Saturday Night Live is one of those things that when you think about it in vague terms, it’s just a 90-minute comedy show. It’s a really funny 90-minute comedy show and one that continues to thrive to this day, but you don’t really reflect too much beyond that when you watch it. However when you break everything down, and examine what it truly is, only then can you stand back and appreciate it for the iconic institution it deservedly is.
When the show premiered on October 11th, 1975, it brought something different to television. This was the counter culture, with the king of counter culture George Carlin leading the pack on its inaugural episode. It basically allowed the kids who had never been allowed to play in the sandbox to have free reign. And they proceeded to take the sand and throw it all out of the sandbox. And what you’re left with is an empty box of what was. This was the present and also the future.
Last week, the National Comedy Center, partnered with the Lucille Ball Festival in Jamestown, New York brought together three members of the show’s original team for a unique insight view into just what those early crazy years of the show were like.
“I’m a grandfather now,” says Alan Zweibel, who was a member of the original writing team of Saturday Night Live as he speaks about the show’s influence today. “It was a very long time ago before I got electro shock therapy. Saturday Night Live is a comedy institution. It’s The Today Show. It is always there and it goes through all these different cast members and writers. And it’s great that we were apart of it.”
That is the most shocking thing about it all. We live in a world where trends change so quickly, and so for one trend to have so much longevity that it becomes a mainstay in not just comedy but pop culture? That is about as rare as you can get.
“Um yeah [it is shocking that it held up] because it was only supposed to be 13 weeks,” adds original cast member Larraine Newman. “I love it. I started watching it after the 90’s, because there was no DVR. I love it. I’m always so inspired by the new writers, the new performers. It’s always just showcased people who have very unique styles and voices.” And speaking of DVR and this new age of media, fellow original cast member Dan Aykroyd chimes in, “I don’t think people stay home to watch it on Saturday night anymore. They just watch it on YouTube now. People were staying home, they weren’t going to parties.”
One of the reasons that the show still works today is because it allows itself to stay relevant and up to date. There’s not a single aspect of the show that feels dated, from the formula to the structure to the show itself. It is constantly reinventing itself, including in the past few years with their take on Trump. But politics has always been a part of the show. “They’re watching it closely,” says Aykroyd, referring to Donald Trump’s well-publicized animosity for the show. “We never had a political agenda or took a side of any cause. We just depicted it for humor.”
Upon its premiere in 1975, it was basically an instant success. Chevy Chase became an overnight sensation. You couldn’t escape the show. It was about as big of a phenomenon that had been seen at that time. Alongside Monty Python, Saturday Night Live suddenly had become the Beatles of comedy.
“We had no idea if we were being watched or if anybody liked us,” remembers Laraine Newman. Alan Zweibel adds in “I think what happened was we won a bunch of Emmy’s at the end of the first year. The Emmy’s used to be in May. We were out there in California and it was a prime time audience that saw this show they had never heard of winning all these awards. So I think that helped moving into the consciousness of America.”
The idea of having a rotating host for each show was something else that had never been done, and it was something that was in place from the beginning. That was part of the original dream of Saturday Night Live. However, as time went on and the cast became more and more popular, there were brief discussions about getting rid of the guest host, which thankfully never came to fruition. “There was a very brief discussion about the possibility of doing away with hosts. And Lorne felt we needed somebody to be a focal point. One person to make eye contact with the audience at home through the camera, and then we could do everything else around that person.”
Of course, there were plenty of talk within the panel of classic bits and characters. One of the standouts obviously being The Coneheads. “I was sitting in my loft one night,” Aykroyd remembers, “looking at television and I was thinking “ya know, there’s really a lot of unused space. What would it be like if they had taller heads?” So I drew it.” The image of this was married with something that had occurred even earlier on. “Lorne thought it would be a good idea to do improv in his loft to get to know one another” remembers Newman. “It was a great idea, I think we did it twice. And we had the suggestion of an alien family, you me and Jane. And we came up with the voice right away.”
One of the other things that made the show gel so much, and something that was reflected onto the stage the night of the panel, is the chemistry between the cast, and that’s something that stems out of how they all felt about each other. “Well we were huddling in a corner naked and shivering, being the only girls and sharing a dressing room for the first four years,” Newman remembers. “And I loved them. I think we loved each other a lot and appreciated one another very much. It was very cooperative. I think when you come from an improv background, it’s just much more supportive.”
The show is just one of those things that is going to keep going on. There isn’t an end in sight, especially as it continually garners both Emmy nominations and sweeping the awards up in their category. It only seems to be going faster and stronger. And it’s just one of those things that’s hard to explain why. It’s just the way it is. It wasn’t designed to be this way. It just wound up being this way. As Dan Aykroyd sums up, “I think (a standout moment) was the first moment going onstage and then coming off after the sketch had gone well. We got the laughs that we wanted and I realized “Ya know, this could work.”
The discussion, as moderated by Ron Bennington for his SiriusXM show, will be aired sometime later this month. Further information about the National Comedy Center can be found here.