Friday, February 13, 2015

40 Years Ago, 'SNL' Changed Late Night Forever

The original cast of "Saturday Night Live": nobodies who became legends. (NBC photo)

As much as "Saturday Night Live" has been in the popular culture for 40 years, which is being celebrated this weekend, it wasn't until 2006 until the first season was released on DVD. This, a look back at that first season almost 30 years later, first appeared in The Capital Times (Madison, Wis.) in December 2006.


The beginning came quietly enough, a call and response between a soft-spoken professorial type helping an immigrant with his English: 

    Repeat after me. I would like ...

    I wood like ...

    To feed your fingertips ...

    To feed yur fingerteeps ...

    To the wolverines.

    To dee wolver-eens.

And so it began on a TV Saturday night in October 1975, a bit of a different look for anyone who was looking for the Johnny Carson rerun that used to fill that spot. By the time that professor clutched his chest and collapsed of a heart attack, followed onto the floor by the immigrant who was told to mimic his teacher, late-night television had changed forever. 

Or at least it was on its way. 

For the first time, fans of "Saturday Night Live" can see the first season in its entirety with a new eight-DVD boxed set release of the original 24 episodes. Each episode is intact, including musical guests. 

Various versions of the 32-year-old sketch show have been available for years (come on, isn't "The Best of Chris Kattan" on everybody's Christmas list?). Cable reruns have chopped them up for decades, yet these DVDs are the first time in a long time anyone has seen the originals from beginning to end.

And for many Madisonians, it might be the first time many people have seen them, period. The local NBC affiliate, Channel 15, didn't carry the show until Feb. 14, 1976, opting to stick with its killer lineup of "Space: 1999" and "The Midnight Special." 

NBC affiliates in Milwaukee and Rockford carried it, though, and depending how good of an antenna a TV had, many people could watch it on those channels. School conversations on Monday centered around what happened on "Saturday Night" and not just Saturday night, told for the benefit of those whose TV wasn't good enough to tune in. I remember my sisters and I scurrying to nab the baby-sitting jobs in the homes that got a clear signal from Rockford so we could be sure to tune in. (And these people thought we loved their children. ...)

What didn't air here was a work in progress, and watching the DVDs doesn't so much solidify the "it used to be so much better" camp as chart the show's evolution.

That first episode, airing on Oct. 11, 1975, was nothing like the show that became iconic. For starters, it was called "Saturday Night" because Howard Cosell had a show called "Saturday Night Live" over on ABC.

George Carlin hosted the NBC version, and the first 30 minutes of the show included two of his four monologues, Weekend Update, the Muppets and two musical acts. Billy Preston and Janis Ian performed on the first show (because, really, nothing gets a party going like Ian's "At Seventeen"). 

Andy Kaufman was sweet and surreal, a world away from the obnoxious presence that led to viewers voting him off the show years later. The cast was barely acknowledged, introduced by announcer Don Pardo as "The Not For Ready Prime Time Players."

It didn't improve much the second week, which was more or less "The Paul Simon Show." He opened with a song, did some more songs with Art Garfunkel, later Randy Newman and Phoebe Snow did some songs, 10 in all in the show.

To think of "Saturday Night Live" at anytime in its history is to think of a certain format. So it's so surprising to see the early episodes and realize the format wasn't there. There was Weekend Update and a vaguely amusing opening monologue, and there were Bees. But all in all, it was a shadow of what it would become.

By the fourth week, things started to kick in. I have no idea what Candice Bergen was famous for in 1975, but she was the first host who clearly was not the star of the show. She was part of it, not the center of it, and the cast came alive around her. By the time John Belushi started riffing on Ray Charles while dressed as Beethoven, the show picked up a steam it wouldn't lose again for five years.

In finding a format of recurring characters and catch phrases, the show wasn't as revolutionary as it seemed. Yet the cast, which earned its tag as "The Beatles of Comedy," endures as a versatile troupe of performers. They did it all, a mere seven of them compared to the cast in recent years that seemingly required the show's first 10 minutes just to introduce.

The biggest impact was commercial; the show helped NBC find that younger viewers indeed were a powerful demographic, a demographic every media company has knocked itself out trying to reach ever since.

But was it better? Little things stand out to answer yes, including a raucous performance by the rarely seen Patti Smith Group, the utter delight of watching Gilda Radner, the brilliant danger of John Belushi and topical humor that few would have the nerve to try on network TV today. (The Richard Pryor episode oozes with it.)

Other things stand out to answer no, including painfully boring films by Albert Brooks and the mystery of why Chevy Chase was the show's first big star.

So watch it for a time capsule or watch it to ride a nostalgic wave. Just watch it and remember there was a time when nobody bothered to put anything decent on TV after 10:30 on a Saturday night. 

Generations of baby-sitters remain eternally grateful.