Well, 40 years is a long time.

Last night, NBC ran the October 11, 1975 premiere of Saturday Night Live. I was struck by a few things in particular.

First, the tone and rhythm of the show is very different — pacing is weird and more haphazard, for example, which makes sense since the show as brand new and running at a time when they could generally assume almost no one was watching. It’s also way more of a variety show than the pure sketch show it became. George Carlin has several segments of standup, and the two musical guests — Janis Ian and Billy Preston — each get two songs. Jim Henson’s Muppets have a bit, even.

Second, there’s a LOT more show. The show as broadcast last night seems completely uncut; this may be the first time I’ve seen ALL of the first episode. There seem to be many, many fewer commercial breaks, and they’re shorter when they happen. I knew commercials had become more pervasive in my TV-watching life, but it was gradual. Seeing an example of 1970s TV today, complete with period breaks, is pretty shocking. (I’m willing to stipulate that 11:30 on a Saturday may not have been particularly appealing ad time, so maybe the first SNL has fewer breaks than a prime time show of that era would’ve had, but the difference is still shocking.)

Finally, well, you can’t help but notice how many folks in the first episode have died. Because I’m morbidly curious, I made this list of the dead people I saw, in the order in which they appear:

  • Michael O’Donoghue (1994, 54)
  • John Belushi (died in 1982 at age 33)
  • George Carlin (2008, 71)
  • Billy Preston (2006, 59)
  • Gilda Radner (1989, 42)
  • Andy Kaufman (1984, 35)
  • Jim Henson (1990, 53)

It’s sad to see that, of these, only Carlin lived past the three score and ten we think of as a “normal” life before dying of heart failure. Belushi of course did himself in, but the rest of them passed naturally despite their relative youth.

All of the surviving original cast is north of 60 now. The oldest, Garrett Morris, is 78. Dan Ackroyd and Laraine Newman are the babies at 62.

(Update: Alert reader F.D. notes that my order above was off; O’Donoghue appears in the first sketch, but I didn’t realize that was him.)

3 thoughts on “Well, 40 years is a long time.

  1. Your order is a bit off–O’Donoghue (who was infamously nasty and was responsible for the 1978 episode with William Burroughs reading from Naked Lunch) was actually, with Belushi, the first to appear, with one of my favorite SNL lines ever: “Repeat after me: I would like to feed your fingertips to the wolverines.” I watched this last night too (and have it on DVD so it hadn’t been so long since I’d seen it).

    Some impressions: Carlin was terrific, but I can always watch him. Billy Preston was pretty great too, though I have very little tolerance of Ian’s self-pitying “At 17” (which I once saw a bestselling author sing a capella before a group of stunned SIBA members at a breakfast; author’s name is JA Jance, and she’s not worth further consideration). Andy Kaufman did the whole weird “is he trying to be funny?” that he did so well. The Muppets segment was terrible, and I am glad they ditched those quickly. Pacing was weird, as you mention, and most everyone seemed pretty high. Some of the sketches were odd and unfunny but probably would have been hilarious had you been hitting the bong back in ’75.

    I actually have the first season on DVD, and by all accounts, the first episode took so much out of everyone that they were completely exhausted; as such, the second episode features mostly Paul Simon and Simon and Garfunkel songs, along with one each from Phoebe Snow and Randy Newman. I think the Not Ready for Prime Time Players were barely present, only Chevy Chase doing Weekend Update. After that, the show began the long slow process of morphing into what we recognize today. And I gotta say, today’s episodes kinda suck. Bill Hader was one of their best ever, but he’s long gone, and I don’t much like most of the new people.

  2. It’s hard for me to really grasp how bizarre Kaufman must have seemed in 1975. I mean, seriously. The sketch material vacillated between shockingly still-relevant or even prescient (most notably with the 3-bladed razor, but also things like “show us your guns”) to the mildly dated (the home-security bit) to the incredibly dated (the “Chevy’s wife” bit, which I guess is funny because gay was funny?). Chase got at least one true zinger in Update (about the 10-cent stamp commemorating prostitution, “but if you want to lick it, it’s a quarter”), and the more bizarre things worked pretty well (the cold open, for example) despite the age.

    Finally, I love you man, but there are few things more tedious than someone saying SNL sucks now. It’s never been gold every week. It’s a live TV show written in 5 days. I miss Hader, too, but the current cast is pretty strong IMO, and they’ve sent us into pause-the-TV-because-we-can’t-hear gales of laughter pretty reliably. Kate MacKinnon is a goddamn national treasure. The Update team is super solid, and if I miss Cecily Strong as co-chair I’m mollified that Che taking her seat means we can get her “commentary” characters back, which are reliably stellar.

  3. Yeah, you’re right, SNL-bashing of the “it’s not good anymore” variety is nearly as old as the show itself. And I do watch it every week. Kate MacKinnon is clearly the strongest of the cast, but she can’t carry it all herself. I think Che is pretty great on the Update but Colin Jost remains charisma-free. And speaking of SNL suck, I imagine you too watched the pointless tedious three-and-a-half wank-o-rama that was the 40th anniversary special last night. You know what would have been cool? If they had shown classic sketches in chronological order and in their entirety. But of course they couldn’t do that–they had to parade the stars (Robert DeNiro! Jack Nicholson!), have Eddie Murphy on for a brief joke free appearance, and goddamn Sarah fucking Palin in the audience near the end. To say nothing of Kanye West (who can suck it; Beck’s album did deserve the Grammy) and Miley Cyrus butchering a Paul Simon song. I can’t believe I sat through it all. Oh well, at least Better Call Saul is on tonight.