“Let us begin,” says the bespectacled man to the heavy-set guy sitting opposite. “Now repeat after me. I would like...” “I voood like,” says chubby in a thick European accent. “...to feed...” “To feeeeed” “...your fingertips to the wolverines.” There’s a puzzled smattering of laughter from the studio audience. The critter-oriented vocal coaching continues for a minute or so until speccy clutches his heart and collapses. Chubby imitates this action too. A technician wanders onto stage. It’s Chevy Chase. Noticing the camera, he stares into it and yells, “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!” It’s 11:30pm on October 11th 1975 and with this one weak sketch, a legend is born.
Most of the faces that will define American comedy for the next 30 years follow in this show’s wake: Chase, Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy, Mike Myers, Will Ferrell and Adam Sandler, to name a few of the talents that would pass through the doors of Rockefeller Plaza. In the UK, where Saturday Night Live remained out of reach for comedy fans without satellite TV, the show attained a mythical status. It may befuddle some, then, to find that Saturday Night Live: The Complete First Series, headlined by the fabled dream team of Chase, Belushi and Aykroyd, doesn’t quite live up to its mighty reputation.
GETTING READY FOR PRIME TIME
The roots of SNL lie in an argument between Johnny Carson and NBC. The talk-show host ordered the network to stop repeating his show in the late-night Saturday slot. The task of filling the hole fell to Canadian producer Lorne Michaels, who pieced together the rough idea for a new, hip sketch show, performed by a regular in-house troupe but with a new host and musical act each week. It’d have the surreal, satirical bite of Python and the counter-culture edge of National Lampoon magazine. Most importantly, it would be live – and dangerous.
Michaels put the feelers out, drafting in Belushi, Chase, Gilda Radner and misanthropic lead writer Michael O’Donahue from National Lampoon’s performing arms. Canadian Dan Aykroyd, comedy actresses Jane Curtin and Laraine Newman, black singer/actor Garrett Morris rounded out the “Not Ready For Prime Time Players”. On the awkward screen tests included on the DVD – the sole meaningful extras – only Belushi seems to burn with the hunger that would mark the group’s first season.
The series took a while to lock down its format. The first show is ropey, nervous. Between host George Carlin’s monologues, the two musical acts, a pair of stand-up slots (one from Andy Kaufman), a short film from Albert Brooks and a dull sketch from Jim Henson’s Muppets (bizarrely, another first-season regular), the comedians barely get a look-in. The second show’s even worse, taken over by guest host Paul Simon‘s warblings. But by the third show, things are starting to take shape. The sketches move centre stage. ‘Anchorman’ Chase nails his Weekend Update (the Day Today precursor news slap that’s still an SNL mainstay) and Belushi trots out his wild-man Joe Cocker impression, ending it by flailing wildly into the audience.
If certain sketches now feel dated, or just plain unfunny, it’s moments where boundaries are broken live on air where the tension is electric: Chase’s psychiatric word-association skit with Richard Pryor breaking down into racial abuse; or Belushi and Aykroyd’s debut of their proto-Blues Brothers “King Bee” skit.
SOMETHING LIKE A PHENOMENON
For a post-Vietnam, post-Nixon audience of young, cynical adults SNL was outrageous, unique and totally relevant. Word quickly spread, ratings spiked. SNL grew so popular that President Gerald Ford, regularly lampooned by Chase as a clumsy idiot, would film a guest appearance (he’d later blame his election loss on the show‘s constant satirical digs). The show won four Emmys before the season was even finished, though the only cast member singled out for an acting honour was one Chevy Chase...
I’M CHEVY CHASE AND YOU’RE NOT
While his comrades would fume and puzzle over the audience’s instant crush on Chase, it’s clear on The Complete First Series that he’s king of the castle. Unlike, say, the chameleon-like Aykroyd, Chase effectively plays himself in every scene he’s in, with the bonus ball of having the whole Weekend Update solo slot to dominate the camera’s attention. His co-stars – Belushi especially – loathed him. This merely added to the pressure-cooker atmosphere behind the scenes, which would feed back into the performances. As the cast were constantly pushed to create 90 minutes of fresh content every week, cocaine became the drug of choice. They became rock ‘n’ roll astronauts; hurtled into the heavens each week on a combustible rocket of ambition and coke to see whether they had that glorious Right Comic Stuff, never knowing if they would burn up on re-entry. Some of them did.
THE CURSE OF SNL
So what of 1975’s original explorers? Belushi would infamously get lost on the edge, OD’ing in ’82, three years after leaving the show. Cancer ensured that Gilda Radner and Andy Kaufman wouldn’t see the ’90s, sparking rumours of an SNL curse, not helped by Michael O’Donoghue (brain haemorrhage) and later cast members Chris Farley (another OD) and Phil Hartman (shot by his wife) also pitching up dead in the ’90s. Garrett Morris and Laraine Newman both developed heavy habits and slipped into the margins, while Jane Curtin gravitated towards mainstream sitcoms. Chase left for Hollywood at the end of the first season, his initial success tailing off sharply by the end of the ’80s.
In the end it would be character-actor Aykroyd who would have the most durable career. “We wanted to do something different,” he once told Lounge of his SNL days. “We all fancied ourselves as young video commandoes. When you see the studio – the electronic bullpen we used to call it – it’s like an arena where you can fly or die.”
And when the gang do fly, they soar: mercurial, fearless and often very, very funny. This isn’t the comedy genius of lore then, but make no mistake, this is history in the making.