In the October 27, 1975 issue of New York, writer Jeff Greenfield discussed a hot new show called Saturday Night that had premiered a little over two weeks earlier. With the show celebrating its 40th anniversary this weekend, we are rerunning his review.
In the midst of a fall TV season devoted to the sincerest form of flattery, NBC is trying something different. Not in prime time, of course; the dollars are too big to risk. But three weeks a month, at 11:30 on Saturday night NBC is presenting a 90-minute show which is the first attempt to program for, and with, the generation that grew up with television. Based on a first look, it is an uneven show, with all of the pitfalls and possibilities of something never tried before. But in intention, outlook, and personnel, NBC’s Saturday Night is surely the sharpest departure from the TV-comedy norm since the debut of Laugh-In.
NBC’s Saturday Night – it was to be called Saturday Night Live until ABC appropriated the title for Howard Cosell’s prime-time variety show — is consciously, perhaps self-consciously, unique. It seeks to hark back to the Golden Age of TV Comedy (Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows in particular) by locating in New York City, and by live presentation, to capture what Dick Ebersol, director of late-night programming for NBC, calls “the ragged edge.”
The show’s creators and executors are so young they suggest one of those Judy Garland–Mickey Rooney MGM musicals where a happy-go-lucky bunch of kids puts on the class show at Carnegie Hall (“Hey! Let’s do the show right here!”). Producer Lorne Michaels, a “veteran” of Laugh-In and his own show on Canadian television, is 31. Ebersol, executive producer for NBC, is 28. The writers and actors who form a “Not Quite Ready for Prime Time” repertory company, are in large part National Lampoon refugees (Michael O’Donoghue, Anne Beatts, Chevy Chase, John Belushi, Gilda Radner), none of whom appear to have even a nodding acquaintance with 40. Herb Sargent, the white-haired playwright and TV writer who is the show’s script consultant, looks like the director of a summer camp in the midst of the Saturday Night crew.
More important than age is the outlook of the show. The producers and writers say they are in New York because of the pace, the hum, and the adrenaline that the city pumps into their veins.
“Your mind atrophies in L.A.,” says Chevy Chase, who wrote for the defunct Smothers Brothers comeback show last year. “Nobody reads the papers out there. It’s all one thing – ‘the business.’ In New York, you’re right out on the streets.”
George Carlin, the comedian who hosted the premiere show, observes that “there’d be no point in doing a live show in L.A. It’d be dull.”
The commitment to New York comes high. Because of the union rules and the logistics (sets are built in Brooklyn, trucked to Manhattan, and built in modules to fit into the elevators at 30 Rockefeller Plaza), the show costs 40 percent more to produce here than it would in Burbank.
“Also,” adds Ebersol,”since most of the stars live in California, there are first-class air fares, hotel bills … it costs.” (Not to mention the $250,000 to revamp Studio 8H, home of NBC’s election and Apollo coverage.)
And what hath Gotham wrought? A very mixed bag. Saturday Night has an explicitly hip, cynical outlook, coupled with an impressive amount of freedom. (“We’re not breaking ground,” George Carlin said, “but we’re stretching the limits.”) Carlin’ opening-night monologue included some blunt gibes at organized religion which would have certainly been cut out of any other network show. A parody of a network show on a postage stamp commemorating prostitution: “Its cost is ten cents, but if you want to lick it, it’s a quarter.”
The show also has a fair share of what writer Rosie Michaels calls “the absurd and surreal” — a shark-bite victim talking earnestly about the loss of a left arm clearly hidden under his jacket; a “new talent” whose sole skill is lip-synching to a single line from the old “Mighty Mouse” radio show song.
The most effort has gone into the parodies of commercials. Unlike the Carol Burnett take-offs where the comedy lies in things’ going wrong, these commercials are professionally produced, using real commercial faces and voices as well as the comic rep company. The results are often funny: A sincere ad for a triple-bladed razor, complete with animation, is played straight until the very last line, “The triple-track — because you’ll believe anything.” A “New Dad” insurance policy provides not just money, but a new father who enters the bereaved household within seconds of the husband’s death. And Jerry Rubin — in the flesh — peddles a nostalgic “Berkeley collection” of wallpaper with great graffiti of the '60s — “Up against the Wallpaper.”
There are also problems with the show. The “Muppets” still seem unable to translate their charm and wit from the children’s arena to adult fare. Albert Brooks, the most inventive comic in America, is producing a series of film shorts for Saturday Night. The first batch was redeemed only by a single master stroke: reporting that Oregon had lowered the age of consent to 7, Brooks presented an ad agency’s casting director coming on in a restaurant to an 8-year-old girl. Further, the mix of parody and real commercials (as many as in conventional late-night programming) seemed to rob the show of pace.
Still, the promise of Saturday Night is enormous. “TV has not yet had a show for people who grew up with TV,” says producer Michaels. “Carol Burnett’s skits are very funny, but they’re written by people 45–50 and they’re about those problems — life in the suburbs, infidelity, alcoholism, divorce.”
“It’s the first time we can have parody without Paul Lynde or Carol Channing screwing it up,” says Michael O’Donoghue. “This is a show for us.”
TV comedy today is very different from 1949, when 28-year-old Sid Caesar began Your Show of Shows and turned Saturday into a stay-at-home night. The best talent today is in situation comedy — from Norman Lear to the Mary Tyler Moore studio to M*A*S*H, while sketch comedy is preserved from total witlessness only by the Burnett show. In such a setting, Saturday Night is a show worth rooting for.