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Saturday Night Live first aired as, simply, "Saturday Night", with its
cast (including quintessential members Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Gilda
Radner, Lorraine Newman and Chevy Chase) called the "Not Yet Ready for
Prime-Time Players. It was a rough and sometimes crude and disorganized
skit show, and it hasn't aired much over the years save for the obscure
VHS title and if and when ever on repeat screenings on NBC (that and
the newly released first season DVD). With the untimely passing of
George Carlin- now among a number of others, Jim Henson, Belushi, Andy
Kaufman, Gilda Radner, Billy Preston, who have died- Lorne Michaels
made the wise choice to replay the first episode in its unedited glory.
It's not a perfect program by any stretch, but its messiness is half the fun. One might like one skit over the other, or prefer one musical guest to the other (frankly, I prefer the funky beats of Preston over the melancholy Janis Ian tunes), or wonder what is up with these strange looking Muppets from Henson, or how outrageous Albert Brooks could get for better or worse (there's both great Jewish jokes and crazy pedophile jokes in one-minute of time). But one thing that it can't not be called is ingenuous. This is the real-deal in sketch comedy, and the writing is irreverence squared. Adding on to tis is the wonderful, classic presence of Carlin (who originally would've been in skits had it not been for his cocaine habit at the time), who goes through Baseball and Football and his first thoughts on God to the New York audience. Even in this coked-up state he's on fire, in a laid-back sort of way.
Featuring the first Weekend Update segment (Hirohito Watch!), skits ranging from Bee Hospital to a cheerful gun expo, and Kaufman's masterwork of awkwardness in "singing" Mighty Mouse, it's the seed of something rather special in television, and it's very enjoyable in its imperfection (and, for some, a sweet nostalgia trip).
This show was the first of hundreds which was hosted by none other than George Carlin. The sketches were done with the not for ready prime time players. George never appeared in them but he was there to introduce the two musical performers, Billy Preston and Janis Ian who each performed twice themselves. Despite the initial premise, George performed his baseball-football comparisons to the laughter of an audience who should be so lucky to have attended the first night of many on live television. The show was never at outlandish as it is now. The humor was from within. It was nice to see the original players who all became stars on their own. The show evolved and changed. Janis Ian, an American folk singer, sang beautifully and poetically the second time around while Billy Preston was legendary in his performance. It showed that the show took chances in bringing the popular and unpopular performers who should be famous.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The first episode of Saturday Night Live starts with the sound of a
door opening and closing, followed by the clunky echo of a heavy booted
John Belushi playing an immigrant walking down wooden stairs into a
near barren living room to meet up with his "English Speaking" tutor as
played by Michael O' Donoghue. The sketch has the stamp of O' Donoghue
written all over it: the bizarre instruction to 'feed one's fingertips
to the wolverines' and the macabre flair of a painful death used as a
punch line. SNL was introducing its own brand of comedy to the world,
one that hadn't ever been seen on the likes of 'Laugh-In' or 'The Carol
Although the show hadn't found its own identity quite yet, there was no mistaking that this show was unlike anything else on television at the time. In fact, the first episode feels more like a late night 'special' featuring George Carlin than what it would become only two shows later with Rob Reiner as host. Carlin did four segments of his stand up material, touching on topics ranging from 'baseball and football' to 'oxy morons and religion'. He did not appear in any sketches for the show.
The first show also had its fair share of miscues and screw-ups. Don Pardo muffed the intro by calling the cast the "Not For Ready Prime Time Players" instead of the "Not Ready For Prime Time Players" and Chevy Chase had some difficulty finding the correct camera while delivering the headlines on Weekend Update.
Most of the sketches on the show were very short, especially considering the amount of time given to the Muppet segment and other filmed material. Two filmed segments (Jamitol and Triopenin) played off of one shared joke while other sketches came off as corny (Bee Hospital-Victims of Shark Bites) and another as vaguely familiar as a Second City staple (Courtroom Scene). The only sketch that closely resembles what the future SNL would be is the 'Trojan Horse Home Security' sketch that aired very late in the show. There wasn't any real stand out sketch; the most memorable segments other than 'Update' and the opening were the filmed commercials, the musical guests or the one-man show of Andy Kaufman.
Watching Kaufman do his 'Mighty Mouse' routine one feels as if watching history in the making, another new beginning in performance art comedy. It's appropriate that Kaufman is on SNL's first show laying the groundwork for redefining the definitions of comedy. The crowd loves him and gives him the biggest applause of the night, unlike Carlin who asks the crowd after a tepid response to one of his jokes if "he's told these jokes already tonight".
The show was very heavy on its musical acts. Both Janis Ian and Billy Preston were able to sing two songs. On a side note, we get to see the woman that would play a huge part in the makeup of the show to come. Jacqueline Carlin, who also found her way into two filmed segments on the first show (New Dad-Academy of Better Careers), was the woman that Chevy would leave the show for to marry after only one season. It could be said that Chevy left the show to be a 'New Husband' and to have a 'better career' on the West Coast with Jacqueline, but one has to wonder if Chevy had the chance to do it all over again would he rather fall head over heels for Jacqueline on the West Coast or fall head over ass at Studio 8H for a television show on the East Coast?
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This being the first episode, it is not the most amazing episode of the
series but it is a good start. George Carlin dominates the show with
multiple monologues including his classic football-baseball comparison.
The opening is the trademark blackout including John Belushi with a
foreign language lesson going awry & Chevy Chase coming in to do his
first "Live From New York, It's Saturday Night!" which he would do
almost every show until he left the show.
Most of the first season would feature Jim Henson's Adult Muppets & a film by Albert Brooks. This first film by Brooks is actually better than some of the later ones before the series would get rid both of the films & the Muppets. Still looking back, these are priceless now considering that Henson is gone, & who knows what has happened to Brooks.
The cast here is loaded, a very rare appearance by the late Janis Ian, & a couple of numbers by Billy Preston are really well done. The Andy Kauffman routine is still off the wall. Bee Hospital is a little flat but pleasant enough. On the DVD this runs about 65 to 70 minutes which tells me there were close to 30 minutes worth of commercials in the 90 minute slot in 1975. The reason this show is 90 minutes is because they all were back then, even Carson was then on Tonight. Today, SNL is one of the very few programs to still have a 90 minute slot, though I wonder if they even do an hour now.
These shows would get better, & for you Senator Al Franken fans, Franken already has a writing credit on this first episode. It would be a few years before he would appear on camera. There is a live ad on the DVD by Paul Simon for the next weeks episode.
Incidentally (or coincidentally) the very first episode of "Saturday
Night Live" debuted on October 11th, which is the same day of the month
as my own birthday. I've always felt it was appropriate that my
favorite show shares its birthday with me! Of course, in recent years
it hasn't been my favorite show as much...with guest hosts like Paris
Hilton and a cast of untalented dimwits like Tina Fey, it's a real
shame the show has fallen as far as it has. I remember that skit David
Spade did once about Eddie Murphy: "Look children! It's a falling
star!" Well, the tables have turned.
This first episode is classic, though, and although it's very different from the way the show became in later years, it's very fun.
Unfortunately "SNL" hasn't been released in season box sets on DVD yet (fingers crossed for HD-DVD or Blu-Ray releases), but if you can track down this first episode from 1975 you'll be in for a treat (it airs on E! sometimes).
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