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‘SNL’: How a ‘variety show’ ignited a comedy revolution

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‘SNL’: How a ‘variety show’ ignited a comedy revolution

February 16
00:01 2015

On Oct. 11, 1975, TV history was made. Or at least the variety-show format was turned on its ear, thanks to producer Lorne Michaels, a group of relative unknown comedians — and Johnny Carson, who’d insisted NBC stop running Tonight Show repeats on the weekends, forcing the network to create a replacement series. NBC’s Saturday Night, as it was first known, premiered with George Carlin as host, and it looks different than it does today: The cast had less airtime, and the host and musical guests got more. But the show became an instant success, and despite the arrival of cable TV, the Internet and rival sketch-comedy series, it has maintained its status as the standard-bearer of pop-culture relevance, 40 years later.635593572379836980-SNL-Season1Cast

Did Michaels, a Canadian who had worked on Laugh-In and Lily Tomlin specials, think it would last? “Absolutely not. I was thinking I might leave at the end of the first season, because I didn’t think it could get any better. I was wrong about that. I was 30, (and) by the end of the first season I thought I had written everything I wanted to write at least twice.” Over the years, there were many repeat hosts (a five-timers club was jokingly created), and while comedians such as Carlin were naturals, the most successful hosts were those who could adjust to the show’s raucous rhythm, “people who can put up with that amount of change and that amount of uncertainty for the whole week and kind of keep their center.”

Actors who surprised were among Michaels’ favorites: “I don’t think people thought Tom Hanks was as funny as he was, or Ben Affleck, or Alec Baldwin, for that matter. And I don’t think anybody knew that Candy Bergen was that funny, at least in 1975.” For the performers, the week felt like a roller coaster of all-nighters: “Monday is pitch, Tuesday you write the show, and Wednesday you do the table read, so (on those days) there was always this kind of audition anxiety,” says former cast member Bill Hader. “Thursday and Friday, the show was picked, you knew what you were doing in it, it was just performing and hanging with your friends. To get to sit and watch Tom Hanks and Martin Short and Steve Martin, just to watch them work, you learn a lot, it was awesome. And the Saturday show was like a ride: ‘That was fun, I want to do it again.’”

What has changed? The cast, ever rotating, and fickle fans, who complain about the show even as they continue to watch (though Michaels often says he loses them from the time they start driving until they’re married). “Everybody has their generation,” says Fallon, also 40. “Mine was Mike Myers, Phil Hartman, Jan Hooks.” But through best-of specials and repeats, “I was really into it before then,” lip-synching King Tut while wearing his mom’s dress and mimicking Dan Aykroyd and Martin’s “wild and crazy guy” Fenstruk brothers. “We’d say, in front of my grandparents, ‘We have to get to Statue of Liberty to get birth-control devices.’” Little did he know that he’d one day be on the show and use it as a springboard to inherit Tonight Show, now produced by Michaels, who also is behind movies sprung from sketches (The Blues Brothers, Wayne’s World) and TV series featuring former cast members (30 Rock, Portlandia).