Lorne Michaels Introduces Saturday Night Live and Its Brilliant First Cast for the Very First Time (1975)

Sat­ur­day Night Live, now in its 39th sea­son, has become more notable late­ly for its takes on such unin­ten­tion­al­ly (and too often painful­ly) fun­ny polit­i­cal fig­ures as Sarah Palin and Michele Bach­mann, rather than for its actu­al sketch­es. The show’s had some rough years, and though I can’t count myself among its cur­rent fans, for per­haps an eight-year peri­od, from the late 80s to the mid 90s, I tried to catch every episode. Occa­sion­al­ly, I would have to endure what every fan of the long-run­ning show must bear: a long nos­tal­gic rant from my par­ents’ gen­er­a­tion about how ter­ri­ble the show had become and how it would nev­er be as fun­ny as it was in their day. But they may have just been right, since they watched it live in its infan­cy in the mid-sev­en­ties, when the show fea­tured such comedic giants as Dan Aykroyd, Steve Mar­tin, John Belushi, Bill Mur­ray, and Gil­da Rad­ner. Although the top­i­cal humor of those ear­ly episodes is bad­ly dat­ed, the raw ener­gy radi­at­ing from peo­ple who would go on to cre­ate such endur­ing clas­sics as Ani­mal House, The Blues Broth­ers, The Jerk, and Cad­dyshack sets the bar very high for every­one who fol­lowed.

Debut­ing on Octo­ber 11, 1975, the brain­child of Lorne Michaels and Dick Eber­sol was orig­i­nal­ly just called the show Sat­ur­day Night to dif­fer­en­ti­ate it from an ABC show called Sat­ur­day Night Live with Howard Cosell. But from its incep­tion, the hall­mark ele­ments were in place: the open­ing sketch end­ing in “Live from New York, it’s Sat­ur­day Night!” (orig­i­nal­ly uttered each time by Chevy Chase); the live stu­dio audi­ence; the celebri­ty guest host (pio­neered by George Car­lin in the first episode); and the live musi­cal guests (the first were Bil­ly Pre­ston and Janis Ian). The orig­i­nal cast con­sist­ed of Chevy Chase, Dan Aykroyd, Jane Curtin, Gar­rett Mor­ris, Gil­da Rad­ner, John Belushi, and Laraine New­man. In the video at the top you can see a very young Lorne Michaels intro­duce the eight orig­i­nal cast mem­bers before the first show aired in an inter­view on The Tomor­row Show with Tom Sny­der. Asked by Sny­der about the for­mat of the show, Michaels jok­ing­ly replies, “we’ve got eight, and we’re hop­ing for two to real­ly work. Not all of these peo­ple will become stars.” The cast laughs ner­vous­ly. There’s no way any of them could have known how much the show would func­tion as a star-mak­ing machine, but that is exact­ly what it became, even in its first sea­son.

We are lucky to have screen tests from two of the first cast’s biggest stars-to-be, John Belushi (above) and Dan Aykroyd (below). In his audi­tion, Belushi wag­gles his famous eye­brows, does a cou­ple of bril­liant Bran­do impres­sions, and gen­er­al­ly hams it up. Aykroyd plays it straight, engag­ing in the smart satire of cur­rent events and pop cul­ture that he did so well and pulling off a very cred­i­ble Louisiana accent.

While some of the most famous come­di­ans of sea­son one, includ­ing Belushi and Aykroyd, are well known even to the raw youth of today, Lorne Michael’s first hire, the fab­u­lous Gil­da Rad­ner, has sad­ly fad­ed from pop cul­ture mem­o­ry, and there are pre­cious few clips of her SNL work online. But Rad­ner was a sin­gu­lar artist whose stand-up rou­tines and Broad­way shows are absolute­ly phe­nom­e­nal, and still hold up today. You can see her below from her 1979 show “Gil­da Live” doing a char­ac­ter called Can­dy Slice, her take on Pat­ti Smith (who was nev­er so wast­ed, I think). Notice a young Paul Scha­ef­fer on the drums and SNL’s G.E. Smith, Radner’s first hus­band, on gui­tar. Radner’s trag­ic death from ovar­i­an can­cer in 1989 cast her late life in somber tones, but see­ing her below, before her ill­ness, offers but a glimpse of the tremen­dous phys­i­cal ener­gy and com­mit­ment she brought to her every mem­o­rable char­ac­ter on the show.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Stunt That Got Elvis Costel­lo Banned From Sat­ur­day Night Live

William S. Bur­roughs on Sat­ur­day Night Live, 1981

Tom Davis, Orig­i­nal Sat­ur­day Night Live Writer, “De-ani­mates” at 59

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (3)
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  • I loved the show back then, but even then it was 30 min­utes too long. (I remem­ber one episode late in the show in which Gar­rett Mor­ris sang some­thing from Mozart. No laughs, just a musi­cal per­for­mance).

  • Buckywunder says:

    You could almost see the light bulb going on over Dan Aykroy­d’s head while Tom Sny­der was talk­ing. Was this the birth of his imper­son­ation? :^)

  • Michael says:

    All of Gilda’s SNL clips are avail­able on Hulu.

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