Why you should care
Because SNL’s debut, like all of its shows, started with a cold open.
A year after President Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace and six months past the end of the disastrous Vietnam War, it felt like nobody in America was laughing. Then, one Saturday evening in October 1975, George Carlin walked onto the stage at Studio 8H in 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York, and the live sketch-comedy show Saturday Night Live began an epic four-decade run.
SNL may have celebrated its 40th anniversary earlier this year, but its real birthday is coming up this week, on Oct. 11. The show has enjoyed a remarkably long run in which it has adhered to a surprisingly consistent format, but anyone watching the 1975 premiere today would be struck by how different it seems, not to mention how little they are laughing.
Michaels reportedly asked NBC to have a movie ready to run just in case.
Originally called NBC’s Saturday Night, the 90-minute late-night show was a bold attempt to target comedy at a younger generation who had grown up on television. Its producer then, and now, Lorne Michaels, was committed to creating an edgy show that would be performed live and stay true to its New York environs, up to and including the cracked paint on the studio walls. But that grungy authenticity came with a hefty price tag: Filming in Manhattan cost NBC about 40 percent more than it would have in a Burbank, California, studio.
Despite the considerable investment, however, the show, which kicked off the same night as the epic World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the Cincinnati Reds, “got off to a less than auspicious start,” according to a Hollywood Reporter review. That said, as interviews with cast and crew in the book Live From New York reveal, it could have been much worse. As you might expect with the first installation of a groundbreaking show, preparation verged on chaos. Comedian Billy Crystal, who had prepared a six-minute African safari sketch, remembers showing up at the studio every day for a week, waiting for eight or nine hours to rehearse, only to go home having done nothing until the day before the premiere. His sketch was eventually cut.
Michaels was distracted by a million different things, including what George Carlin would wear: The host pressed for a T-shirt, the network wanted a suit. (Ultimately, Carlin came out wearing a T-shirt under a suit.) The dress rehearsal went so badly that Michaels reportedly asked NBC to have a movie ready to run just in case. And more drama ensued when cast member John Belushi did not sign his contract until minutes before the show went live.
That “Wolverines” sketch, a “cold open” skit preceding opening credits that SNL helped pioneer and retains today, featured Belushi as an immigrant imitating the outrageous lines his English instructor is feeding him, including feigning his own death when the instructor has a heart attack. The skit ends with Chevy Chase, playing a production manager with a clipboard and headset, inspecting the carnage onstage and proclaiming, “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!”
Striding through the audience to the stage, Carlin delivered the first of many stand-up monologues in the show, beginning with his famous riff on the differences between baseball and football, calling the latter a type of “ground acquisition game” popular in the U.S. since the one imposed on “the Indians.” Carlin did not participate in sketches as hosts do today, and witnesses later claimed that he was “stoned out of his mind.” In fact, there weren’t many sketches period, with some members of the cast, known as “The Not Ready for Prime Time Players” and including Dan Aykroyd, Jane Curtin and Gilda Radner, appearing in a single skit (dressed as bees).
Instead, TV viewers watched something more akin to an old-fashioned variety show with comedic monologues, four musical numbers, a prerecorded film by Albert Brooks and a bit by Jim Henson’s new “adult” Muppets. Among the few memorable acts was Andy Kaufman’s absurd skit in which he stands by a record player waiting to lip-sync a line from the Mighty Mouse theme song. Afterward, The Hollywood Reporter was not alone in its assessment that the show “was plagued throughout with a lack of exciting guests and innovative writing.” And, despite promos for the show advertising “It’s live, so anything can happen,” the telecast went off, almost disappointingly, without a hitch.
In spite of mediocre ratings, Lorne Michaels considered SNL an early hit, and his enthusiasm proved infectious, helping to energize the cast until the kinks got ironed out and the show became an undisputed success. Michaels was careful to preserve its rebellious nature. In Live From New York, Michaels recalls receiving just one note from the network after the first show: Cut the bees. “And so I made sure to put them in the next show,” he says, opening the second show with host Paul Simon informing the disappointed bees, “It didn’t work last week. It’s cut.”