Saturday Night Live (SNL), started out in the seventies as NBC’s Saturday Night, which was their first attempt at an American sketch comedy and variety television series. Airing started in 1975 and has been on the show ever since, making this one of the longest-running programs in television. SNL is an NBC fixture and a landmark in the history of American television.
The core concept behind SNL was to be an edgy comedy series with live interviews for factual information and was aimed at the 18 to 34-year-old age group. Due to the nature of the series, it constantly attracts new viewers that enter the demographic age group, while retaining its older viewers as loyal fans to the series. As such, SNL has a constantly growing fan group.
This is a live show and is filmed in front of a studio audience. The show has a format that starts with an opening sketch and closes with the phrase “Live from New York; it’s Saturday Night!”. The show’s creators are Dick Ebersol and Lorne Michaels. Michaels still works as a writer for SNL. While this is a “show” some of the guests do outrageous and on occasions, self-planned actions, such as when Sinead O’Connor tore up the picture of the Pope. This is also a reason why the show retains its fans, since they know that a lot of the content is not rehearsed, and there is a lot of improvisation on behalf of the presenter.
SNL was a product of an evolving change in the Carson show, which ran from 1965 to 175. Johnny Carson would run reruns of The Tonight Show on weekends, and he asked for them to be pulled from the weekends and aired on weekdays, which would free up some personal time. This led Herbert Schlosser, the NBC President in 1974 to request from Dick Ebersol, the NBC VP for late night programming to come up with a Weekend show.
It was suggested by Barry Diller, a Paramount Pictures executive that Schlosser and Ebersol content Lorne Michaels, which the did. Michaels and Ebersol then sat down and originated the SNL concept, which was to become a sketch, political satire, and music show. To kick of SNL in 1975, Michaels cast into the first line up the first of many actors that SNL would lead into legend status. This first line up included Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris, Laraine Newman, Michael O’Donoghue, Gilda Radner, and George Coe. (Note that the first three went on to become famous Hollywood comedy actors)
The original show aired under the name NBC’s Saturday Night, this was due to the fact that rival network ABC had the SNL title with Howard Cosell. In 1976, NBC bought the rights to the name, and this became its official title on March 26, 1977.
The first line was critical for the success of the show, and these talented actors and presents created a cult following that propelled SNL into the limelight. Due to the then extremism of the team in delivering their sketches and satire, many viewers write in with irate requests to terminate the show. It was Michaels that showed the NBC executive that baby boomers were the future of the shows fan block and not generation x. As such, rather then bow to the more conservative viewers, the executive continued to air the show.
NBC was not without its egotistical managers that could ruin a career based on nothing but personal perception with total disregard for the ratings or success. Such was the case with Herminio Traviesas. Traveisas was both a censor and the vice president of the network’s Standards and Practices department. He was irate with Laraine Newman using the term “pissed off” on live TV and was going to make it a delayed airing show, but Newman personally apologized to Travaisas, and that wavered the crisis.
In November 1977 Chevy Chase left the show for a few months and was replaced by the then unknown and young comic actor Bill Murray. In 1979, Ackroyd and Belushi left the show, and in 1980, Michaels was exhausted from writing and asked for a year’s rest to pursue other career opportunities. Michales leaving caused an internal rupture with a lot of political backstabbing and wheel dealing, which ended up with mots of the cast and writers leaving with him. Michael went to Paramount Pictures. Jean Doumanian was given the new lead writing role for SNL by her friend Barbara Galagher, who was an NBC VP.
Rising Stars in Years of Turmoil
SNL was already known to be a successful springboard for aspiring careers, and it was attracting many amateurs and professional actor’s attention. Doumanian was in an impossible situation, she was a successful woman in a chauvinistic environment, and one where the chauvinism was magnified by ego and perceptions of self-importance. To top all off this off was a massive 65% reduction in budget, reducing the budget per episode from 1 million to 350 thousand dollars each. Doumanian was given three months to cast new talent, while surrounded by a current hiatus of actors and crew that resented her presence. She also managed to cast actors that did not link with either the material or the crew, including Charles Rocket and Ann Risley. Rocket sealed Doumanian’s fate when he stated, during one of the live episodes, the word “fuck.” Doumanian was relieved after only 10 months of duty.
The executives wanted to seal SNL’s fate, but Brandon Tartikoff, the network chief decided that the concept of the show was more important that the cost of the show. As such, Tartikoff asked Ebersol to take over control, and Ebersol, not being foreign to the intricacies of the politics behind the TV, turned to Michaels to get his approval. This action gave Ebersol the silence and support of the cast and crew when he started the new season.
Ebersol cast Eddie Murphy, which leads to a successful start, although the material of the show was considered to be a little pale when compared to the original Michaels era. In 1984, Murphy left SNL to advance his already budding film career, and this was when Ebersol decided to change the casting concept from hiring unknown aspiring actors to established names.
Ebersol decided to take on Billy Crystal and Martin Short, both of whom had successful careers and brought their personal materials to the show. This initial season is considered by some to be a golden season in the SNL history, and it was one of the funniest that totally disassociated from the Michaels era.
At roughly the same time, and due to unsuccessful attempts at gaining a foothold into movies and other TV series, Michaels returned to SNL in 1985 and continued with Ebersol’s concept by casting Robert Downy Jr., and Joan Cusack, but this time the dream team didn’t provide the results, and the writers also struggled to provide quality material. Tartikoff was going to cancel the show in the Spring of 1986 but was persuaded by Bernie Brillstein, the producer, to retain a leaner show of 13 episodes instead of 22. Due to this, Michaels fired most of the cast and decided to go for unknown aspiring actors as they had done in the past. This new cast included Phil Hartman and Dana Carvey.
The show ran successfully with this team until 1994, and the Hartman-Carvey era is considered to be one of the best. However, in 1994 both stars left the show, and NBC executives started to interfere with the show because they wanted to raise ratings. This interference came in the form of Don Ohlmeyer, then the NBC West Coast President, who wanted to replace Chris Farley and Adam Sandler because he didn’t “get them,” he also criticized the costly nature of a live show. Ohlmeyer’s attack cause Michaels to reconsider his position and even though Mike Myers had also left the show in 1995, was not persuaded to leave of a lucrative CBS offer. Michaels was dedicated and loyal to NBC SNL, and he quickly recovered the shows prestige when he cast Jimmy Fallon, Will Ferrell, and Tina Fey. This did not stop Ohlmeyer from continuing his idiotic attack on Michaels, and this resurfaced in 1997 when he fired SNL writer Jim Downey and the SNL cast actor Norm Macdonald.
The 2018 43rd series cast includes:
- Beck Bennett
- Aidy Bryant
- Michael Che
- Pete Davidson
- Leslie Jones
- Colin Jost
- Kate McKinnon
- Kyle Mooney
- Cecily Strong
- Kenan Thompson (Longest tenured cast actor in SNL history)
- Mikey Day
- Heidi Gardner
- Alex Moffat
- Luke Null
- Chris Redd
- Melissa Villaseñor
Yes, as with many acting venues, the cast are highly superstitious, and SNL does not diverge from this phenomenon. The SNL curse is based on the fact that since the show started way back in 1975, nine cast members have died before the age of 60. Rather than make a comment about this, I will respect the casts beliefs and the dead’s honor and just list the names of these nine unfortunate actors:
- John Belushi 33 March 5, 1982 Drug overdose
- Gilda Radner 42 May 20, 1989, Ovarian cancer.
- Danitra Vance 40 August 21, 1994 Breast cancer,
- Michael O’Donoghue 54 November 8, 1994, Cerebral hemorrhage
- Chris Farley 33 December 18, 1997 Drug overdose
- Phil Hartman 49 May 28, 1998, Murdered by his wife, Brynn.
- Charles Rocket 56 October 7, 2005, Local police concluded suicide
- Tom Davis 59 July 19, 2012, Head and neck cancer.
- Jan Hooks 57 October 9, 2014 Throat cancer.
The original and founding cast that set of SNL in 1975 included Laraine Newman, John Belushi, Jane Curtin, Gilda Radner, Dan Aykroyd, Garrett Morris, and Chevy Chase. This team was dubbed the “The Not Ready for Prime-Time Players” by one of the original writers, Herb Sargent.
Radner was the second person hired after Michael’s, and Chevy Chase (who comes from a very rich family) only signed a one-year contract, he maintained this desire, so he had the freedom to leave the show whenever a season ended. Michaels new Newman, and brought him aboard due to this personal acquaintance, and Morris was originally brought in as a writer, but there was a heated relationship between him and another writer, so Michaels had him cast in an acting role instead. John Belushi, who actually hated TV, only came on because Radner and two writers, Anne Beatts and Michael O’Donoghue persuaded him to join. Michaels was actually against Belushi’s inclusion, considering him to be problematic, but the three together with Ebersol persuaded him otherwise.
Bill Murray joined after Chevy Chase left, he was actually one of Michaels first pick’s but due to budget constraints had to pass him by. Chase returned in 1978, but as faced by a resentful team (did I mention that actors are fickle and egotistical and actually hate anyone else’s success?). It was Murray and Belushi that are considered to be the main detractors in this issue, where Murray even came to blows with Chase. This led Chase to leave the show for good to continue pursuing a successful film career. Michale’s became slightly paranoid of his talented cast, and denied Ackroyd the right to go and star in the 1978 film Animal House (as D-Day) which is where we find Belushi’s rise to fame as “Bluto,” and Daniel Simpson took on the role of D-Day. Michaels also refused SNL musician Paul Shaffer to play in the Belushi-Ackroyd hit The Blues Brothers in 1980. After this Michaels lost his hold on the cast, where Radner moved onto a successful solo Broadway show, and Murray took on a starring role in Meatballs, a 1979 comedy hit. It was at this time that Michaels left SNL and Doumanian entered to cast the new season.
As mentioned above, Doumanian faced a very tough time, but she did manage to cast some great actors, and these included Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo, who survived the Ebersol restructuring and firing stage. It was due to Ebersol’s decision to keep Murphey, as well as push him forward rather than keep him in the background, which is where he was most of the time in the Doumanian era, gave Murphy the kickstart he needed and also gave Ebersol credit for a perfect season.
Due to Murphy’s success his movie career also took off, and he starred in many successful films including 48 Hrs. and Trading Place. In 1984, Murphy left SNL to pursue his acting career in movies full time.
Between 1983 to 1984 Ebersol recast most of the actors and replaced them with successful comedians including Martin Short and Billy Crystal, their income was also larger (at the time) for each season, Crystal was paid $25,000 per episode, and Short received $20,000 per episode. When Michaels returned to the show, he cast Robert Downey Jr., Jon Lovitz, and Dennis Miller, but these three did not bring in a successful rating. This led Michaels to make his famous 180 degrees turn back to unknown actors in 1986.
Michaels retained Lovitz, Miller, and Nora Dunn, and added to them, Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman, and Jan Hooks. This was the early 90’s dream team, and he added to this list Mike Myers, Adam Sandler, and Chris Farley. This engorged cast was partially created due to Michaels paranoia at people leaving for other career opportunities, as such, there was less prime time for each member, and this had a detrimental effect, leading to more actors leaving to find more personal prime time in the film. The first to go was Carvey and Hartman, followed by Myers and then Sandler and Farley were fired. This “wildfire” of change brought in a new cast, including the popular Will Ferrell, Tina Fey, and Jimmy Fallon.
Among the 140 cast that flowed through the halls of SNL are many well-known and famous comedians, and actors including Chris Rock, Rachel Dratch, Amy Poehler, Andy Samberg, David Spade, Will Forte, Tracy Morgan, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Kristen Wiig, Chris Parnell, Maya Rudolph and a plethora of successful talent.
In 2014, Sasheer Zamata was added to the cast mid-season due to the fan’s criticism of the show’s lack of casting an African-American woman.
What attracts many to SNL beyond the obvious fact that it is a coveted springboard for talent, is that the actors and supporting cast are allowed to be themselves, and show off their talents as they wish. This is basically a very “improv” environment, and it is obvious to see how successful this method is when looking at the long list of famous people that started out their careers or participated in SNL for extended periods of time.
The weekend update host is a coveted title, and rightly so, many of the actors that continued to successful careers performed in this role, and this includes Chase, Curtin, Murray, Miller, Macdonald, Fey, Fallon, and Poehler. In this year’s season, Seth Meyers is the solo host; he was until now partnered with Cecily Strong.
The Two Tiers
The system is split between established members of the cast as repertory players and the less experienced and fresher faces that are cast as featured players. A featured player will, if successful, be elevated to the role of repertory player.
Initially, the cast was provided with five to six-year contracts, however, in the 1999-2000 season, this was changed to a two-year contract. The new contract basically stated that NBC could offer actors in any sitcom, but an actor only has two strikes, which means that the actor cannot refuse the third NBC offer. This new contract basically reduced the contract to a potential six-year term where NBC can decide where to put the person. This drew a lot of criticism since it meant that SNL was only a 2-year contract, and the overall contract was not 12 years with 6 in SNL and 6 in another sitcom. The contract also includes a clause that allows actors the right to star in three SNL films, which is a company owned by NBC, Paramount Pictures, and Michaels. These contracts were the product of NBC’s experience with actors leaving SNL only to peruse lucrative careers for competing studios.
When SNL started in 1975, it paid its cast $750 per episode. This rose sharply to $2,000 in season two and doubled to 4,000 per episode in season 4. In the late 90’s the cast income varied between members between $5,000 to $5,500 per episode, and this increased to $6,000 in the second year. A cast member that worked for five years would earn $12,500 per episode. If an actor wrote a sketch that reached airtime, it would give their writer a $1,500 bonus. In 2001, Will Ferrell earned $350,000 per season, which made him the highest paid performer in SNL history.
There is one original writer that started out from the very beginning and continues to date that that is the legendary Lorne Michaels.
During 2018, the co-writers include Michael Che, Colin Jost, Bryan Tucker, and Kent Sublette. Colin Jost has been a writer for SNL 13 years now, and stared in 2005, while Che started in 2013.
Seth Meyers was a co-head writer between 2005 and 2008 and then became a single head writer until 2012. In 2014 he left SNL.
From 2011 the Weekend Update segment employs a dedicated team of writers headed by Alex Baze, who is also the producer.
It is not uncommon for writers to be performers too. For instance, Jim Downey was a head writer between 1985 and 1994, and Conan O’Brien is another SNL writer graduate that went on to become famous in his own accord.
Adam McKay and Will Ferrel joined forces to set up a successful online venture with the website “Funny or Die,” and Tina Fey started as an SNL writer only to become an SNL performer as well as moving on to perform in films, but her key success was creating and starring in the TV sitcom 30 Rock.
Don Pardo is perhaps the longest serving announcer on TV, I am not sure, but he indefinitely an icon and legend in the world of SNL. Pardo started as the SNL announcer from its inception in 1975 and continued to announce until his death at the age of 96 in 2014. During this long career, Pardo would travel to New Yorik City to work live, which was no mean feat since he lived in Arizona.
Pardo announced continuously, with only one break in the seventh season between 1981 to 1982 when Michaels left the show. During this time Mel Brandt and Bill Hanrahan maintained the role. Pardo did announce his resignation a few times, staring in 2004, but continued to work until his death in 2014. From 20098 till 2014, due to health issues, Pardo would record some of the shows from his home in Arizona, and in some instances was replaced by Darrell Hammond. Today, the announcer is Darrell Hammond.
Hosts and musical guests
SNL not just about political satire and news, but is actually all about the guests. Usually, each episode revolves around a single host that is chosen or their current popularity and ability to be entertaining.
The host of the show will work together with the anchor to provide the opening monologue and will perform in all sketches with the cast. The host also ends the show with a closing statement.
The first host for SNL in 1975 was George Carlin, and in the third episode was replaced by Candice Bergen. Hosts come from many professional backgrounds including actors Christopher Walken, Buck Henry, and John Goodman. There were musicians that included Dolly Parton, and even political activists such as Ralph Nader.
Hosts were not limited to one appearance, and over time some individuals came back to host the show more than five times, which gave them the coveted SNL five-timer club status. Among some of the famous five-timers are the original fifth timer, Tom Hanks. The actor Alec Baldwin is the record holder for the most times hosting and reached the esteemed number of seventeen times since 1990. Baldwin actually took this title from comedian Steve Martin who had reached 15 times since his first appearance in 1976.
Musical hosts also hold a coveted role in SNL and returning musical hosts include Dave Grohl who has appeared on 11 episodes. Musical hosts have to perform live, Michaels does not allow lip syncing on SNL, Musical hosts will also perform in sketches and in some occasions will also serve as a host. This rule has only one exception, and that is when the score involves an intense dance routine that would impact on the performer’s performance.
The lip-syncing rule came into effect immediately, but in 1975 ABBA performed an appearance with lip syncing, and the 2004 performance by singer Ashlee Simpson drew a lot of controversies. As such, solo performances are strictly regulated for live performance, and today there are more solo acts than group acts. In fact, since 2011 the show has opened and closed with a solo host and a solo musician.
The SNL Band
While discussing musicians, it’s time to mention the SNL band. This is the “Live Band” as it’s known in the cast and is the house band for SNL. The first musical director was Academy Award-winning composer Howard Shore who led the band for 5 years from 1975 to 1980. Shore also appeared in a number of sketches including the famous Howard Shore and His All-Nurse Band, and the Howard Shore and the Shore Patrol which featured the coast guard chorus in the background.
The SNL live band has featured many musicians in its lineup, and these include:
- Paul Shaffer (1975–1980)
- Lou Marini (1975–1983)
- David Sanborn (1975)
- Michael Brecker (early 1980s)
- Ray Chew (1980–1983)
- Alan Rubin (1975–1983)
- Georg Wadenius (1979–1985)
- Steve Ferrone (1985)
Tom Malone was the music director between 1981 to 1985, followed by a ten-year director, G. E. Smith who led the band between 1985 to 1995.
From 2017, the band has three leaders; these are Lenny Pickett from Tower of Power, Leon Pendarvis; keyboardist, and Eli Brueggemann who doesn’t appear on the live shows.
The basic lineup of the band has always included:
- 3 saxophones; alto, tenor, and baritone.
- 1 trombone
- 1 trumpet,
- 1 Piano
- 1 Hammond Organ
- 1 Guitar
- 1 Bass
- 1 Percussionist
The percussionist was not a permanent feature until 1995 when Valerie Naranjo’s joined the band.
The role of the band is to support instrumentals leading in and out of station breaks; as well as musical “spurts” with some skits and host punch lines.
SNL Affiliates that don’t have advertising during interludes hear the band play complete songs behind a Saturday Night Live bumper graphic.
At the end of every show, the band plays Shore’s “Closing Theme (Waltz in A)”
SNL Around the World
Due to the global success of SNL, where many individuals from all around the world tune into watching SNL, the format of the show became a must-have for many countries that sought out, and where the political climate allowed for such a series.
The German SNL was called RTL Samstag Nacht. It only aired for five years between 1993 and 1998 on RTL Television. The episodes were hosted by German celebrities and some American celebrities that actually never appeared on SNL in the USA, such as Mel Brooks and Michael Winslow. The American hosts had a limited time screen due to the language barrier (not the wall).
In Israel Eretz Nehederet (Wonderful Country) has been on the air since 2003. This is a political satire show more than a musical entertainment one, and it is designed to poke fun at the government including the MK’s and ministers. There are numerous musical scores in the show to maintain the comedy/entertainment ratio.
South Korea has an SNL version running since 2013, and it is now on its fourth season, the show has 20 episodes per season.
SNL the US version is aired in a number of other countries in the Middle East and Asia.