A few weeks ago, the NBC broadcast television network did a remarkable thing to honor the recently deceased and legendary comedian George Carlin: NBC rebroadcast the inaugural episode of Saturday Night Live that Carlin hosted on Oct. 11, 1975, without bells or whistles or any sort of re-editing. In fact, the episode aired in 2008 just as it did in 1975, when the show was called simply NBC’s Saturday Night, because there already was a show on the airwaves called Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell that aired on ABC. Yes, really. But the SNL we all have come to know and love, or hate to love, or love to hate, debuted in 1975 without any precedents or traditions, so also without any rules. Lorne Michaels hadn’t yet decided to put Weekend Update near the hour mark and air all of the sketchier sketches after Weekend Update, or anything else really. It was so fresh and so new.
So I decided to consult my original review for this show. It’s all in crayon and makes absolutely no sense, because, 1) I was four years old, 2) why would I even be up this late, and what kind of parents would let their 4-year-old watch this show?, 3) plus, my parents didn’t have a home computer in 1975, 4) the Internet was still run by government agents working for the young Al Gore, and 5) blog was just another word for a really big log by people who couldn’t speak correctly. You can look this all up on the Wikipedia of 1975.
Talk about a cold open! John Belushi enters a room to learn English, and is so devoted to learning from Michael O’Donoghue, despite the fact that every phrase he learns includes wolverines, that he mimics his teacher’s heart attack. So Chevy Chase ambles onstage and delivers the now-trademark phrase, "Live from New York, it’s Saturday night!"
Credits roll, and we see we’re going to get music from Janis Ian and Billy Preston, a film by Albert Brooks, Jim Henson’s Muppets, and the "Not Ready For Primetime Players." Wow. Would you take a look at this cast, because you thought you knew who started on SNL, but then you look at this list and realize, history glossed over some of the originals, because here was the debut cast, as listed: Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris, Laraine Newman, Gilda Radner, Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Chevy Chase, George Coe, Michael O’Donoghue. And, wait! There’s more. Comedians Valri Bromfield and Andy Kaufman are on this show, too!
I already put Carlin’s opening monologue, as well as his other debut SNL monologues, on the site, and watching the show, I realize why he got to talk so much. For one thing, he was the best-known person on the show that night. For another, without any viewer loyalty or traditions to cling to, the show needed a real host who could bring us back into the show every so often. So that’s what Carlin did. It wasn’t yet established that the host also would take part in a majority of the sketches. For his opener, Carlin went with his football and baseball bit. No ending with "we’ve got a great show for you tonight, so-and-so is the musical guest, please stick around!" Just an applause sign for the audience and we’re into the next scene, which is one of several fake ads. Yes, this tradition began from the beginning. The first fake ad suggested a replacement father/husband as an addition to life insurance: "New Dad." Only the audience didn’t know this at the time.
We come out of the first commercial break straight into Billy Preston getting back to where he once belonged, which was, naturally, onstage, playing music for the people. In this case, "Nothing From Nothing," which reached #1 on the charts a year earlier in 1974. We go straight from that to a courtroom scene, live, with Chase as the lawyer and Curtin as the witness. Morris is the other lawyer, objecting with a Caribbean accent. It’s a fairly simple sketch, as the joke is all in what the witness could not be forced to say out loud, so her remarks are written and passed around to the jury where Belushi and Radner have fun with it.
And now, for something completely different, Andy Kaufman. It’s his Mighty Mouse lip-sync. That’s it. In a sport coat, white pants, collared shirt, black turtleneck and unease, Kaufman manages to get laughs from the audience without ever uttering a word. His jacket looks a little worse for wear. So odd. So, so odd. Now this is alternative comedy.
Another commercial break, it’s 20 minutes in and Carlin’s second time to perform stand-up. This time, he goes for a series of one-liners and quick observations. Some you would see and hear later on his HBO specials. The one that always makes me take a step back is how he remarks on how airports are trying out the body-search techniques that everyone else soon will use, but notices that once on the plane, "they give you a knife and fork and all the wine you can drink," so how hard could it be to take over a plane? This is 26 years before the 2001 terrorist attacks, for all of you still wondering how anyone could ever think of how that ever could have been dreamed up. Anyhow. Moving on. Carlin introduces Janis Ian, who performed her biggest hit, "At Seventeen." And then, a sketch called Victims of Shark Bite, hosted by Curtin with Belushi as the alleged victim. Jaws was the big box-office smash that summer, so…topical! Another fake ad, and this one plays with gay marriage, promoting Jamitol, and we’re not really sure what the product is. Subtle. Maybe too subtle?
Weekend Update with Chevy Chase, no fancy intro, and it’s a quick bit. Only a few minutes. And we’re reminded that the first years of SNL included a live fake correspondent out in the streets of New York City. In the 1970s. And you thought The Daily Show was special. And just like that, we’re into another fake ad, this time for arthritis. The product: Triopenin. Get it? And back to the news. So it really is a complete fake newscast. This is when it gets weird. It’s time for the Muppets. Only these are not any of the Muppets you know. Um, OK.
After more ads, it’s time for more stand-up from Carlin. "Jumbo shrimp? It’s like military intelligence. The words just don’t go together." And with that, a film by Albert Brooks, "The Impossible Truth." Featuring a "temporarily" blind taxi driver, the land trade between Israel and Georgia. The age of consent lowered to 7 in Oregon. Take that, Dateline NBC.
Bee Hospital? Even on the very first episode, they loved them some bees. Consider this an intro to what they’d later accomplish in bee costumes. Wait. What’s this? Another ad? Yes, it sure seems like it. A woman answers the phone and gets a prolonged pitch for new careers in telephones. Or something like that. "And now, comedian Valri Bromfield." Wha? Really? Watching this makes me wonder what ever happened to network television taking chances…sure, in 1975, viewers only had a few options for channels to watch, so networks could take chances. But, I mean, really. Oh, OK, Internets, school us on Ms. Bromfield. She began her career in a duo with none other than Dan Aykroyd. And they joined Second City together. OK. Making sense now. She later became a writer-performer on SCTV. So there. The audience, in the meantime, has moved on to see what types of people carry guns. As they cross the nation, notice in the background of a gas station they pass where gas costs 67 cents a gallon? Ah, memories. See how many people are packing heat? Ha. Packing heat. They didn’t know that phrase in 1975, did they?
Time for the fourth and final Carlin monologue, and here he takes on God and religion. Afterward, another song from Billy Preston.
Belushi and Radner open another sketch at home, with Aykroyd as a burglar simulating a home burglary! Because they’re selling home security. And you should buy it. Would you believe another fake ad? Believe it. In 1975, a razor with three blades seemed somehow humorous. In fact, in 2008, it does, doesn’t it? As a matter of fact, in fact, I think this fake ad became an an actual real ad in the 1980s. Weird. Or as they say in the business, it’s funny because it’s true.
Carlin comes on once more to introduce Janis Ian again. She sings. We show some ads. Carlin comes back to thank us all for watching. And Carlin remembers he has a brand-new album to plug. So even in 1975, TV knew to book people with an agenda. All in all, an interesting show. The credits list everyone as "Bud." Including all of the debut writers: Anne Beatts, Chevy Chase, Al Franken, Tom Davis, Lorne Michaels, Rosie Michaels, Garrett Morris, Michael O’Donoghue, Herb Sargent, Tom Schiller and Alan Zweibel. Penelope Spheeris took part in filmed segments, and later directed Wayne’s World (among other projects).
Just like any current episode of SNL, not the funniest show ever, but certainly worth watching. And in this case, especially worth watching because it gave birth to a franchise and a comedy tradition that continues with us today.