NBC’s legendary sketch comedy show began its 40th season last weekend. It’s evolved quite a bit from its first season in 1975.
- Saturday Night Live wasn’t even called Saturday Night Live…yet. It was called NBC’s Saturday Night, because ABC had a primetime show at the time called Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell. That show tanked, and in 1976 NBC bought the rights and the “real” Saturday Night Live was born in 1977. (One of the stars of the Cosell SNL? Future other SNL star Bill Murray.)
- The show is now the second longest running late night show in American TV history—767 episodes over 40 years—second only to The Tonight Show. In fact, NBC hired Canadian variety show producer and comedy writer Lorne Michaels to create the show when Tonight host Johnny Carson got the network to stop airing reruns of his show on Saturday night, because he wanted to use them during the week so he would only have to work four nights instead of five. Still, the network wasn’t sure, and only ordered six episodes of Saturday Night initially.
- Variety shows ruled TV in the 1970s, and Saturday Night was a product of its time…although geared toward an audience younger or hipper than those who might watch The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour or The Carol Burnett Show. Today the show is almost all comedy, punctuated by two musical performances by a single act. In the first season, it was common for the show to have two musical acts. The first episode featured Janis Ian and Billy Preston. It also showcased a standup comedian’s performance—by guest host George Carlin.
- Perhaps the one thing most different about early SNL from today’s SNL is that the show used to have Muppets. Sketches starring Jim Henson’s creations were a staple on variety shows (before The Muppet Show debuted in 1976), and Henson was hired to make more adult-oriented Muppets for Saturday Night. A segment with recurring, monstrous characters called “The Land of Gorch,” however, bombed with audiences, writers, and even the cast. The characters lacked the usual Muppet sensibility because the sketches were written by Saturday Night writers, not Henson and his cohorts, due to a Writer’s Guild rule. Those writers hated writing for puppets, and the cast resented losing out on screen time. “The Land of Gorch” was gone by the end of the season, and the segments are almost always cut out of reruns of those early episodes.
- After a “cold open” that ends with a cast member shouting “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night” (technically a holdover from the show’s original title), there’s a length credit sequence listing all of the cast members by name. Amazingly, in the first season, the cast of unknowns was so unknown that they weren’t individually named. The show was announced as starring “the Not Ready for Primetime Players.”