Looking Back at the First Five Years of SNL

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At this point in my look at the history and development of sketch comedy shows I would be amiss if I didn’t mention Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Simply put there has never been a more innovative or influential show. So much has been written about this show that I really don’t feel like I could add any anything. All I’ll say is that if you haven’t watched any of it, do yourself a favor and seek it out immediately. Instead I’ll direct you to Curtis Gwinn’s lovely piece on the group.

With that out of the way it’s time to tackle another giant of sketch comedy: Saturday Night Live. Rather than try to cover this show’s 35 years in one short post, I’ll be doing several articles covering the show’s many phases and transitions. Today I’ll be looking at SNL’s early years, 1975-1980. This first period covers the show’s inception and quick rise to prominence with its initial cast, the Not Ready for Prime Time Players. For a complete history of the show you really have to check out Live From New York by Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller. What I’m trying to do here is put the show in context with other sketch comedy, past and present.

Considering how influential Saturday Night Live has been It’s at times striking how different the show’s earliest episodes feel compared to what’s on the air today. When the show debuted in 1975 it was billed not as sketch comedy program but a variety show. Rather than the now standard formula of sketches and two musical performances the early episodes played around heavily with the format of the show, featuring a number of different types of entertainment. The first episode featured two musical guests performing two songs each, stand-up from host George Carlin as well as two guest comedians, a film by Albert Brooks, and a bit with the Muppets. The second episode, which featured Paul Simon as host and musical guest featured nothing short of 11 musical performances by Simon and his guests. The comedy bits in that episode consist only of Weekend Update and a few short sketches starring Simon. The rest of the cast only appears long enough to be told they won’t be in the rest of the show.

Given the show’s variety show beginnings it should come as no surprise that the early sketches reminded me strongly of the first show I looked at, The Carol Burnett Show. Like many of Burnett’s sketches, a lot of the earliest SNL bits seem simple and slow by modern standards. Over time, they begin to find the rhythm and voice of the show, and it’s not too long before they’re delivering great sketches like this one between Chevy Chase and host Richard Pryor.

Eventually the show slowly evolved into the format we know today, but it’s astounding how much flexibility the show was allowed in both its structure and format during the early years. A lot of credit goes to the cast, whose adaptability and talent allowed them to explore new and unusual material while still being entertaining. The background in improv that Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Bill Murrary and Larraine Newman had may have been a key element to this ability. Today, improv training is pretty much a prerequisite for anyone interested in sketch comedy, but at the time of the show’s debut the formal improv of Second City and Del Close was largely unknown outside of comedy circles.

Prior to SNL, most sketch comedians on TV came from backgrounds in theater and musicals. While there are plenty of contemporary comedians that come from that traditional, the majority of modern sketch comedy draws from improv and the work of Del Close. This is of course largely a result of Saturday Night Live’s continued use of Second City and other improv troupes as a source for cast members.

This is one of the reasons I think I found The Carol Burnett Show and Laugh-In so foreign when I watched them recently; they’re coming from an entirely different tradition. Improv has a sensibility all its own, summed up by Tina Fey with the following: “In sketch comedy you really don’t have to tell a story, in fact a story is kind of your enemy. In sketch comedy you just want to find the game of the scene, play the game, heighten it, and get out.”

The philosophy Fey expounds here seems so radically different than anything Carol Burnett was doing. This tidal shift in approach is what makes SNL so important and so influential. Although the early years can at times seem slow or dated the unpredictability and excitement of the show would help pave the way for a whole new type of comedy.