As “Saturday Night Live” gets ready to celebrate its 40th anniversary this Sunday, we’re taking a look at the famous funny people who started it all.
“I would like to feed your fingertips to the wolverines.”
When those strange words were uttered by Michael O’Donoghue and then repeated by John Belushi on NBC on October 11, 1975, I doubt anybody watching had an idea of the magnitude of what was launching.
Okay, maybe producer Lorne Michaels did. He constantly told his fledgling cast and beleaguered writing team that they’d look back one day and realize they were making history. He was right, of course. But to really understand the beginnings of what is now Saturday Night Live, you first have to forget what it has become. Now it’s an institution. Back in 1975, it was pure counterculture. There had been nothing like it before, not really, and Lorne Michaels had to do battle with conventional network thinking to make it what he knew it had to be: a show full of amateurs doing comedy for people the TV industry didn’t yet understand.
Obstacle one, the audience he wanted wasn’t at home on Saturday nights. Keep in mind that there was only one way to watch TV back then. There was no digital afterlife, no viral videos, not even VCRs. If you wanted to see the show, you stayed up late on Saturday night, and sat in front of your TV set from 11:30 pm to 1:00 in the morning. Period.
Obstacle two, they couldn’t call it Saturday Night Live. ABC was premiering its own show, Saturday Night Live With Howard Cosell, and was even competing with NBC for some of the same cast members. They had to settle for NBC’s Saturday Night as the title.
Obstacle three, the very counterculture that was bringing the show to life was pretty volatile. Drugs ran rampant. Marijuana was smoked openly in the hallways. Cocaine came later, mostly, and was done behind closed doors, and one sketch, “The Final Days,” was even inspired by an evening on LSD. But marijuana was definitely the dominant drug of choice, being used so casually that anyone at 30 Rock who wandered over to the show’s offices on the 17th floor would get offered a toke. Drug humor frequently found its way on air too, to the dismay of NBC executives.
And it was an aggressive and emotional climate, with egos and personalities all vying for affirmation. The hierarchy put Lorne Michaels at the top, with Chevy Chase and head writer Michael O’Donoghue among the elite. Everyone wanted Lorne’s approval, or at least his acknowledgement, and the loudest, pushiest voices at the pitch meetings ruled the day. It was like the most intense high school ever, but with drugs, money, and power in play, and the students in charge. Desks were scattered everywhere, office decorum was nonexistent, and the place was a mess. Even the toilets were frequently clogged with random objects, just for fun. While people were often there working through the wee hours of the morning, the 17th floor was something of a wasteland before noon.
But everyone wanted to be there. Performers and writers moved from Canada and Los Angeles, some turned down other offers. Writing team Al Franken (now Senator Al Franken) and Tom Davis were so enthusiastic that they split a credit as well as a salary, just to get on the show. Among the brilliant writers, musicians, and creatives who all deserve their own chapters in the history of the show were the on-air faces of NBC’s Saturday Night: The Not Ready For Prime Time Players.
Hunter S. Thompson once said that John Belushi was more fun in 20 minutes than most people were in 20 years. A powerhouse on stage and off, Belushi wanted to be a part of Saturday Night, but at his audition – which he resented having to do – he growled “What the f*** am I doing here? I hate television!” as he fumed and waited for his turn. But all that rage turned quiet when it was time for him to show his stuff. With his expressive eyes – those brows! – and total commitment, he played a game of pool, by himself, around an imaginary table, and won the room.
While some of his recurring characters were among the greats –the Samurai, the counter man at the Olympia Diner (“cheeburger cheeburger!”) and the resentful Killer Bee – it was his unpredictability that made him a star. Some of his best moments came in his spot-on Joe Cocker imitation (which actually fooled Joe Cocker, briefly), or his weather report about how March came in like a lion and went out like a lamb. Eventually his Weekend Update appearances became insane, hilarious rants, rising in tempo and vitriol until he ended with “BUT NOOOOOOOO,” which soon became a catchphrase.
Belushi brought that intense energy to everything he did. As well as being an actor, he was also a gifted blues singer: track down a recording of The Blues Brothers’ version of Randy Newman’s “Guilty” if you need proof. He died of a drug overdose in 1982 and the world lost a great talent. He came in like a lamb, and went out like a lion, and left an indelible imprint.
Oscar-nominated actor. Musician. Business owner. Writer. Ghostbuster. Maybe that’s how people see Dan Aykroyd today. But when he hit Saturday Night Live at age 22, nobody knew quite what to make of him, except that he definitely belonged on the show. He was funny, he was driven, and he loved being a weirdo. He had webbed toes, heterochromia (a condition in which the eyes are two different colors), and was ambidextrous. He also had a photographic memory, instant recall, and an intense, lifelong interest in both weaponry and the paranormal. He was a strange duck.
Once the show got big, he was the one person who didn’t like being singled out or interviewed by the press. His time in the Weekend Update chair was a hit but only lasted one season, and he couldn’t ditch it fast enough. His mission was to inhabit as many different characters as he could: Julia Child, Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon, Elwood Blues, and of course Fred Garvin, male prostitute. Along with frequent guest host Steve Martin, he was one of the Festrunk brothers, those wild and crazy guys from Bratislava who could swing so successfully for foxes in their tight slacks with their Czechoslovakian bulges. His characters didn’t even need names to be memorable: his refrigerator repairman with a pencil in his exposed butt crack defied broadcast standards but cracked up (heh!) his audience and his fellow cast members, if not the network censor.
Once he plunged into the show he embraced it totally, even moving into the office he shared with John Belushi (called “The Cave”) for several months in the second season. The NBC maintenance staff gave up on cleaning it, at that point, since there were clothes and papers piled up everywhere, and holes in the wall. He wasn’t just a part of Saturday Night; he lived it.
Lorne Michaels met Chevy Chase in line for a midnight screening of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Seems just about perfect, considering that Monty Python was the model Michaels used when he envisioned what would be different about Saturday Night.
Chase was initially hired just as a writer, but he was part of the cast by the time the show premiered, and became the show’s first breakout star. He was the original co-creator and anchor of Weekend Update. His “Good evening, I’m Chevy Chase and you’re not” plus his goofy take on the news set the tone for a segment that would brand the show and launch memorable careers for the next four decades. (Think Dennis Miller, Tina Fey, Jimmy Fallon, Amy Poehler, Seth Meyers, and arguably, non-SNLer Jon Stewart.) He was also a master of physical comedy, and his talent for prat falls found a perfect home in his frequent, hilarious impersonations of President Gerald Ford.
He was willing to do anything for a laugh. When Ellen Burstyn came by to talk to Lorne Michaels about guest hosting, Chase walked in, saw her, and recreated the urination scene from her movie The Exorcist, holding a watering can between his legs. Unsurprisingly, Burstyn decided not to stick around, although she did end up hosting the show about four years after Chase left.)
His popularity soared and once he hit the cover of New York Magazine – to his own surprise, when he spotted it on a newsstand – he was unstoppable. As Gilda Radner, Jane Curtin, and Laraine Newman sang in a Paul Shaffer-penned song:
“When he’s doing ‘Update’ my heart stands still
When he says that Franco’s still dead, I could die
When he talks dirty on that phone it’s like he’s talking to me
I go to pieces when he sneezes in his tie.”
The rest of the country felt the same way. His ego expanded exponentially as his fame grew, and backstage resentment increased. He left the show part of the way through the second season.
Of all the original cast members, probably the one remembered the most sweetly was Gilda Radner. People said she just had a way of making herself lovable, insecurities and all.
She quickly teamed up with writer Alan Zweibel. They bonded at the very first big pitch meeting. Nervous when he saw that each person was being asked for ideas, Zweibel tried hiding behind a potted plant. Gilda poked through the leaves from the other side and asked him for help with an idea she had, and a partnership was born. Ultimately they created Emily Litella, whose Weekend Update appearances always began with some sort of misunderstanding based on her bad hearing (the deaf penalty, presidential erections) and ended, once she’d been corrected, with a sweet “never mind.” She also called Chevy Chase “Cheddar Cheese”.
One of their best creations was Roseanne Rosannadanna. Roseanne Rosannadanna would always start by reading a letter from Richard Feder in Fort Lee, New Jersey (who was actually Zweibel’s brother-in-law) and then go off on some wild tangent that usually involved a celebrity and a personal hygiene transgression. “It’s always something,” she would cheerfully tell Weekend Update anchor Jane Curtin. “If it’s not one thing, it’s another.”
Radner also had an uncanny ability to tap into her inner child. The pigtails helped, the voice helped, but there was something extra she brought it to it and suddenly the audience could buy into her as a little girl without feeling even a little bit creepy. She shone as Girl Scout Judy Miller, who hosted a variety show in her bedroom, and was equally convincing as nerdy teenager Lisa Loopner.
Two years before she died of ovarian cancer, she went to a party at Laraine Newman’s house. She had been in remission but was getting sick again, and she was quite thin and small. When she told Bill Murray she was leaving the party, he scooped her up, and then he and Dan Aykroyd took turns carrying her around – sometimes in a fireman’s carry, sometimes upside down – as people at the party took turns making her laugh and saying farewell. It was the last time many of them saw her, but she went out on a high note.
It wasn’t quite smooth sailing for Laraine Newman at Saturday Night. When she got the job, she and her boyfriend packed up all of their stuff into a VW and drove to New York, where the car, still full of their belongings, was stolen almost immediately.
While she was talented and versatile, strong on acting and a pretty good singer, she wasn’t aggressive enough to fight for parts or hold her own in Saturday Night’s competitive atmosphere. She and Gilda Radner had a similar look and that meant they were often jockeying for the same roles, which didn’t help ease her insecurity. The three female cast members shared a small dressing room, which felt even smaller when she and Jane Curtin had to sit there looking nonchalant while Radner was being interviewed by the press and they weren’t.
Although she didn’t like relying on catchphrases or recurring characters, she did play Connie “we come from France” Conehead in multiple sketches, an audience favorite. And she was brilliant as the child psychologist who WAS a child, as she crossed her long, leotarded legs up on her desk and counseled parents Kate Jackson and Bill Murray on how to deal with their mute, autistic daughter Colleen (Gilda Radner) . . . and then begged them to leave so she could go to the bathroom.
She could play little girls, sophisticated socialites, ditsy sexpots, valley girls, and even Anna Freud. (“Sometimes a banana is just a banana, Anna.”)
With her clean, traditional look and her stable home life, Jane Curtin was often cast in the straight roles, and was fine with it. She wasn’t doing drugs, she wasn’t trying to be the loudest, pushiest one at the meetings, and she wasn’t craving superstardom. The rest of the cast needed that contrast, both on air and off, so much so that Gilda Radner would sometimes go home with her and just sit there, watching Jane and her husband and basking in the calm, marital vibe.
Curtin still had fun. She said the 90 minutes the show was on was the most exciting thing she’d ever done in her life next to white water rafting, and she called it “the biggest adrenaline rush in the world.” She has also admitted that the crazy undisciplined, self-indulgent, bad behavior that went on behind the scenes, as challenging as it was for her, was what made the humor so edgy and made the whole thing work.
That said, she was constantly frustrated by the rampant sexism on the show, particularly John Belushi’s claim that women weren’t funny. She fought openly with him, and stood up for herself, lobbying Lorne Michaels for better parts. She took over as the Weekend Update anchor after Chevy Chase left, sometimes sharing the desk with Dan Aykroyd or Bill Murray. And she inhabited some of the show’s legacy-creating characters, like Lisa Loopner’s mother Enid (with her famous egg salad recipe) and Prymaat Conehead. As an actress, she gave credibility to every role she took on, and was still just as funny as the rest.
Garrett Morris didn’t have it easy. He was older than the rest of the cast, he was the sole African-American writer and performer in the group, and had never done comedy before.
He was a playwright and a classically trained singer, and the white bread Saturday Night team really had no idea what to do with him. The women at least had a group and could bond together, but Morris was, with the exception of the receptionist, the only African-American on the 17th floor. He wasn’t interested in joining the social scene that was such a huge part of those early years, and as a result, was even more of an outcast. He was frequently given fringe parts, token black roles, or put in drag. Future cast members (and future superstars) Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock would both complain about how a producer tried to “Garret Morris” them when they were given stereotypes to play. Morris was hampered both by the times (the late 1970s) and his copious use of cocaine, which gave him hallucinations and made him paranoid.
But when it clicked, it clicked. He was Cliff, friend to the Festrunk brothers: “Slap-a my hand, black soul man!” He also carved out a small niche for himself as Chico Escuela, famous for the line “Baseball has been berra berra good to me!” Most memorable was his role on Weekend Update as the Headmaster of the School for the Hard of Hearing, when he delivered news by repeating what Chevy Chase said at the top of his lungs from inside a small circle on the side of the screen. You can see Chevy laughing in anticipation, sometimes. “Our top story TONIGHT! General Francisco Franco is STILL DEAD!”
Bill Murray was actually on the OTHER Saturday Night Live when the NBC show premiered. He’d auditioned, and would have been hired if Lorne Michaels had had a bigger budget. But he didn’t, and then he just sort of forgot to tell Murray. When Murray went to a party at writer Al Franken’s, Franken kindly put an arm around his shoulders to say how disappointed he was that Murray wasn’t part of the team. . .and that’s how he found out.
His chance came in the second season, when Chevy Chase left the show. The audience hated Murray, and blamed him for Chase’s departure, and it took him a few weeks to find his footing. His turnaround came when he addressed the audience directly, admitting he sometimes sucked, playing on their sympathy. Oddly, it worked.
He had his first hit with Nick The Lounge singer, most famous for crooning the Star Wars theme song. Paul Shaffer helped with the lyrics: “Star Wars! Nothing but Star Wars! Gimme those Star Wars. . .don’t let them end! Ah. . .Star Wars! If they should bar wars.. please let these Star Wars stay-ay!”
He also played Todd DiLamuca (friend to Lisa Loopner), and an especially lecherous Richard Dawson, host of Family Feud. He started sharing hosting duties with Jane Curtin on Weekend Update, and after he left the show, would occasionally return to give his popular Oscar predictions. (He’s since been nominated for one himself.)
So that’s the cast that made it onto the posters and t-shirts, but there were other major players in that first season. Comic Andy Kaufman was a regular performer, as were Jim Henson’s Muppets, and Albert Brooks. Brooks was commissioned to make short films, but when they started coming in too long and didn’t quite match the Saturday Night sensibility, both sides called it quits. And who knows what Jim Henson and the Muppets were doing there? It didn’t make sense from the beginning, and eventually a very wise Henson went off to England to create the monster hit The Muppet Show, which featured many of the same guests as Saturday Night: Candice Bergen, Milton Berle, Madeline Kahn, Rita Coolidge, Raquel Welch, Steve Martin, and Paul Simon.
Honorable mentions also go to some of the brilliant side players: Mr. Bill (“oh nooo!”), Don Novello as Father Guido Sarducci, Harry Shearer, Paul Shaffer, and frequent hosts Steve Martin, Candice Bergen, and Buck Henry, who seemed to blend in seamlessly with the cast. Bergen hosted the 4th show, and you can see the surprised look on her face at the very end, when the cast members gathered behind her and each one handed her a single rose. The show really came together for the first time that night, and the revolution was born.