Back in 1991, the all-time greatest Saturday Night Live host Steve Martin led viewers into the show’s holiday episode with a cold opening that’s one for the books. On Variety’s “My Favorite Episode” podcast, Topher Grace, who hosted SNL in 2005 and worked closely with That ’70s Show co-creators and former SNL writers Bonnie and Terry Turner, named that season-17 episode as his favorite. “They told me that the whole cast came together to write this cold opening for Steve Martin,” Grace says. “This legendary staff, which has among others Bob Odenkirk, Conan O’Brien. And to write something that’s so perfectly [Martin]. I couldn’t get over how perfect that opening is.”
The opening begins with cast members Chris Farley and Victoria Jackson finding Martin backstage mindlessly flipping through a magazine. Martin seems less than interested in the show or doing a good job, but his mood changes after Farley asks him to autograph an old piece of wardrobe that turns out to be Martin’s old King Tut costume. “I remember this,” he says. “This was back when the show meant something. Back when I used to care.” Martin then segues into the Broadway-worthy musical number, “Not Gonna Phone It in Tonight.” “Tonight’s the night I’m actually going to try,” he sings as he moves from backstage, through the studio audience, and onto the main stage, stopping to give many of the cast members, crew, and even Lorne Michaels a turn to sing and shine. (You can watch the full sketch on NBC here.)
Grace says everything came together in this one sketch and mused that it highlights how “in a way SNL is kind of a sitcom.” Sure, there are individual sketches and a host. But hosting to him felt more like guest starring in someone else’s show. “These people are so fucking talented. You’re just kind of guest starring in this show that they’re putting on,” he says.
Grace also loves how deeply you get to know individual characters on SNL. “[This sketch] has Chris Farley as his character. Phil Hartman comes out and comments on what Phil Hartman does on the show,” he explains. “One of the great things about that show is you get to know Dana Carvey, even though he’s playing all these characters. You know who Will Ferrell is. I always liked the fact that you get to know and feel comfortable with these performers as who they are off camera too. This sketch does that perfectly.”
Part of SNL’s magic is that it’s been in the same place the entire time, says Grace. “A lot of this is the genius of Lorne Michaels, which is — that show is so successful he could have moved it. He could have put it in a bigger studio,” he says. “I’ve been there — it’s hard for them to bring the sets up in the elevator. There’s something so small about that studio space, it’s hard to make things look great. That’s the point of it. He gives it this live, tactile quality that has captured over the last four and a half decades what America is going through. It’s so immediate, there’s nothing else like it.”