Saturday Night Live first aired on 11 October 1975 on NBC and has continued since to hold that spot in the line-up despite major cast changes, turmoil in the production offices and variable ratings. A comedy-variety show with an emphasis on satire and current issues, the program has been a staple element of NBC's dominance of late-night programming since its inception.
The program was developed by Dick Ebersol with producer Lorne Michaels in 1975 as a result of NBC's search for a show for its Saturday late night slot. The network had long enjoyed dominance of the weekday late night slot with The Tonight Show and sought to continue that success in the unused weekend time period. With the approval of Johnny Carson, whose influence at the network was strong, Ebersol and Michaels debuted their show, which was intended to attract the 18-to-34 age demographic.
The regulars on the show have always been relative unknowns in the comedy field. The first cast (The Not Ready for Prime Time Players) included Chevy Chase, Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Jane Curtin, Gilda Radner, Laraine Newman and Garrett Morris, all of them from the New York and Toronto comedy scenes. Featuring a different guest host each week (comedian George Carlin was the first) and a different musical guest as well, the programs reflected a non-traditional approach to television comedy from the start. The cast and writers combined the satirical with the silly and non-sensical, not unlike Monty Python's Flying Circus, one of Michael's admitted influences.
The program was produced live from NBC's studio 8-H for 90 minutes. This difficult schedule and pressure-filled production environment has resulted in some classic comedy sketches and some abysmally dull moments over the years. Creating comedy in such a situation is difficult at best and the audience was always aware when the show was running dry (usually in the last half hour). But this sense of the immediate and the unforeseen also gave the show its needed edge. By returning to TV's live roots, Saturday Night Live gave its audiences an element of adventure with each program. It acquainted the generations who never experienced live television programming in the 1950s with the sense of theatre missing from pre-recorded programming.
For the performers, crew and writers, the show was a test of skill and dedication. The show has undergone several major changes since its beginning. The most obvious of these were the cast changes. SNL's first "star," Chevy Chase, left the show in the second season for Hollywood. Aykroyd and Belushi followed in 1979. The rest of the original cast, including Bill Murray who replaced Chase, left when Lorne Michaels decided to leave the show after the 1979-80 season. Michaels' departure created wide-spread doubt about the viability of the show without him and his cast of favorites. Jean Doumanian was chosen as producer and her tenure lasted less than a year. With the critics attacking the show's diminished satirical edge and the lackluster replacement performers, NBC enticed Ebersol to return as producer in the spring of 1981. Ebersol managed to attract some of the original staff for the 1981-82 season, particularly writer Michael O'Donoghue. With the addition of Eddie Murphy, the show began to regain some of its strength, always based in its focus on a young audience and the use of relevant material.
Michaels rejoined the show as producer in 1985 and oversaw a second classic period of Saturday Night Live. With talented performers such as Dana Carvey, Jon Lovitz, Jan Hooks and Phil Hartman, the program regained much of its early edge and attitude. But the nature of the the program is that the people who make it funny (the performers and writers) are the ones who tend to move on after a few years of the grind of producing a weekly live show. As the program moved into the 1990s, this trend still affected the quality. But Michaels' presence established a continuity which reassured the network and provided some stability for the audience.
From the beginning, Saturday Night Live provided America with some of its most popular characters and catch-phrases. Radner's Roseanne Roseannadana ("It's always something") and Emily Litella ("Never mind"), Belushi's Samurai, Aykroyd's Jimmy Carter, Murphy's Mr. Robinson, Billy Crystal's Fernando ("You look mahvelous"), Martin Short's Ed Grimley, Lovitz's pathological liar, Carvey's Church Lady ("Isn't that special?") and Carvey and Kevin Nealon's Hans and Franz have all left marks on popular culture. The program's regular news spot has been done by Chase, Curtin, Aykroyd, Nealon and Dennis Miller, among others and, at its best, provided sharp comic commentary on current events. It was particularly strong with Miller as the reader.
Saturday Night Live has seen many of its cast members move on to success in other venues. Chase, Aykroyd, Murray, Murphy and Crystal have all enjoyed considerable movie success. Short, Lovitz, Carvey, Jim Belushi, Adam Sandler, Chris Farley and Joe Piscopo have been mildly successful in films. Curtin, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Hooks and Phil Hartman moved on to other television shows.
As a stage for satire, few other American programs match Saturday Night Live. As an outlet for current music, the show has featured acts from every popular musical genre and has hosted both old and new artists (from Paul Simon, the Rolling Stones and George Harrison to REM and Sinead O'Connor.) Due to its longevity, SNL has crossed generational lines and made the culture of a younger audience available to their elders (and the opposite is also true). Ultimately, Saturday Night Live must be considered one of the most distinctive and significant programs in the history of U.S. television.
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