NBC’s longest-running sketch comedy and variety show, Saturday Night Live (SNL), celebrated 40 years in production earlier this year. I’m certain I wasn’t alone in watching some of the highlights featured on its February 15 broadcast of #SNL40, showcasing career-defining spectacles (and debacles) from many of its performers. The episode was a standout for certain, but I was not prepared for what I discovered this week: the very first episode of “NBC’s Saturday Night,” which was to become “Saturday Night Live.” The episode features icons George Carlin, Billy Preston, and Janis Ian, and – let’s face it – almost all-stars of the episode went on to pursue phenomenal careers. I was blown away by what I saw, even as late to the party as I’ve been.
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I remember really beginning to appreciate and look forward to new episodes of SNL in the mid-late 90s. This was the era where Adam Sandler, David Spade, and Chris Farley had just moved on from the show, and the likes of Will Ferrell, Tim Meadows, and Molly Shannon were making their marks was the standout among the rest. Ferrell had become a favorite for me, but I lacked the foresight to see the eventual evolution of his talent. What I have had even less awareness of was just how potent the SNL brand has been since its inception.
The initial “Saturday Night” episode strikes me as both brilliantly iconic and plagued with novelty. For me, the striking part of that first “Saturday Night” episode lies in its having no precedent like it. There were previous sketch comedy shows like “Laugh-In,” but nothing with the truly “live” format that “Saturday Night” brought out. The format of “The Tonight Show” was well-established at that time as a weeknight nightcap, but a weekend show – that was indeed “live” – was a form of thinking that fresh out-of-the-box. The sketches, the material, the approach, the confidence of the actors, the bravado, the choice of hosts and musicians, the lighting, even the chintzy graphic design work – all of it was staggering to me. It all bowled me over as if to say “Whatever you thought late-night entertainment programming should be – that’s over.” It was a penultimate moment in the kind of content television could provide its audience.
The presentation of the initial “Saturday Night” content itself was arguably sub par due to its infancy, which for me is part of what had it be so resonant. It was a 90 minute variety show, featuring stellar sketch performances, music, short advertisement parodies, and stand-up comedy routines. They were all delivered at a caliber that befit Hollywood, in an off-Broadway environment that catered to social commentary. No one was saying the things the writers were saying, or playing them out the way the performers were doing. It was original, it was intriguing, but mostly it was both compelling and disarming. It was creative and it was purposeful – it was just unprecedented, good, raw content. It wasn’t trying to fit a mold, only a time frame. And its 40 years of ongoing programming demonstrates the lasting power of that original concept.
The scariest part of creating brand new content is also the best part – no one can tell how it will (or should) go. It’s in that moment that you could be either a maverick – or a moron! However, the potency of the content lies in that very willingness to be enterprising. creative, and novel.
I recently wrote about the new Late Night with Stephen Colbert and how – amid obvious growing pains – it is establishing an ongoing brand identity that carries on the old “Colbert-ness” inside the decades-old “Late Show” tradition. Even with this duality of precedents, the role of the new Late Night is to establish itself as its own entity. “SNL” in 1975 did not have such need for appropriation. In fact, it felt like an assault on entertainment itself right from the beginning sketch – the likes of which I have yet to see replicated 40+ years later. Of course, the role of every network executive is to provide programming that draws an ongoing and increasing audience, and SNL is unparalleled in delivering that. They did not succeed year over year, but they did succeed in audience over audience, and it has become a highly imitated model.
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