I never really saw Saturday NIght Live in its first, oh I don't know, 20 seasons or so. All the talk through the most recent seasons, whether they were good or bad ones, is that nothing could compare to the glory years of the show. Generally that is understood to mean 1975 - 1980, the first five seasons.
Well, I had my chance finally this past weekend when NBC re-aired the very first episode of SNL from October 11, 1975. They did it as a tribute to the debut host that night, the late George Carlin, another recent victim of the Summer Of Death.
Guess what? I think the people were right.
I was really surprised how fully-formed the format of the show was from that very first episode. Monologue, sketches, commercial parodies, Weekend Update, musical guests, it was all there. Carlin did not appear in any sketches but did deliver some of his most famous routines from his best-selling comedy albums of the early 70s, like Baseball Vs. Football, What Do Dogs Do On Their Days Off? and Why Isn't There Any Blue Food?.
That night was the debut of the Not Ready For Primetime Players, including John Belushi (impossible to take your eyes off of), Dan Akyroyd (very funny back then, not so much now), Gilda Radner, Jane Curtin, Larraine Newman, and Garrett Morris (the original, "Hey, you're the black guy from Saturday Night Live").
I was also struck by how ambitious that first show was. Two musical guests, performing two songs each. Billy Preston's Nothing From Nothing was terrific and his disco suit even more so; Janis Ian looked terrified singing her then-current hit, At Seventeen.
Comedy genius Albert Brooks offered a short film that included one scene where the age of consent was changed to nine or something. I was more shocked that it aired on network TV here in 2008 then back in 1975.
How's this for a highlight? The show also featured comedy weirdo Andy Kaufman doing his signature Mighty Mouse theme song lip synching bit. I don't know if he had performed it on television before that night but I don't doubt that there were just as many people watching who were more confused than entertained by his...uh.... "alternative" approach to comedy. I loved it.
Not everything worked. There was a Muppets sketch too. Yep, Jim Henson's real Muppets. I didn't get it. At all. Also a comedienne named Valari Bloomfield who was terrible. And, surprising to me, I thought Chevy Chase was the weak link of the cast. Not a good actor, not a good cue-card reader, not a skilled comedian. Perhaps he got better?
One more quick thing. How did they cram four songs, tons of sketches, three Carlin bits. another comedian, a Muppet piece, Chevy's Weekend Update, the Kaufman routine, and at least three fake commercials all into one 90 minute show?
Fewer commercial minutes might have been part of it. But the Number One reason I give the nod to Episode One over any Saturday Night Live show I have seen this decade is that back then the sketches ran out before the comedy did.
The current show makes every bit at least 25 percent longer than it needs to be, often more. If the new guys had come up with Belushi's 1975 Wolverine bit, instead of it being remembered as a comedy classic, we'd know it as that sketch we feel asleep to ten minutes in.
If you saw the show this weekend I'd love to hear your thoughts. I am now going to Amazon.com to look into a Season One DVD...