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.)