October 11: NBC’s Saturday Night

SNLadA man (John Belushi) walks into a shabby looking room, sits down and has a seat next to another man (Michael O’Donoghue). It turns out the first man is being taught English by the second man. The second man asks the first man to repeat a few common English phrases like “I would like to feed your fingertips to the wolverines,” “I am afraid we are out of badgers. Would you accept a wolverine in its place?” and “Hey,’ Ned exclaimed, “let’s boil the wolverines.” Suddenly, the teacher suffers a heart attack and collapses to the ground, so, the student pauses and then collapses to the ground just like his professor. A stage manager (Chevy Chase) enters the scene, briefly looks at the bodies, looks at the camera and for the first time utters those immortal words “Live from New York.. it’s Saturday Night!”

And that’s how the first episode of Saturday Night Live opened on October 11, 1975. Well, funny thing, when SNL first premiered, it was actually called NBC’s Saturday Night, so it wouldn’t be confused with ABC’s variety show Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell which had premiered just a month earlier. ABC’s show would only run for 18 episodes, while NBC’s show recently began its 40th season.

The fascinating thing about the premier episode of SNL is how different it is from the familiar SNL format. The SNL that most of us are used to follows a simple format: A cold open sketch, opening credits, a monologue from the host, and then a bunch of sketches and commercial parodies along with a performance from the musical guest about half an hour into the show, Weekend Update about 45 minutes into the show, another musical performance around the hour mark and finally the end of the show goodbyes from the host and cast. So, while the show’s now more of a straight up sketch comedy show, the first episode was more like an old fashioned variety show.

Sure the episode opens with a sketch and the famous “Live from New York…” line, but from there it all gets a bit different. For starters, the episode’s host, George Carlin, didn’t appear in a single sketch. Instead, Carlin made a few appearances throughout the episode performing routines from his latest stand-up record, including the classic “Baseball and Football” monologue. Most interestingly, the actual SNL cast barely appeared in the episode. There are a few sketches, most of them very brief, but most of the hour and a half show was spent with guest performers.  There were two musical guests, Billy Preston and Janis Ian, who perform two songs each. Comedian Valri Bromfield dropped in for a pretty forgettable monologue. Andy Kaufman delivered an instantly iconic absurdist performance in which he lip synced the “Here I come to save the day” lyric from the theme song to Mighty Mouse and no other lyrics. On top of that, there was a short film by Albert Brooks parodying Ripley’s Believe It Or Not and a sketch starring Muppets created by Jim Henson specifically for SNL. 

However, despite all these things that would now be atypical for SNL, there were still a few familiar features, namely a Weekend Update segment and the traditional bizarre sketch to close out the episode. Although there’s some very funny material in this first episode, the funniest gag is something that’s only hilarious in hindsight. About midway through the episode there’s a parody commercial for a ridiculous product: a razor with three blades. In a world where we now have six bladed razors, this parody now seems positively quaint.

So, let’s celebrate the anniversary of Saturday Night Live‘s birth (with next week presumably being the anniversary of the first time someone complained that SNL isn’t as funny as it used to be) with a cocktail named after another piece of 1970s entertainment, Saturday Night Fever. It’s a nicely kicked up version of a Rum and Coke that uses spiced rum and the classic vanilla-herbal liqueur Galliano. The flavors of the spiced rum and the Galliano nicely balance with that of the Coca Cola.

Saturday Night Fever

  • 2 ounces Spiced Rum
  • 1 ounce Galliano
  • Coca Cola

Pour the rum and Galliano into a highball glass with ice and then fill with Coke.

Tomorrow: Don’t panic.

 

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