By Lee Alan Hill
Special to TelevisionWeek
From an origin that was decidedly counterculture, “Saturday Night Live” is celebrating its 30th anniversary as part of the very fabric of both television and American culture. No other TV show has spawned so many catchphrases and memorable characters, let alone sent so many cast members and writers on to success in other media, particularly film.
With 585 episodes produced, international praise and dozens of DVDs on the market, the NBC mainstay hatched from the mind of
Canadian-born Lorne Michaels remains not just full of steam but a show that even politicians watch to see how they’re doing.
“I think that it’s about constant reinvention,” Mr. Michaels said. “That’s easier when there are different people each year. If I were with the original cast and we were sitting down for our 31st season and Jane Curtin was looking at Chevy Chase, I think it would be very hard to keep that fresh.
“But since it’s people who are in their 20s and 30s,” he continued, “It’s just different.”
No matter how “different” each season presents itself, Rick Ludwin, NBC’s executive VP of late night and prime time series, said that for the network the show “is a mainstay, in the category for us of ‘Today,’ ‘Tonight’-the ‘Nightly News’ for that matter.”
That could not have been predicted 30 years ago.
“In 1975, when we premiered, it was a show different than anything else that was on TV,” said Alan Zweibel, one of the original writers, who remained until 1980.
“I think it is fair to say it was the first show that spoke to my generation, the baby boomers,” he said. “There were variety shows on in prime time, and some of them, like Carol Burnett’s, were good. But these were shows where the men wore tuxedos and the women wore gowns. We didn’t have gowns by Bob Mackie on ‘Saturday Night Live.’ We had John Belushi.”
“There are two legacies you have to say right off about ‘Saturday Night Live’,” noted James Andrew Miller, co-author of the 2002 best-selling history of the series, “Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live.”
“First of all, the show proved that in television, if the concept works, then with the right people you can make it castproof. Secondly, the show brought political satire to a whole new level. It was not the first show, obviously, to do political satire. But the impact that ‘SNL’ has had on politics is unparalleled with TV shows. Al Gore watched the sketches on ‘SNL’ to gauge how he did in the debates.”
“SNL” is a show that elicits the word “impact” from most who speak of it-a show that has influenced a newer generation of cable TV comedy shows as well as feature films.
Yet it began unobtrusively, after Johnny Carson requested that NBC cease running repeats of “The Tonight Show” on Saturday nights and the network decided it wanted a comedy replacement. Lorne Michaels wanted to do a show that would return to the excitement of live television, one that would be edgy, that would take what was happening in post-’60s improvisational and performance comedy and put it on television.
“During those first five years, I think you can say the show was very Hunter Thompson-esque,” said Mr. Miller. “But you can find the connective tissue, the DNA, if you will, between ‘SNL’ and what was happening with comedy shows.”
There was Second City in Chicago and Toronto, which had already drawn attention through the comedy routines of Mike Nichols and Elaine May and others. There were new, spry improvisational groups such as The Groundlings in Los Angeles. The National Lampoon troupe “The Lemmings” played to great success in Greenwich Village beginning in 1971.
Many of the early players and writers on “SNL” came from these comedy venues, places where no icon was safe, no comedy too outrageous.
“I believe that television is a lagging cultural indicator,” said Jeff Greenfield, the CNN senior analyst who is also the author of the 1977 book, “Television: The First Fifty Years.” “That said, ‘Saturday Night Live’ was the first show that spoke to a generation that had grown up on television but wasn’t buying the normal TV. This was after the ’60s, after Woodstock. The show did not precede these events or anticipate the changes in culture. It made them funny.
“Just take politics,” Mr. Greenfield said. “Yes, there had been ‘The Smothers Brothers [Show]’ and the controversies surrounding that show on CBS, but really, throughout the history of television up until 1975, political humor had been watching Bob Hope play golf with [President Dwight] Eisenhower.”
“SNL” came at a time when Richard Nixon had just resigned his presidency, when involvement in the Vietnam War was barely over, the battle for civil rights was still being waged and bras were being burned as a political statement. Gentle gibes about the golf handicap of a political figure just wouldn’t do.
“We could be to-the-moment topical,” said Mr. Zweibel. “At 11 o’clock on show nights I would go up to my office on the 17th floor and watch the local news. An hour later I would literally be under the table during the ‘Weekend Update’ segment writing new lines on paper and feeding them to the performers.”
“If there was something topical, you knew ‘SNL’ would deal with it,” said Al Franken, a writer and featured performer on the show from 1975 to 1980 and 1985 to 1995.
Sketch comedy had certainly been a TV mainstay, but here, too, “SNL” has had an impact, raising the profile of improvisational comedy and making it almost de rigueur for performers.
“I think it put that style of comedy more into the culture,” said Mindy Sterling of The Groundlings Theatre in Los Angeles, who performed onstage with Larraine Newman and Phil Hartman pre-“SNL” and taught Maya Rudolph, Chris Kattan and Cheri Oteri before they joined the cast.
“Improvisation challenges the performer to think on their feet, so there was always an interest,” she added. “But what we see after ‘SNL’ is not just more young performers taking the classes and getting onstage, we see them coming here with a more goal-oriented outlook. ‘SNL’ changed how sketch comedy is done.”
Precursor to Cable
Others say that the “SNL” style of comedy has had an even greater impact.
“You look at David Slade in the sitcom ‘Just Shoot Me’ and you can see the legacy,” said Bill Carroll, VP and director of programming for Katz Media Television. “In essence what they did with this show was transplant the attitude of ‘Saturday Night Live’ into a sitcom, so that it has its hipness, if you will. What could have been another formulaic sitcom instead has a different feel.”
“It was a precursor to cable,” said Tim Brooks, a TV historian and co-author of the annually updated “The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows.”
“‘Saturday Night Live’ shook up the calcified environment that was TV in the 1970s,” he said. “It challenged the wisdom that variety comedy does not repeat. With ‘SNL,’ NBC could go almost anywhere, whereas with ‘The Tonight Show’ it had to tread carefully in changing its stripes. Now we see much of the kind of comedy ‘SNL’ did on cable-whether it’s ‘The Daily Show’ or on MTV, where everything looks live. Its impact is enormous.”
There are some who think the show’s sensibility has changed, though perhaps not its late-night energy. Some observers see a greater reliance on spoofs and satires of talk shows and other TV formats, and, in particular, a shift in its political leanings.
“When the show went on the air it was definitely left-leaning,” Mr. Greenfield said. “Now the politics of the show are more complicated. It certainly has not become the Fox Channel of satire, and its political satire remains sharp, but I think it’s fair to say that its comedy can go in any political direction now, and in this way it reflects its audience, which did not grow up in the Sixties.”
The popularity of “SNL” has endured throug
h the early episodes with the tone of Sixties-inspired counterculture and the more recent, less ideologically charged shows.
The entire library of episodes-with a one-year lag-is now seen exclusively on E! Entertainment in the U.S. and in 120 countries worldwide. NBC handles domestic distribution and Broadway Video Entertainment, the company Mr. Michaels created, does international sales.
“In some territories they tend to want to play earlier episodes more,” said Jack Sullivan, CEO of Broadway Video Entertainment. “But when you have a show with a cast that has gone on to be huge stars in films, to be known everywhere, the comedy travels with them.”
Additionally, Lions Gate distributes “SNL” on DVD and home video. There are 21 titles in current distribution, packaged not just as collections of episodes but also offering the work of top performers, such as “The Best of Jon Lovitz” and “The Best of Steve Martin.” Mr. Sullivan noted that the collection of Will Ferrell’s work and that of the late Chris Farley particularly have been big sellers.
Beyond the aftermarket sales of the TV episodes themselves, there is no way to qualitatively calculate how many CDs and other music units have been sold because of the exposure of bands and individual singers on the series, nor how many box office tickets and subsequent DVDs have been sold due to the popularity of former “SNL” performers on the big screen.
“The trickle-down effect is incalculable, but it must be enormous-billions,” Mr. Carroll said. “And other ‘SNL’ alumni have carried their popularity to TV series as well, probably starting with Jane Curtin on ‘Kate & Allie.'”
The success of “SNL” has also allowed Mr. Michaels to build his thriving TV-film company, Broadway Video Entertainment. The company produces “Late Night With Conan O’Brien,” and through its Broadway Video Television subsidiary, produced five broadcast network pilots for this season, two of which, “Thick and Thin” (NBC) and “Sons & Daughters” (ABC) are midseason pickups.
In feature films, the company produced last summer’s “Mean Girls” and in the past such efforts as the box office hit “Wayne’s World.”
Broadway Video Entertainment has co-production arrangements with both NBC/ Universal and Paramount, the latter its partner in the upcoming prime-time series and for feature films.
With the old and the new available, there remains a surprising number of viewers who remember the premiere, on Oct. 11, 1975, and still may be watching with their children or even grandchildren, a cross-generation strength few shows can match.
“Thirty years ago I was in my 30s and watching it,” said David Sheehan, who produces, directs and hosts specials made by his company “Hollywood Close-Ups.” “Thirty years later, it’s my favorite place to go back to. There are always new performers, new characters, a sense of reinvention.”
Mr. Ludwin not only agrees but said it’s that element of reinvention that NBC uses to promote the show.
“You can say to the audience, ‘Watch. You haven’t seen this yet,’ and they know that is the case,” he said.
“If there’s something going on in the culture or the news, you know ‘Saturday Night Live’ is going to deal with it,” Mr. Franken said. “In that sense, on broadcast TV, it stands somewhat alone. ‘Nightline’ was about the day’s events when it first went on, but with the rise of 24-hour cable news networks, they lost that edge and had to change. Despite other shows and cable networks, ‘SNL’ has not had to do that.”