Since 1980 in the United States, there has been an unending argument that will likely never have a definitive solution. It is centered around when the late-night comedy show Saturday Night Live was actually good. For Boomers, they reminisce about the 70s original cast, Gen Xers might cite the mid-1990s with Sandler & Farley, while Millennials point to Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader. Most people agree the early to mid-1980s is a garbage fire (more on that in a later post). I wanted to determine when SNL was “good,” so I needed to watch samples from all 46 seasons to determine where the funny was.
To figure out which episodes qualified, I went with a democratic source: IMDb ratings. I made a list of the highest-rated episodes for each season and went about watching them on Hulu. This has been a torturous experience, to say the least, because I can unequivocally say that at minimum half of the time SNL has been on the air, it has been pretty terrible. Which parts are so awful will be what we explore in this series, and hopefully, we can all walk away agreeing that Kids in the Hall and Mr. Show have always been the superior shows.
Saturday Night Live was created after a decade of NBC airing the best of the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in the late-night weekend time slot. Johnny Carson had the reruns pulled from weekends to be aired during the week and allow him more time off from a pretty grueling work schedule. NBC executive and late-night head Dick Ebersol was approached to craft a program to fill that late-night Saturday slot with the intent to attract an 18-34-year-old audience. Ebersol figured comedy and music are perennially popular, so the show should be centered around a more subversive, modern perspective.
Lorne Michaels was a Canadian comedy writer & producer who had cut his teeth at shows like Laugh-In and The Phyllis Diller Show. He was brought in and worked with Ebersol to create NBC’s Saturday Night. The title Saturday Night Live was already being used on an ABC sports show hosted by Howard Cosell. NBC would eventually purchase the rights to the title in 1976 when ABC canceled their program. Poaching from places like Second City Chicago and The National Lampoon, Lorne and Ebersol put together a stellar cast consisting of Chevy Chase, Dan Akroyd, John Belushi, Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris, Laraine Newman, and Gilda Radner. Michael O’Donoghue of the Lampoon was the head writer and set the tone for the show along with Michaels. Chase would leave after the first season to be replaced by Bill Murray, and with that change, the cast, as most people know it, would be in place until 1980. And this is where we begin our survey to determine where the funny is.
From seasons 1-5, I watched the following episodes:
Season 1 – Richard Pryor
Season 2 – Steve Martin
Season 3 – Steve Martin
Season 4 – Carrie Fisher
Season 5 – Steve Martin
As you can see, the Steve Martin episodes are some of the most popular, and rightfully so. His energy is a strong match for what the show is already doing; however, through this series, we will talk about Martin’s persona and how it changes depending on what era of SNL we are in.
My first thought about the 1970s episodes is that they feel highly scattered and disorganized. Today’s SNL is a slick, well-oiled machine. I’m not saying contemporary SNL is funny, but the structures and production design give the feel of consistency. Modern SNL is like a fast-casual dining experience. It’s okay, you finish feeling satisfied, but you’re not going to rave to friends that they need to go try TGIFridays anytime soon. 1970s SNL is a very chaotic experience, and I personally did not enjoy a lot of it.
I watched these episodes on Peacock, and one of the things I noted by the time I reached the 1980s and beyond is that those episodes are criminally short. In some cases, they can be as short as 20 minutes! This is because when DVD box sets of the show were being produced, NBC paid to include the musical guests for the 1970s sets. But that was a ton of hassle and cost a lot of money. So, when you watch the streaming versions of episodes outside the 1970s and the most recent ones, you will find both musical guests and specific sketches missing. For instance, the Don’t Fear the Reaper/Christopher Walken skit is NOT on the Peacock version because NBC could not secure the rights to that song. So I won’t argue that we are being handed the best possible samples from each season, but we have to use what they have given us.
I will say I was excited going into the first episode because it was Richard Pryor, and he’s hilarious. The episode touches on a lot of humor around being Black in America and has remained pretty iconic in the show’s catalog for this reason. The episode’s cold open has Garrett Morris doing an opening pratfall, something typically reserved for Chevy Chase, and then the opening monologue is Pryor basically doing some bits from his stand-up set.
This is followed by the first appearance of John Belushi’s Samurai character in the Samurai Hotel sketch. I get why this was a thing in the 1970s; kung fu films were growing in popularity like never before as they were imported into the United States. It also shows an appreciation of the work of Akira Kurosawa, with Belushi playing it very much like the Samurais of that director’s films. However, Belushi was a white man doing a gross caricature of a Japanese person, and it just wasn’t right then and isn’t now. I will note this skit didn’t get uproarious laughter, but the character would be brought back throughout Belushi’s stint on the show.
There’s a talk show skit followed by multiple commercial parodies. The most substantial routines are about race, like the job interview between Pryor & Chase or the police line-up bit. The most striking thing I noted in the first season was how short a lot of the sketches were. They were like comic strip gags in some instances. The show wraps up bizarrely with more Pryor stand-up and a story told by his then-wife Shelly. Like I said, very chaotic energy shows the program was trying to figure out precisely what it was.
The Season 2 Steve Martin episode feels more like what we expect from SNL during this period. Martin does some stand-up material, and we move into a Coneheads sketch. That’s followed by a strange piece with Garrett Morris singing an opera that references the New Orleans episode the show had recently done. There’s a Celebrity Weightlifting sketch with Radner as Jackie Onassis, a funny concept on paper. By season 2, Chevy Chase is gone, so Jane Curtin is hosting Weekend Update, which in this period felt like it had a lot of reporters on the scene bits.
Lily Tomlin shows up for a musical bit and a short film, all of which serve to promote her newly opened one-woman show on Broadway. There’s a Hollywood Bingo bit that spoofs Hollywood Squares that is short and to the point and pretty funny. I think the highlight of the episode for me is Pull the Plug, where Bill Murray & Curtin play the parents of a comatose child (Belushi). When the doctor (Martin) explains the bill for keeping their child alive, Murray starts not so casually pushing to pull the plug. I can’t say I busted a gut laughing, but that one made me chuckle.
So here’s a weird one. Steve Martin hosted Saturday Night Live three times in Season 3! Based on the modern format of the show, that is absolutely crazy! The highest-rated episode is the April 22, 1978 episode, which is what we watched. The biggest highlights of this episode are Martin performing King Tut and Akroyd & Belushi as the Blue Brothers’ musical guests. I really loved The Blues Brothers film, which I watched for the first time last year, but I have never understood the characters as comedic in these SNL appearances. They seem to be singing blues songs and dancing; I guess they dance kind of goofy? It must be a boomer thing.
In Season 4, we get a break from Martin with Carrie Fisher as this episode’s guest host. I was looking forward to watching this one because I think Fisher was incredibly funny and never really got enough credit for that. I think she does fine here, but I don’t think the show played to her strengths well enough. The post-monologue sketch is a parody of the 1960s teen beach movies. This time the plot is about Princess Leia being dropped onto Earth in one of these scenarios. If you are not an older boomer, some of the more obscure details might go over your head, but the sketch touches on the absurdity of these films. Unfortunately, not much stands out here. There’s an incredibly obnoxious sketch about a family that all yell when they talk. It’s one of those bits where the premise wears out its welcome almost as soon as it starts. I did enjoy the Tom Snyder (Akyroyd) late-night talk show skit because the impression is really good. That also has Fisher playing fellow female actress Linda Blair who around this time had been arrested for drug possession and intent to sell.
Hilariously in Season 5, Steve Martin hosted two episodes that felt like they were trying to make him an unofficial cast member. There really wasn’t much that stood out to me, but this does provide an opportunity to bring up Father Guido Sarducci. I have NEVER understood the appeal of this character. Father Guido is the creation of comedian Don Novello and served as a subversion of the Catholic Church. I am totally on board with that. I just don’t find the character funny at all. And that would be fine, except Father Guido Sarducci kept popping up for DECADES in American media. Beyond SNL, he would appear on Fridays, Late Night with David Letterman, The Tonight Show, Married…with Children, Blossom, The Gary Shandling Show, Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City mini-series, and the cult sitcom Square Pegs. Then in the 1990s, they brought him back on Weekend Update. Maybe I have to be Catholic or Italian to get the joke, but he has always been entirely baffling to me.
On reflection, I would argue that despite feelings of wistful nostalgia, the original cast and these first five seasons are not some holy relics of comedy. I found them primarily unfunny and disorganized. I’m not letting the rest of SNL’s still-ongoing run off the hook, though. Things will undoubtedly get worse before they get better. I think this experiment proves that comedy is so subjective and that tastes change through the generations so that what is funny in one year will not work a decade or more later. Pray for me as I keep slogging through, especially with our next segment: The 1980s Part 1…shudder