In 1975, NBC’s Saturday Night Live redefined TV comedy using a variety format that was not unlike vaudeville. With a mix of live music, comic monologues, short films, and sketches, SNL employed a radical sense of humor to lampoon everything and everyone from the nation’s president to sex to consumerism. The show not only captured the Zeitgeist of the ’70s, but it also served as a launchpad for its diverse stable of stars, which, at the time, included John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Jane Curtin, Gilda Radner, and Garrett Morris, among others. Morris, the only black actor in SNL’s original cast, spoke to Sean Fitz-Gerald about six of his earliest memories. Now 77 years old, Morris currently appears as Earl on CBS’s 2 Broke Girls.
1. A lot of people auditioned (unsuccessfully) to be SNL’s first black cast member.
I was called by a friend of mine who had produced The Secret Place, a play I wrote. This gentleman said, “Garrett, there’s a man named Lorne Michaels who’s looking for a black writer.” Apparently I was one of those, so I went down and brought Lorne Michaels the play. He read it and made me a writer on the show. From that point, I was the conduit to bringing other black actors to audition for the Not Ready for Prime Time Players. I was not being considered because I was bringing in other people like Bill Duke, Trazana Beverley, and Obba Babatunde. I brought in a whole lot of other people, too, but then John [Belushi] and Gilda [Radner] and Laraine [Newman] and Jane [Curtin] saw a movie I did called Cooley High, and they told Lorne, “Well, you got him bringing in other people, you know he’s an actor, too?” The kids talked me up; they were sort of mad that I wasn’t being auditioned while I was bringing other people in. So Lorne finally saw Cooley High and then asked me to audition.
2. Gilda Radner was key.
I auditioned with Gilda, and from then, I graduated to the Not Ready for Prime Time Players. She was fabulous, a great lady to audition with. I was lucky to have her because she was one of those people who gives very much in the audition and in improv. I’m sort of a counter-puncher. We did a thing in which Lorne asked me to improvise as a taxi driver who picks her up at JFK. She was my passenger, and for about ten minutes, I played this guy who cheated the hell out of her and drove her all around New York. It would’ve taken five hours to get from JFK to New York City if I was really driving. It was a great audition. After, when I found out I got the cast member spot, the feeling I had was: Man, I got a job. I can pay the rent!
3. The learning curve was steep, and it was cutthroat in the writers’ room.
When I got there, John was already there, and I was amazed at the improvisational skills of him and Gilda and a couple other people. My improvisational skills were honed in a black theater workshop, in which we did a lot of stuff that was not about comedy, but about serious problems, like drug addiction, teen pregnancy, violence in the street, and racial violence. Whereas they had all kinds of stuff they did from one to 100 to make you laugh, my improvisational skills went from hate whitey to kill whitey. One of my other problems, in the very beginning, was that I was a playwright who was used to writing things that lasted a couple hours and not stuff that was 30 seconds, which most skits are — or a minute or two minutes at most. I wasn’t very proud of myself as a writer because I came up with one good idea and it was used, but somebody on the staff stole it from me, and I wasn’t given credit for it.
4. The fight for screentime was real.
Chevy Chase had the idea to have the “News for the Hard of Hearing” with me, and I’m glad he did it, because even on a radical show that was trying to be new and improved, I, as a black member, did have difficulty getting on. The racial problem in America was a part of Saturday Night Live, too. Integrating me as a black man in the thing was something that happened very gradually. In the first five years, sometimes I was there, sometimes I was not. But you could be white as snow, and you still had to fight for your place on the show. That was just show business. If you look at Saturday Night Live, Laraine [Newman], compared to other people in the show, also didn’t have a lot. So it wasn’t just a racial problem.
5. The early shows were less politically correct.
One of the problems with comedy nowadays is that it’s trying to be more politically correct — Saturday Night Live is now a very p.c. institution. My opinion is that since the Reagan era, with a whole lot of this conservative pall over everything, the most radical shows simply don’t exist, except on cable. You could not have an All in the Family nowadays. The Jeffersons could not be produced today. A whole lot of shows would not make it beyond the first 13 weeks now, because we have people who don’t look at comedy the way they should be looking at it, which is: When you get more radical, you’re going to make fun of people who are in a wheelchair, as well as somebody who is walking totally healthy. If you have a comedy show to do, you’ve got to figure out how to make people laugh, how to have conflict, and how to say something relevant and informative. But if you have sacred cows, then you’re not going to have a show that’s going to last. Conflict should be in comedy and in drama. It will come out of the clashing of the characters. The writers should be able to make a joke about Ray Charles being blind — as they’ve done a lot of times on Saturday Night Live — I was in an episode in which we did a lot of blind jokes, and Ray Charles was in on it.
6. The after-parties were kind of crazy, but not everyone was interested.
I would go straight home. I’m a serious introvert. So the partying, which people have attributed to everybody, was not true. Not everybody was partying after the show. I was just going home and doing a lot of dirty things with some girls.