How do you kick off the longest running live sketch comedy show in television history? If you’re in the cast and crew for the first episode of Saturday Night Live, you have no idea you’re doing anything of the kind. Still the pressure’s on, and the newly hired “Not Ready for Primetime Players” had a lot of competition on their own show that night. When Saturday Night, the original title for SNL, made its debut on October 11, 1975, doing live comedy on television was an extremely risky proposition.
So, what do you do if you’re producers Dick Ebersol and Lorne Michaels? Put your riskiest foot forward — John Belushi, the “first rock & roll star of comedy” writes Rolling Stone, and “the ‘live’ in Saturday Night Live.” The man who would be comedy’s king, for a time, before he left the stage too soon. His first sketch, and the first on-air for SNL, reveals “a tendency toward the timelessly peculiar,” Time magazine writes, that made the show an instant cult hit.
Rather than skewering topical issues or impersonating celebrities, the first sketch, “The Wolverines” goes after the ripe targets of an immigrant (Belushi) learning English and his teacher, played by head writer Michael O’Donoghue, who insists on making Belushi repeat the titular word in nonsensical phrases like “I would like to feed your fingertips to the wolverines.”
Belushi’s accent has shades of Andy Kaufman’s “foreign man” from Caspiar, and he gets a brief moment to display his physical comedy skills when he keels over in imitation of his teacher having a heart attack. “The Wolverines” is short, nonsensical, and weirdly sweet. “No one would know what kind of show this was from seeing that,” Michaels remembered. We can still look back at that wildly uneven first season and wonder what kind of show SNL would be now if it had held on to the anarchic spirit of the early years. But that’s a lot to ask of a 45-year-old live comedy show.
The night’s guest was George Carlin, who did not appear in any sketches, but who did get three separate monologues. The show also featured two musical guests, Billy Preston and Janis Ian. Andy Kaufman made an appearance doing his famous Mighty Mouse bit, and the Muppets were there (not the fun Muppets, but a “dark and grumpy version” Jim Henson disowned after the first season.)
The first episode was also the first to feature the iconic intro, “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!” — delivered by Chevy Chase. Though it has become a celebratory announcement, at the time “it’s Saturday Night!” was a dark reminder of the live comedy variety show, Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell, then failing through its first and only season before its 18-episode run came to an end the following year.
See more from that weird first night above, including Carlin’s Football and Baseball monologue and the forgotten SNL Muppets, just above.