By Lee Hall
Special to TelevisionWeek
Lorne Michaels deservedly gets the lion’s share of the credit for the conception and success of “Saturday Night Live,” but the real impetus for the show emanated from the late Johnny Carson, at least indirectly.
In the ’70s, NBC’s late Saturday lineup had for several years been filled primarily by reruns of “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.” Though affiliates were satisfied and viewers weren’t complaining, Mr. Carson was unhappy.
“Carson was getting very antsy about it, and he was a very important fellow,” said Herbert Schlosser, erstwhile Wall Street lawyer who was the president of NBC at the time. Mr. Carson worried that weekend repeats were eating into his weeknight audience.
NBC could have turned the time period over to its affiliates, but that would have resulted in a loss of advertising revenue. But with Mr. Carson adamant and NBC desperate to fill the block, it needed something different.
Mr. Schlosser got a call from Barry Diller, then CEO of Paramount Pictures, recommending that NBC take a look at a brash young Canadian producer named Lorne Michaels, who had been a writer on “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In,” one of NBC’s most successful shows in the late 1960s, and had produced an Emmy-winning special for comedian Lily Tomlin. Mr. Michaels had previously pitched an idea for a late-night sketch comedy show, but NBC turned him down.
NBC hired Dick Ebersol from ABC to head late-night weekend programming and handed him the task of developing a “Tonight Show” replacement for Saturday night.
“We represented Lorne, and eventually we got him together with Ebersol. They hit it off and then it was off to the races,” said Bernie Brillstein, Mr. Michaels’ longtime friend and manager.
The wheels were in motion, but Mr. Michaels needed to fill several key roles. He started hiring writers weeks before the show’s debut. Most of the writing crew had little or no television experience.
“I was performing my own material at Catch a Rising Star in Manhattan, and Lorne caught my act,” said Alan Zweibel, who wrote for the show from 1975 to 1980. “He thought I was an awful comedian but that I had good material, and he offered me a job on this new show.”
Mr. Michaels scoured the U.S. and Canada for acting talent, finding it in comedy and improv clubs. While he was assembling players such as John Belushi, Gilda Radner and Dan Aykroyd, the cadre of writers was hanging together in New York getting to know each other.
“If Lorne did only one brilliant thing in his life, it was just hiring those writers and that cast. He had such a gift. All kudos for him,” said Anne Beatts, a writer during the show’s first five seasons.
Lots of network fingers tried to work their way into the creative process. Some NBC executives felt the new show should have a permanent host, and several names were floated, including singer Linda Ronstadt and comedians Jack Burns and Rich Little.
“That would have been a bad idea. If there was anyone opposite to the sensibility of ‘SNL,’ it was Rich Little,” Mr. Brillstein said.
Filmmaker and actor Albert Brooks, also courted as a potential host, suggested the concept of having a different host each week. Mr. Brooks supplied short films for several early “SNL” episodes.
While some NBC executives thought the show should emanate from the network’s studios in Burbank, Mr. Schlosser pulled rank.
“The lack of a live show in New York was pretty obvious. We wanted to do the show live, and I wanted to do it from 30 Rock,” he said. Mr. Schlosser prevailed and selected Studio 8-H at NBC’s Rockefeller Center headquarters. The venue had been constructed on orders from network founder David Sarnoff to house the NBC Symphony Orchestra.
While the show’s final form remained in flux, Mr. Michaels remained resolute in his concept, Mr. Brillstein recalled.
“Lorne always wanted to do a television show for people who were brought up on television with parodies of game shows and talk shows and other things on the air. It was a great concept then, and the show today still has a lot of those elements in it,” he said.
Michaels secured comic icon George Carlin to host the inaugural program. His stand-up routines were backed by the sketch comedy of the cast that came to be known as the Not Ready for Prime Time Players. Musical guests included singers Janis Ian and Billy Preston.
The program’s premiere, Oct. 11, 1975, was the same night as the widely watched World Series Game 1 between the Cincinnati Reds and Boston Red Sox. Mr. Schlosser was in Boston and invited Bowie Kuhn, the restrained commissioner of Major League Baseball, to the NBC suite at the Ritz Carlton Hotel to watch the debut of “NBC’s Saturday Night.”
“Bowie was a very conservative, very religious man, and I didn’t know what to expect from him. Carlin did a routine about religion and God, and I thought, ‘Oh no!’ But then Bowie started to laugh, and I thought, you know, maybe this thing will appeal to a wider audience than we thought,” Mr. Schlosser said.
Some NBC affiliates balked at carrying the show at first, but most came around quickly. Mr. Schlosser recalls an affiliates meeting in Palm Springs, Calif., at which, he said, viewers of an “SNL” tape erupted in raucous laughter. But he knew he was over the hump when he later met with the NBC board of directors.
“Some of them took issue with the content, but then one of the more difficult members spoke to me after the meeting to find out whether I could get tickets to the show for his kids in college,” Mr. Schlosser said. “It was an exciting time to be at NBC.”
The inaugural skit featured the late writer/actor Michael O’Donoghue as a language tutor and Mr. Belushi as his immigrant student. After several “repeat after me” non sequiturs, the teacher suffers an apparent heart attack, grasps his chest and falls to the floor. The confused student follows suit.
A stage manager, played by Chevy Chase, enters the scene, looks momentarily at the two deceased figures on the floor, turns to the camera, smiles and utters the now immortal words: “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!”