"Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!”: SNL and the Sketch Comedy

This is the DVD cover for the first season of Saturday Night Live.

“Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!” Those words have been shouted to late night TV viewers ever since Saturday Night Live debuted on October 11, 1975. That phrase, delivered by either a cast member or guest, is followed by the voice of venerable announcer Don Pardo, who enthusiastically declares “It’s Saturday Night Live,” before naming the musical guest and introducing the week’s host, who will preside over ninety minutes of barely controlled craziness. Pardo, an NBC staff announcer since starting with the network’s radio operation in 1944, has taken part in more episodes of the irreverent sketch-comedy than any other individual (he was only absent from the seventh season). At 96 years of age, though otherwise retired in Arizona, he still tapes his segments in his home studio for each new episode.

Originally, Pardo’s first line was “It’s NBC’s Saturday Night!” which is what the show was called its first two seasons. The reason for that was because ABC had a primetime variety show titled Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell, which had debuted just weeks earlier. As a result, ABC had the rights to the name Saturday Night Live, a shortened version of their show’s title that the network often used on air. The Cosell show, however, was a disaster both in terms of viewership numbers and critical reception. Consequently, it met a quick demise, ending in January 1976. Eventually, NBC purchased the rights to the Saturday Night Live name and retitled their show beginning with the episode that aired March 26, 1977.

Surprisingly, the connection between the two shows doesn’t end with the name. Cosell’s show was usually loaded with big name guest stars – though it seemed as though they were often booked because they had some connection with Cosell, rather for any talents that easily translated to a variety show format, but it also featured a small cadre of young comics known as the Prime Time Players. Bill Murray, Brian Doyle-Murray, and Christopher Guest, all of whom would later work on NBC’s Saturday Night Live, were the members of that troupe. In response, SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels dubbed the original cast of his NBC show the Not Ready for Prime Time Players. That group, with minor variations, consisted of Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Chevy Chase (who was replaced in the second season by Bill Murray), Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris, Laraine Newman, and Gilda Radner, and continued as the core cast for the series’ first five seasons.

Saturday Night Live, which started with just a six-episode commitment from NBC, was initially conceived as a standard variety show, but targeted to a younger demographic than was typical for the genre. In fact, some early episodes were top-heavy with musical guests, sequences with Muppets created especially for the show by Jim Henson (these actually continued through the start of the second season), and short films by Albert Brooks, with very brief appearances by the Not Ready for Prime Players. Satisfied enough with the way things were going, NBC extended the run. By midseason, however, the program was clearly morphing from a variety show into the sketch-comedy show that became its regular format. Although musical guests and short films continue to be regular segments on the show, there’s no question that on SNL, sketch comedy is king.

It’s rather hard for me to grasp the fact that Saturday Night Live will be entering its fortieth season this fall. It’s been a viewing choice for most of my life. Even more jarring is the thought that approximately half of all Americans have lived their entire lives while the series has been in production. The show has certainly had its share of ups and downs – and, believe me, some of the downs have been as low as the ups have been high, but SNL has persevered through it all, becoming an institution in the process. I find that particularly ironic, of course, as there wasn’t a more anti-establishment show on the air when it premiered (though here’s a shout out to Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, a sketch-comedy of the late-sixties/early-seventies that skewered just as many sacred cows during its six-year primetime run as SNL).

The definitions for “variety show” and “sketch-comedy” have a lot of overlap. Some examples of variety programs are very obvious, the most famous being The Ed Sullivan Show, the long-running Sunday night fixture on CBS that had musicians of all types, standup comedy, dramatic recitations, puppetry, specialty acts, and sketch comedy. From the early-fifties through the early-seventies, the primetime schedules of the broadcast networks were dotted with such variety shows, though some leaned far more toward comedy than to the other elements. By the mid-seventies, however, variety shows were few and far between. My own theory is that the ever-increasing number of talk shows during the sixties and seventies, both late night and daytime, subsumed so many aspects of variety shows that the once-flourishing genre was undercut by the burgeoning new hybrid of interview program and variety show known as the talk show.

I don’t think there’s any question that a program like Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, which may be cited as the first successful sketch-comedy series owes a debt to such earlier comic luminaries as Sid Caesar, Steve Allen, Garry Moore, and Ernie Kovacs, among The DVD cover for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, The Best of Season 3others. Unfortunately, it’s all but impossible to see more than a few complete episodes of their various variety series – as they either weren’t saved for posterity or haven’t been transferred to modern viewing formats – so it’s difficult to make comparisons. The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, a series that bowed in February 1967 (eight months before Laugh-In), started out as a conventional variety show, but began to transform into a counter-culture favorite as it featured increasing amounts of anti-establishment content. A few years later when the show was cancelled, it wasn’t due to low ratings, but because CBS management felt it was too controversial. Also worth noting is Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which premiered in Britain in 1969, but wasn’t released in the United States until mid-1974, when it was picked up by an ad hoc network of PBS affiliates.

Which brings us back to Saturday Night Live. So what made SNL different from any of the comedy shows preceding it that also relied heavily on sketch comedy? The one major difference that SNL had going for it was that it was in a late night time slot. The ramifications of that, however, were many. For one, it meant that it needn’t be family friendly, so there was no requirement to appeal to small children or older adults. Therefore, it could target the young and the hip, so its particular comedic take on the world was one likely already shared by a certain narrower demographic. For another, network censors were somewhat less restrictive for a late night, weekend show than for prime time programming, meaning that the writers could try to get away with a little more. And finally, with a smaller available audience (and fewer advertiser dollars at stake), there was less on the line for the network, so the creative talent had more time to develop the show on the fly without an overriding fear of a quick hook.

Saturday Night Live’s success, of course, meant that there would be imitators. In April 1980, ABC introduced Fridays, an almost exact copy of SNL: a sketch comedy, shot live, with a mock news telecast, and musical guests. Fridays was immediately lambasted by critics for being the SNL ripoff that it was, and it didn’t help that it got off to a slow start. Let’s not forget, however, that SNL had gotten off to a slow start itself, taking about a half season to establish its ultimately successful format. Add to that, that when Fridays debuted, SNL was just finishing the five-year run of its immensely popular original cast. The sketch comedy bar was then set at a level that even subsequent Saturday Night Live casts couldn’t come close to reaching during the following five years. Although ABC pulled the plug on Fridays after three seasons, many other sketch comedy shows have come along since, each trying to catch a little of the lightning in a bottle that SNL had captured before them. Here’s a list of some of the better sketch comedy series that have appeared in the wake of Saturday Night Live, which are in the collection of the Des Moines Public Library.

The Canadian-shot SCTV was initially syndicated in the United States in the late seventies, but became a part of NBC’s regular weekend late night-programming during the early eighties.

The DVD cover for The Kids in the Hall, Season Two.The Kids in the Hall was another Canadian-produced series, a half-hour show with an all-male cast (yes, they played most of the female roles, too), which was later shown on HBO and CBS in the early 1990s.

In Living Color  – perhaps the first sketch comedy starring a predominantly African-American cast – was a half-hour series that was a part of the Fox primetime lineup from 1990-1994.

Appearing on Fox during the 1992-1993 season, The Ben Stiller Show was cancelled after only twelve of thirteen episodes had aired; nevertheless, it later won an Emmy for Outstanding Writing.

Mr. Show with Bob and David starred Bob Odenkirk and David Cross in a half-hour program shown on HBO for four seasons in the late nineties.

Dave Chappelle lent his name to the half-hour The Chappelle Show, which he hosted and starred in for two full and one partial season on Comedy Central during the early 2000s.