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PopEntertainment.com > Reviews > TV on DVD Reviews > Saturday Night Live - The Complete First Season

 

Saturday Night Live

The Complete First Season (1975-1976) (Universal-2006)

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Copyright 2007   PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: February 12, 2007.

Cultural revolutions are sometimes subtle occurrences. Often, they start as only stirrings. If your senses are keen, you can smell the change in the air, and get the feeling that things may never be the same again. To watch its seedlings start to sprout takes some concentration and patience, but it's a wonderful thing to observe.

 

Someone once said, and I'm paraphrasing, that the revolution is coming, and it will be televised. TV had its share, from Lucy to All in the Family to Seinfeld, but NBC's Saturday Night Live was an especially unusual creature.

 

Live TV and sketch comedy were old hat on television (been there and done that since the days of Sid Caesar); however, the very same concept in the age of free love and casual drugs now had an air of true danger. Each episode felt like Anything Can Happen Day.

 

This was the first series aimed specifically toward the first generation to grow up with television spoiled and overly educated young people who would rather be on TV than watching it. They delighted in gross-out humor, dirty jokes and as much outrageousness they could get away with (which, in 1975, was just about anything). 

 

At first, SNL was all about the fringe (nothing prime-time about it). Even the show's title, Saturday Night Live, suggested an air of fresh decadence: the night of the week to let loose, to not follow the rules, and to do it as it happened, without a net (even musical guest John Sebastian screws up the words to "Welcome Back," and starts again).

 

The show's comedic cast was originally called The Not Ready for Prime Time Players (this would eventually go away, but for the moment, it was another reference to the fringe, outside the establishment).   Its game plan was to wear tastelessness and filthy humor as a badge of revolutionary honor. We are dared to be offended, and at the same time, they don't give a flying eff if we are.

 

That it debuted at the very midpoint of the 1970s was no small coincidence. Its time had come. The nation was preparing for its bicentennial, but no one was in the mood for it. After Watergate and Vietnam, everyone was too cynical. That year, Jaws was the very first summer blockbuster, New York (the show's naturally logical location) was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy and implosion, and social relevance was in the process of mainstreaming, be it in the form of any Norman Lear comedy or realism (like The French Connection) at the movies.

 

However, watch this first season now, and you'll wonder what all the fuss was about. Satire on television in the thirty-odd years since has been done to death, to the point where we take it for granted and laugh almost on cue, out of needing to or wanting to be amused desperately, and in on what is being made fun of.

 

Saturday Night Live is still live but barely breathing these days, with plenty of competition to keep it from regaining its original glory. When it first debuted, though, it was replacing Johnny Carson reruns and up against dusty old movies on three other channels.

 

George Carlin the obvious counter-culture-but-mainstream-friendly choice for hosting the premiere show did his monologue about nothing ("why is there no blue food? Where is the good scissors?"). A fake commercial ended with the line, "because you'll believe anything."   Lightning struck. Within a season, the show went from a cult favorite to a hip-hungry audience of 22 million.

 

The hosts for the first year were some of the biggest names in show business at the time and are now mere answers to trivia questions (Louise Lasser! Jill Clayburgh! Madeline Khan! Dyan Cannon! Elliot Gould!). Guest host Kris Kristofferson shows more cleavage than his wife, musical guest Rita Coolidge.

 

Even the first musical guests had an air of show biz about them that didn't quite mesh with the hip vibe (Abba! Neil Sedaka! Anne Murray!). However, it was a strange mixture of the old and the new (mostly the new), with the familiar, melodic voice of announcer Don Pardo serving as the glue between the generations.

 

Even Desi Arnaz, Sr. was taken out of mothballs as one of the first hosts. Allow him to blow your mind as he makes some casual pot references. As well, he sings his ancient hit "Babalu," and the entire cast and crew forms an enormous conga line. Old meets new. Even the hip Leon Redbone, doing his creepy it's-so-old-it's-new routine, falls in line. And Andy Kaufman singing along to scratchy children's records is another example of the new old.

 

From it's cool, jazzy orchestra and it's slow slide-show of unusual pictures of NYC in the opening credits, it was rambling, nervous and raw, a sloppy new way to laugh, a true sense of watching people almost just like you "winging it" on live television. This spirit would evaporate in coming seasons.

 

"[It] makes new entrees into comedy that I approve of," says Louise Lasser, giving it her blessing on one of the messy first shows.

 

The studio audience, with their feathered hair and unbuttoned plaid shirts revealing hairy chests, is with them every step of the way, ("Who are we to judge this person?" is a subtitle flashed at the bottom of a close-up of an audience member).

 

The show finds its way quickly, but it takes a few episodes. Musical variety, that old warhorse, seems to be the initial idea, and there is even a low-key Simon and Garfunkel reunion that is given more weight than the comedians.

 

The supporting sketch-comedy players are an after-thought at first; eventually, they become the main focus as they do their time and then move on to movies and series and various degrees of bigger things.

 

Even a separate adult version of The Muppets are given a try (watch them reading "The Joy of Sex" and cracking marijuana jokes), but they're more skeevy than funny and their stay is not long. Luckily, these are none of the Muppet characters that we have come to cherish.

 

Chevy Chase, the first breakout star, is charming and funny in a monied-frat-boy way. You can literally witness the fame going to his head as the season progresses. His generic impression of then-President Ford and his earnest Weekend Update reports make him an immediate favorite. Strangely enough, his Lucy-like pratfalls are found to be hysterical by a studio audience wanting something new, fresh and different (so much for that). Chase's premature leaving of the show would become infamous and he would never be forgiven for it.

 

John Belushi, best-remembered for his use of drugs, doesn't seem to be using at all during these initial episodes (his Samurai character is funnier to the studio audience than it is to us, but he takes brilliant turns as Joe Cocker and Marlon Brando). Fast-talking Dan Aykroyd shows us satire in a fresh way (remember Bass O' Matic '76?).

 

The deadpan Jane Curtin (the one who seems most suitable for prime time), the desperately single Gilda Radner (not quite blossomed yet into her hilarious prime), and the underrated, mysterious Laraine Newman (she's the first to do Valley Girl and NPR voices as satire) round out the cast. Unfortunately, Garrett Morris is only there for the black jokes.

 

Of course, how time flies. What was considered powerfully innovative then is now done to death on YouTube: a film by Albert Brooks or Gary Weis (the first season's resident short filmmakers) now feels amateurish; we are asked to send in a "home movie" (on Super 8 or 16 millimeter, Candy Bergen instructs us); Al Franken and Tom Davis have a college-age conversation while playing the new videogame Pong; spoofs of The Honeymooners, I Love Lucy and Star Trek are everything you will see a thousand times more in the next three decades, but for the first time here.  

 

Perhaps the best (or worst) indicator of how far the show has come is witnessing a very young Lorne Michaels, the show's producer, long before he graduated to silver hair and expensive suits. Here, he's wearing a sweater sporting reindeers.

 

At first considered a problem child as the baton (or more likely, the joint) was passed to a new generation, the series became an institution, which was its very undoing.

Ronald Sklar

Copyright 2007   PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: February 12, 2007.