A Look Back at SNL’s Season Openers

Saturday Night Live begins its 38th season this Saturday with special guests Seth McFarlane and Frank Ocean.  Kristen Wiig and Andy Samberg, two of the show’s most recognizable cast members, are gone, as is supporting player Abby Elliott, while new hires Aidy Bryant, Cecily Strong and Tim Robinson will make their first impressions as members of the ensemble. Based on precedent, Saturday’s season opener will be likely an alright show, but not a great one.

For SNL, the season premiere is usually a mixed bag. This can largely be attributed to the cast and writers being off their normal show working patterns for the summer. Significant changes to the show’s creative staff can also affect the first show of the season, whether it’s a void left by the departure of a few key personnel or the uncertainty following a wholesale overhaul of the cast and writers. Big ticket guests and surprise cameos seem to serve as distractions from a show just adjusting back into a frantic routine, and it’s rarely the year’s best episode.

This season’s situation, with the departure of Wiig and Samberg, could possibly have a premiere reminiscent of Steve Martin / Blondie (1979), Matt Damon / Bruce Springsteen (2002), or Ben Affleck / Nelly (2004). Each season followed the departure of major cast members (1979: Dan Aykroyd & John Belushi, 2002: Will Ferrell & Ana Gasteyer, 2004: Jimmy Fallon). New talent was added to fill the gaps, but each of those shows seems to have a vibe to them indicating that the voids had not been filled, and the remaining cast was now straining to bear the load.

Underwhelming season premieres aren’t isolated to years following major cast departures, though. Even as far back as the second season, the premiere tended to be a fairly lax show for the cast and writers, despite the built-up expectations regarding the next season that can build during a four-month break between seasons. The writers may frontload the show with retreads of earlier sketches, as they did when they reprised “Big Kids” and “Dancing Coach” for the Michael Phelps show in 2008. As well, with the amount of news and pop-culture targets that pop up during the summer hiatus, the first show back often feels like the cast and writers are playing catch-up: not only are they expected to comment on the current scene, there’s a backlog of stuff everyone else has already commented on.

Once the season is underway, though, the cast and writers’ output is more consistent. Despite whatever hints are dropped in the premiere, it usually takes a few shows to get a better sense of what the new cast can bring to the show, and whether the writing had any change in direction. Within five episodes, viewers have a better idea of how strong or weak a season it will be than if they just watched the premiere.

This is not to say that SNL’s season openers lack worthwhile moments. “Strategery” and “I can see Russia from my house!” came from cold openings of a season premiere. Harry Shearer and Martin Short’s “Synchronized Swimmers” film, the 9/11 tribute and Neil Young’s “Rocking in the Free World” performance were all from the first shows of their respective seasons. Church Lady, Hans & Franz, and the Festrunk Brothers all made their debuts in premieres as well. There have even been quite a few seasons that started off on a fairly strong episode: for example, the Sigourney Weaver / Buster Poindexter show (1986) that established Dana Carvey, Jan Hooks, Kevin Nealon and Phil Hartman as major players. The Tom Hanks / Keith Richards premiere two years later is another example of a strong start to SNL’s year.  For the last 20 years or so, though, the season premiere has rarely been that consistent.

Saturday Night Live is by its nature an uneven show, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the season premiere. While the first show of the season may not be SNL at its best, it does often serve its purpose: reintroducing the audience to the ensemble and setting the tone for the season. If this weekend’s show doesn’t live up to expectations, just keep an eye on what seemed promising and hope it takes root in the next few weeks.

Here’s a rundown of some of the more notable season premieres throughout the years:

Lily Tomlin / James Taylor (1976): The cast takes a backseat to the guests tonight, aside from the great Debate ’76 sketch that featured both the show’s burgeoning satire and Chevy Chase bruising his testicles. James Taylor plays a total of three songs, Lily Tomlin brings a few of her characters by, and the Muppets make their final appearance by demonstrating their inability to “Whistle A Happy Tune”.

Steve Martin / Jackson Browne (1977): Martin’s third appearance on the show, this would feature the first appearance of the Festrunk Brothers, though the swingin’ Czechs in the tight plaid slacks wouldn’t fully hit their stride until their next appearance in January ‘78.  Unlike the last season’s opener, the host actually barely figures in tonight’s show, with Martin appearing only in the monologue, Festrunks, “Mike McMack: Defense Lawyer”, and a small part in Franken & Davis’ all-male send-up of beauty pageants.

The Rolling Stones (1978): Aside from a centerpiece three-song performance with a hoarse Mick Jagger, the Stones don’t figure much in the fourth-season opener, save for a “Tomorrow” spoof with Dan Aykroyd’s Tom Snyder demonstrating his dance moves to Jagger, and small cameos from Ron Wood and Charlie Watts in “Olympia Café”. The show has a few other high points, including a retro cold opening and the debut of Bill Murray on Weekend Update, but the last half-hour of the show features some weaker material and pre-taped pieces.

Steve Martin / Blondie (1979): Long the highest-rated broadcast in SNL’s history (16.0 rating / 47 share), the big-name guests barely disguise that this is the first episode following Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi’s departure. There’s a lot about this show that just feels off, from Bill Murray’s slightly surly demeanor (carried over from the Where The Buffalo Roam shoot), to the dependence on the male writing staff to fill speaking parts on the show.

(no host) / Thompson Twins (1984): A hostless show establishes the all-star season of SNL with lots of pretaped pieces (five throughout the show) and the familiar faces of Billy Crystal, Martin Short, Harry Shearer, and Christopher Guest front and center. This is a fairly strong outing but still feels a little atypical of the season, largely because of the number of taped bits but also due to the show being performed in a different studio while NBC News commandeered 8H for election coverage.

Madonna / Simple Minds (1985): Lorne Michaels’ first show after a five-year hiatus was savaged by critics at the time for bad taste, largely thanks to the infamous Drug Testing cold opening removed from reruns. Sketches like National Inquirer Theatre, (a dramatization featuring the Kennedy brothers killing Marilyn Monroe), Pinklisting (satirizing the AIDS crisis in Hollywood) and the Twilight Zone pastiche The Limits of the Imagination play to near complete silence. The audience’s lack of response is disguised in reruns with canned laughter and applause, but watching the original broadcast makes the negative critical reaction to the show a bit more understandable.

Sigourney Weaver / Buster Poindexter (1986): Madonna begins the year with a statement from the network declaring last season “a horrible, horrible dream”, and the show gets back to basics. The new players don’t appear on-screen until after the first commercial break, but by the end of the night Dana Carvey makes the strongest impression with both “Church Chat” and the “Choppin’ Broccoli” song. Kevin Nealon gets a significant part of the premiere with “Mr. Subliminal”, while Jan Hooks and Phil Hartman quietly assume their roles as strong utility performers.

Tom Hanks / Keith Richards (1988): Hanks’ third hosting gig is one of the better season premieres in the show’s history, including a monologue, the First Citiwide Change Bank commercials, the Debate ’88 sketch, the debut of Mister Short Term Memory, and the All Drug Olympics during Weekend Update. Even recurring bits like Hans & Franz, Girl Watchers and Pat Stevens had strong outings this time.

Tom Hanks / Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers (1996): A disappointment considering who was hosting.  Hanks is still a good host despite being wasted in retreads of audience-pleasers The Roxbury Guys and the Spartan Cheerleaders (which had both appeared in the season finale that spring). The Ambiguously Gay Duo make their SNL debut in this show, although with a cartoon that originally aired on “The Dana Carvey Show” the previous spring. The last third is the strongest, with the “Drunken Asses” commercial and Hanks giving his best performance of the night in “Creativity Test”.

Ben Affleck / Nelly (2004): SNL’s first post-Jimmy Fallon show has a “trying to recreate past glories” vibe. The cold open, a debate between John Kerry (Seth Meyers) and George W. Bush (Will Forte) runs an epic 13 minutes but doesn’t come close to achieving what they managed in 3 minutes or less four seasons earlier. A try at capitalizing on last season’s surprise hit “Debbie Downer” comes up short when the cast keeps their composure this time (the rerun practically admits defeat with a dress rehearsal take of the sketch preceded by a disclaimer that said it “worked better”). Even the debut of Amy Poehler & Tina Fey’s two-woman Weekend Update team comes up short, particularly a reliance on video clips that make it seem like they’re trying to copy The Daily Show.

Dane Cook / The Killers (2006): On one hand, the writers and cast avoid using many of their preferred crutches, “Airport Security Seminar” starts the show promisingly enough, and the requisite Bush cold opening finds a new way to use Will Forte’s impression. On the other hand, a lot of this show’s material feels so thin and half-written despite whatever gloss given to it, whether with exaggerated silliness (“Hugo Chavez Political Roundup”), Pythonesque seques (between “Ocean Save” and “Closing Time”), and metareferences (“Poland Spring Delivery Men”).

Michael Phelps / Lil Wayne (2008): The show actually started very strong with the debut of Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin impression, but dropped off afterwards. Phelps’ lack of acting ability actually wasn’t too much of an issue, as he still played along gamely all night; the suffered more from fairly uninspired writing, including rewrites of “Dancing Coach” and “Big Kids” that fell short of their original installments.

Megan Fox / U2 (2009): Even if Jenny Slate’s unfortunate gaffe in “Biker Chick Chat” hadn’t overshadowed pretty much everything else in this show, there wasn’t a lot of memorable material: between an overlong riff on Gadhaffi’s UN speech, a bland sketch with flight attendants downplaying a crisis, and a Russian bride sketch that kept milking the same joke, there really wasn’t a lot there. Fox was fairly unremarkable as a host, and even U2’s performances felt rote, right down to the encore of one of their older songs during the goodnights.

Amy Poehler / Katy Perry (2010): A slight improvement over the last few seasons, largely because Poehler was able to seamlessly fit in with her old castmates. There was still a little bit of predictability with yet another Roger Brush sketch (“Maternity Matters”), but Poehler’s characters were a bit more welcome on account of not having seen them for a while. There were plenty of cameos to bring energy to that night, though, from alumni Maya Rudolph and Rachel Dratch, to Justin Timberlake, to a “sneaker-upper” from Governor David Patterson.

Alec Baldwin / Radiohead (2011): A slightly slimmed-down Baldwin officially bests Steve Martin’s hosting record with his best show in years. There’s still a fair bit of filler (including a video delay sketch originally cut from the Ellen Page dress rehearsal in 2008), but the show starts strong with a debate sketch, ends well with war movie spoof Angels In The Trenches, and manages to avoid falling into the trap of rehashed material that the last few premieres suffered from.

Bronwyn Douwsma is a freelance writer and photographer. Their sole motivation to seek fame and fortune is a burrito.

A Look Back at SNL’s Season Openers