Monday, February 1, 2010

A look back at the original SNL

It's strange. I've recently finished watching the first five years of Saturday Night Live and have taken the time to reflect on my experience with the show as well as that of my parents. My acquaintance with SNL has spanned about 18 years, and I am now roughly at the age my parents were when the show first premiered and when they became fans. So it is strange to me to compare my feelings about SNL during it's formative years with those of my parents way back when.

My SNL experience probably began around 1992. For me, I largely associate SNL with that year's outstanding cast that consisted of Ellen Cleghorne, Chris Farley, Phil Hartman, Melanie Hutsell, Michael McKean, Tim Meadows, Mike Myers, Kevin Nealon, Adam Sandler, Rob Schneider, David Spade, Julia Sweeney, Al Franken, Norm MacDonald, Jay Mohr, and Sarah Silverman. And while it's become passe to say that SNL is stale, or no longer edgy with each passing year, I'd like to believe that this group was a high point in the history of SNL. There are arguably bigger stars from earlier iterations, but there were few lineups that featured as strong an ensemble, as they created memorable characters and sketches together. Although we mourned the losses of the talented Chris Farley and Phil Hartman, most of the rest of these actors are still steadily at work today, with at least two of them, Myers and Sandler, transformed into bona fide movie stars. So how does that compare with the original cast?

Dan Akroyd, John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris, Laraine Newman, and Gilda Radner. Bill Murray would later join the cast following Chase's departure, with Michael O'Donoghue, Tom Davis, Al Franken, Don Novello, and Paul Shaffer featured more and more up through 1980. That was a lot of talent to contain on one stage, but back in 1975, they were just kids, the Not Ready For Primetime Players. It took the show a while to find its rhythm. The format of the first episode hosted by George Carlin was nothing like the show today. Or even like the shows a few weeks away. Heck, even the title of the show was different, being originally named "NBC's Saturday Night" as Howard Cosell's ABC program held the rights to the eventual title. Carlin only performed stand up in several bits and wasn't featured in any of the sketches. Two musical guests, Billy Preston and Janis Ian, each performed two pieces. And two comedians, Andy Kaufman and Valri Bromfield, had featured acts.

The early shows more resembled the variety shows of the time than they do today's sketch driven show. But the group that Lorne Michaels assembled was talented, and it was hard to deny that. So as the show continued, the focus shifted more toward the Not Ready For Primetime Players and their skits. Where once sketches were constructed around the host with the SNL cast supporting him or her, the sketches started focusing on the Not Ready For Primetime Players with the hosts playing support. Certain characters and sketches became recurring favorites, and stars were made.

Watching it fresh, not all of the sketches are comedy classics. But what was evident from watching an early SNL episode, and what is lacking from the show nowadays, was that electric energy in the air. This show was doing something new and innovative, and it was damn funny, too. First season episodes frequently had airtime to kill with the hosts asked to fill time, but that added to the sense of newness and spontaneity. Now most SNL episodes run like clockwork with fewer genuine moments. A lot of people give Jimmy Fallon flak for not having been able to keep a straight face in sketches, but he was having fun and enjoying the moment. It seems almost absurd to dislike someone, even an actor in the sketch, for laughing at something that's supposed to be funny.

A lot of early sketches had content which could be deemed questionable today, such as one that featured Chevy Chase slowly rolling a joint, pulling up his sleeve and tying a rubber tube around his arm, before attempting to shove the unlit joint into his vein. Don Pardo (Yup, he was there from the beginning) delivers the killer punchline, "Why do you think they call it dope?" Having grown up in the age of cultural sensitivity and political correctness, we're so concerned about how others might feel that there's a lot of fun lost. I think that Belushi's samurai Futaba was a wonderful homage to chanbara (samurai) characters, as his portrayal, while comical, was far less parody than it was a strange appreciation for the stoicism of Japanese samurai.

When I asked my mom and dad separately about SNL, they both smiled. My father, a Japanese immigrant, was living and working in New York when the show debuted. He introduced SNL to my mother some years later when he moved to L.A. and courted her. My father still remembers that first cast, and laughed when he thought about the Coneheads. My mother was particularly tickled by Todd diLamuca and Lisa Loopner, the Nerds. Just saying, "That was so funny I forgot to laugh," causes her to giggle hysterically.

I came into the picture a little after the original SNL finished up its run in 1980. Another 12 years after that I picked up where my parents left off watching the show. I recalled later how my father had a fondness for movies starring some of the original cast members, a fondness which he passed on to me. My mother, too, was also the one who introduced me to National Lampoon's Animal House when I was very young. My parents still watch the show now, irregularly, but somehow I doubt that it holds the same amusement and place in their hearts as those first five years did. And I suppose I could say the same about myself and when I first starting watching Operaman, and Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer, and Simon who likes to do drawings.

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