Monday, June 27, 2011

Live From New York...

If you are under the age of 40, Saturday Night Live has always been on TV. That was not always the case. When I was in high school, Saturday nights were defined by professional wrestling live from the Houston Coliseum and hosted by Paul Bosch on Channel 39, one of the only two UHF stations in town. Sure, professional wrestling could be found everywhere in the United States, but while we didn't have Bruno Sammartino or Fred Blassie, we had Ernie Ladd and Wahoo McDaniel - and a whole bunch of masked wrestlers from Mexico.

But that's off the subject. When I was a freshman at Tech, there really was nothing on TV on Saturday nights, and that meant that if you weren't at a mixer or otherwise engaged with a person of the opposite sex (or, for those who prefer, the same sex), life could be kind of boring. Friday nights at least had the Midnight Special on NBC and In Concert on ABC - two competing televised rock concerts (and Martin Mull once forgot which one he was on). Weeknights were given over to Carson and to Tom Snyder, whose Tomorrow Show came on after midnight and featured very intellectual hour-long discussions with some person of relevance in either news, sports or entertainment - The Daily Show without any of the humor (well, except for the evening Snyder decided to show off a walking stick made from the petrified penis of a bull). Sunday nights were given over to homework. But Saturday nights - well...

Then one October evening in 1975, the news came on, and after the news was this new variety show featuring comedy sketch material introduced by gameshow host Don Pardo. Onto the stage strolled Chevy Chase ("I'm Chevy Chase, and you're not!"), and before he could plant himself in front of the microphone, he fell flat on his ass. Then he gave us a big grin and announced those famous words, "Live from New York, it's Saturday Night!" Chase had not intended the pratfall, but thereafter, it became his signature move.
Saturday Night Live was off and running. The brainchild of Lorne Michaels of National Lampoon fame and Dick Ebersol, who handled all of NBC's sports programming, it featured comedians from Chicago's Second City (and "The Kentucky Fried Movie" and "Groove Tube" - look them up on Netflix) who were collectively known as the Not Ready For Prime-Time Players; they were Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris, Larraine Newman and Gilda Radner. There was always a guest host, who was somebody famous at the moment; one of the early episodes featured Gerald Ford, who was coaxed to say "I'm Gerald Ford, and you're not" (his press secretary, Ron Nessen, an ex-NBC newsman, was host that weekend), which was ironic, because a good bit of Chevy Chase's humor those first couple of years was him bumbling around the Oval Office as Ford.

That first cast would go on to bigger and better things as the years rolled on, and new faces - Eddie Murphy, Martin Short, Joe Piscopo, Jim Belushi and Bill Murray would step in. The show had its ups and downs; in the early '80s the routines weren't quite as fresh, and in one episode, someone actually said "fuck" on the air (and they weren't pulling the chain to turn on a light, either), but by the mid '80s, the show had regained a lot of its mojo, with Billy Crystal doing his Fernando Lamas impression ("you know, dahling, it's better to look good than to feel good")and Buster Poindexter leading the band and recording "Hot, Hot, Hot" (not a bar-mitzvah party since has been without that song). There was also Mister Grimley...
Then the show nose-dived again, and suddenly, we were seeing professional wrestling on Saturday nights in 1986 (deja vu all over again!). It was probably appropriate that Stickles was out of print by then. It took a heroic effort and a whole new line-up with Dana Carvey, Dennis Miller and Jon Lovitz to save the show, and SNL would go on to some of its best years with the Church Lady and Wayne's World among its featured sketches. In 1990, a serious challenge would emerge in the form of the entire Wayans family, whose In Living Color may be one of the funniest things Fox ever put on its network, so SNL discovered Chris Rock, who was himself the funniest black comedian since Eddie Murphy. 
(And those of you who remember back that far probably also know that the line is, "I hate when that happens")

And the show has continued ever since - through the presidencies of two Bushes, a Clinton and an Obama. Every so often, one of the old cast members shows up again to guest-host, but a steady supply of young comedians continues to rotate in to make sketch comedy on Saturday night as the older names on the show move on to bigger and better things. At the end of geologic time, it is entirely possible that the only three shows left on television will be Saturday Night Live, the Simpsons and Sixty Minutes.

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