “Thirty-year-olds are left out of television. Our reference points, our humor, reflect a life-style never aired on TV. Mary Tyler Moore and Rhoda are the most up-to-date shows on the air now, but they are liberated ‘50s.”

Michaels wanted the show be called “Saturday Night Live,” but ABC had just debuted “Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell,” a sports show starring Howard Cosell that featured a cast Cosell called “The Prime Time Players.” In a clear jab at ABC, Lorne called his acting troop the “Not Ready for-Prime-Time Players.”

Lorne’s show debuted as “NBC’s Saturday Night,” but by 1976 Cosell’s show had flopped and NBC bought the rights to the name. On March 26, 1977, the show debuted under the name it still uses today.

35 Years of “SNL”

Although Michaels originally conceived of “Saturday Night Live” as a development lab for spin-offs and ideas, he didn’t know how successful the show would be on its own terms.

From the very beginning, the show was a launching pad for its actors’ and writers’ careers. The original cast members, such as Chevy Chase, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner and John Belushi, among others, went on to wildly successful film and television careers.

The show’s unique format—which featured a different host and musical act every week—also helped jump-start the careers of its guests. In its first year alone, “SNL” reunited Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, gave Jim Henson’s Muppets one of their first grown-up homes and put Candace Bergen in the spotlight.

In terms of spin-offs, “SNL” sketches have proved fertile ground for feature-length releases. “The Blues Brothers” was one of the first, and also most successful, adaptations of a “SNL” sketch for the big screen. It was followed by releases such as “Wayne’s World,” “Coneheads,” “A Night at the Roxbury,” “It’s Pat,” and others.

Reference: Transcripts and Video

SNL Transcripts has transcripts from all “SNL” episodes.

Hulu has video of many famous “SNL” sketches.
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