Is First Broadcast Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Saturday Night Live, the first network comedy-variety series aimed at young viewers since Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, proved an enduring success and launched the careers of many talented young actors and writers.

Significance

On the occasion of Saturday Night Live’s fifteenth anniversary special, Newsweek called the program “a show that blew apart and redrew the boundaries of television comedy.” That judgment seems only partly just, arguably less so in later years than in those first heady seasons when both writers and performers let their irreverence range over politics, popular culture, Americans’ unbridled commodity fetishism, show-business icons—indeed, the very medium in which the show’s creators made their living. From its opening season onward, the show’s deadliest humor has emerged in its “Weekend Update” spoofs of network news and in its caricatures of famous people, from Gilda Radner’s unforgettable Barbara Walters, Chevy Chase’s Gerald Ford, and Dan Aykroyd’s Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter impersonations to Dana Carvey’s send-ups of Johnny Carson, George H. W. Bush, Casey Kasem, and George Michael. For example, in 1992, “Weekend Update” host Kevin Nealon caught the absurdity of the moment precisely when he deadpanned that President George H. W. Bush “visited South Central Los Angeles this week, and he was shocked when he actually had to see black people up close.” Ebersol, Dick National Broadcasting Company

In an early, generally shrewd appreciation published in The New Yorker, Michael Arlen Arlen, Michael located Saturday Night Live’s roots in two principal developments of post-World War II comedy. The first was the emergence, in stand-up and improvisation, of biting topical satire, the kind of comedy perfected by Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Mort Sahl, Shelley Berman, and, most famously, Lenny Bruce. The second was what Arlen called “a comedy of surplus education,” associated principally with such British creations as the radio program The Goon Show and Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Arlen discerned in the original Saturday Night Live a product appealing to a well-educated, mostly youthful audience who were media-wise and thus receptive to the show’s Brechtian knowingness.

Arlen also, if only in passing, put his finger on another aspect that remained a staple of Saturday Night Live’s comic spirit. He mentioned the historical precedent of Your Show of Shows, Your Show of Shows (television program) the Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca vehicle from the early 1950’s that set the early standard—seldom equaled—for television comedy-variety shows. The sheer zaniness of Your Show of Shows was recaptured in such Saturday Night Live staples as the skits about the Coneheads, the Killer Bees, and the Widettes and in Belushi’s various samurai routines.

Subsequent casts would rarely rise to this level of comic absurdity but tended instead to excel at parodies, such as Eddie Murphy’s Murphy, Eddie hilarious Buckwheat character or his takeoff on the children’s television show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Over the years, Saturday Night Live evolved into a less manic, cooler, arguably more cynical comic vehicle, a development symbolized by Dennis Miller’s Miller, Dennis five-year run from 1986 to 1991 as“Weekend Update” anchor. Unlike Chase’s mostly deadpan delivery or Jane Curtin’s super-serious approach. Miller’s contemptuous, know-it-all sneer left no room for doubt about who the targets of the show’s humor were.

From the first, however, Saturday Night Live exhibited a signal weakness in two areas: gender and race. Radner, Newman, and Curtin participated in some of the most famous sketches (including the Nerds, Coneheads, and Widettes segments), and Radner performed some of the show’s most memorable characters (including Baba Wawa, Roseanne Roseannadanna, and Emily Litella), but they were invariably overshadowed—in sheer numbers of parts and lines delivered, for one—by the men, first Chase, then Belushi and Aykroyd, and later Bill Murray. After their departure, no female performer even approached the centrality of the men on the show.

Saturday Night Live’s racial imbalance has also been evident from the beginning. Garrett Morris had his career effectively ruined by his tenure there, and in later years, only Eddie Murphy emerged as a dominant black personality. Saturday Night Live writers have often aimed at political correctness, savaging white racism with some regularity; yet the sketches written for black actors and hosts have, for the most part, been embarrassing, as Cicely Tyson complained when she appeared during the first season. The differences between Saturday Night Live and In Living Color, In Living Color (television program) a successful 1990’s comedy show featuring a largely black cast and crew, illustrate the former show’s questionable racial politics starkly.

Another of Saturday Night Live’s notable aspects has been its role as a showcase for contemporary music. From the reunion—temporary, to be sure—of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel on the second show in 1975 to the 2000-2003 appearances by Britney Spears, Saturday Night Live has proven an attractive venue for successful artists. Even Paul McCartney appeared on the show. Musical guests are admittedly no innovation to variety shows, but it was Saturday Night Live’s signal contribution to feature avant-garde groups and individual performers years before they would become a staple of cable viewing on Music Television (MTV).

It is difficult to know how late-night television—and television comedy generally—would have evolved if Saturday Night Live had never aired, but the show’s satiric approach clearly helped to pave the way for such subsequent successes as Late Night with David Letterman, The Simpsons, In Living Color, and MTV’s Comedy Club. Saturday Night Live brought cutting-edge comedy from the comedy clubs into mass media, showcasing new talent and creating a mass audience for offbeat, satirical humor, particularly among the young.

Many of Saturday Night Live’s mainstays were launched into stardom as a result of their tenure with the show. Aykroyd, Murray, and Chase each went on to successful film careers, as did frequent Saturday Night Live host Steve Martin. Jane Curtin went on to star in the situation comedy Kate and Allie. Belushi’s and Radner’s untimely deaths cut short promising careers, however, and Morris all but dropped out of sight. Undoubtedly, the most successful Saturday Night Live alumnus has been Eddie Murphy. His reputation as a stand-up comic soared after he joined the show, and his films, for the most part, proved apt vehicles for his multiple talents.

Still, few of the subsequent efforts by the show’s cast have equaled the comic genius and satirical brilliance of Saturday Night Live’s best sketches and characters, although its success in political satire continued with Phil Hartman’s and Darrell Hammond’s Hammond, Darrell often hilarious impressions of President Bill Clinton and with Will Ferrell’s Ferrell, Will impressions of President George W. Bush. Perhaps, as many commentators have noted, later incarnations have lacked some of the daring and venom of the show’s early years. If so, however, the program’s appeal demonstrably broadened, as more women and more middle-aged adults began to watch. Beyond doubt, Saturday Night Live has made an indelible imprint on American mass-media culture and, arguably, on political consciousness. Television;variety shows Not Ready for Prime Time Players

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Arlen, Michael. “A Crack in the Greasepaint.” The New Yorker, November 24, 1975, 159-166. A fine early appreciation emphasizing Saturday Night Live’s relationship to other kinds of postwar comedy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barol, Bill, and Jennifer Foote. “Saturday Night Lives!” Newsweek, September 25, 1989, 40-45. An assessment on the occasion of the show’s fifteenth anniversary.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Billard, Mary. “Live for Fifteen Years, It’s . . . ’Saturday Night’!” Rolling Stone, October 5, 1989, 65-70, 150. A more informative, less puffy piece than the Barol and Foote article cited above, although still filled with admiration for Saturday Night Live’s achievements.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hill, Doug, and Jeff Weingrad. Saturday Night: A Backstage History of “Saturday Night Live.” New York: William Morrow, 1986. One of the best resources on the show up to 1985, chronicling its beginnings and early success, then its decline after the departure of Lorne Michaels.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Miller, James A., and Tom Shales. Live From New York: An Uncensored History of “Saturday Night Live,” as Told by Its Stars, Writers, and Guests. Boston: Little, Brown, 2002. With plentiful backstage anecdotes, this memoir recounts the show’s history up to 2002.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Radner, Gilda. It’s Always Something. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989. An autobiography, by turns painful, moving, and funny, of Radner’s last years. Focuses on her marriage to Gene Wilder and her fight against the ovarian cancer that killed her.
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    “Rolling Stone” Visits “Saturday Night Live.” Garden City, N.Y.: Dolphin Books, 1979. A compilation of interviews and articles from Saturday Night Live’s premier early chronicler.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Woodward, Bob. Wired: The Short Life and Fast Times of John Belushi. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984. Biography documents the comedian’s drug use in great detail.

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