Gilda Radner as "Baba WaWa"; Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels
On Oct. 11, 1975, only minutes before Saturday Night Live
was about to make its debut, an issue concerning wardrobe threatened to derail the entire production. George Carlin
, that night's host, refused to wear a suit. It's hard to imagine a time when appearing on network television in a T-shirt could be construed as crass, even lewd, but that's how NBC brass viewed it. Meanwhile, Carlin wasn't budging.
"Five minutes before air they were still fighting," Lorne Michaels recalls, during a conversation with TVGuide.com. "At the last moment, the compromise was that he would wear a suit [jacket] with a T-shirt."
Thirty-two years and many thousands of wardrobe choices later, SNL (Saturdays at 11:30 pm/ET) is still going strong, making it that much more interesting to see where it all began. To that end, Carlin's appearance — along with the other 23 preliminary episodes — arrives in stores today as part of an eight-disc collection titled Saturday Night Live: The Complete First Season.
Over the last three decades, the New York-based sketch-comedy and music program has not only brought laughter to audiences, but it's also introduced them to comedians destined for superstardom. Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy, Mike Myers, Adam Sandler and Will Ferrell are only a few of the household names who got their start gracing the Studio 8H stage at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. However, there's no single person more responsible for SNL's success than Michaels, its creator and longtime producer.
Born in Toronto, Michaels began his entertainment career as a writer for Laugh-In and The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show. By the early '70s, he began pitching an idea that was similar to what would become SNL, though not live. Eventually, NBC exec Herb Schlosser and the network's new head of late night, Dick Ebersol, gave the 30-year-old writer a green light to do a live program out of New York City.
"It all sort of just fell into place," says Michaels. "Dick ran interference with the network, so I was relatively protected. And because it was live, no one saw it until it was on the air, so there was no pilot to be fixed."
That creative leeway allowed Michaels to employ a hip and irreverent approach previously unseen on television. Setting out to forge a brand of humor that dared to touch on social, racial, sexual and political topics, Michaels' next step was to put together the cast.
"They were people who I thought I could last a whole season with, and who I thought were really funny," he says. "From Canada, I knew Danny [Aykroyd] and Gilda [Radner]. Laraine [Newman] I'd worked with on some Lily Tomlin shows. Chevy I'd met while in line for a movie, and he made me laugh. John Belushi came in through [writer] Michael O'Donoghue. Jane [Curtin] came out of an audition. Garrett [Morris] came from the Writers' Guild, but in preproduction he moved to the cast."
Termed the "Not Ready for Prime Time Players," Aykroyd, Radner, Newman, Chase, Belushi, Curtin and Morris invented characters during the first season that would go on to become part of the cultural lexicon. Aykroyd's "Fred Garvin: Male Prostitute," Belushi's "Samurai Futaba" and Chase's "Land Shark" were particular fan favorites. However, unconventional musical guests as well as other more experimental segments — including short films by Albert Brooks and recurring puppetry bits by a young Jim Henson — set the show apart.
"Leon Redbone was on toward the end of that first season, and he didn't even have a record contract at that point," recalls Michaels. "I had seen him in Canada, and I just thought, 'He's cool. Let's put him on.' Then there was Andy Kaufman, who we just found, and also Jim Henson. So I knew what the ingredients were, but it took a while to find the recipe."
Of course, difficult lessons were learned along the way. "On the first show, I put the commercial parodies in the middle of the real commercials," says Michaels. "And the audience was furious, because that meant they had to watch the real commercials."
One of the most compelling dimensions about watching SNL's first go-round on DVD is seeing those kinks being ironed out from week to week. Even bits that didn't work at the time are fascinating to revisit in retrospect, because they were integral to the show's conceptual fine-tuning. By the spring of 1976, the public, especially younger viewers, had taken notice.
"We were all together, all the time," explains Michaels. "It was only at the end of the first season that we began to realize that there was a real audience. In April or May of the first season, New York magazine put Chevy on its cover, and the innocence was over. We were under a state of grace. That's why I love that first season, because nothing mattered but the show. After that, there were career matters; everyone has agents and managers, and the world changes."
Despite SNL's loss of innocence, Michaels continued as the show's producer through the 1979-80 season. In the following years, he went on to produce TV specials for Steve Martin and Simon & Garfunkel. Meanwhile, SNL's ratings and quality experienced a slow decline. NBC planned to cancel it in 1985, unless Michaels agreed to return. Needless to say, he accepted the offer and has continued to shepherd the Saturday-night festivities ever since. With three live broadcasts airing this month, the 62-year-old Emmy winner maintains that he still gets butterflies.
"The feeling is exactly the same. It never changes," he says. "The only difference is that back then, I was worried seven days a week. Now I know when to worry. I can identify things and say, 'That's a Thursday problem, it'll probably go away.' But the pit-of-your-stomach thing? I get that every time."
And though it's often debated whether the show has ever recaptured its early brilliance, Michaels believes one's age plays a large part in biasing their argument.
"The four longest years of your life are high school, and that's when people get attached," he says. "The baby boomers go, 'No, no, no, John Belushi was the funniest guy.' And their kids go, 'No, Chris Farley was funnier than he was.' Another group goes, 'No, Will Ferrell was the best.' This is a place where people have grown."
This battle of generations will most likely continue to rage. Last year, NBC renewed SNL's contract through 2012. T-shirt or suit, it's hard to find a fashion that's lasted as long.
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