Saturday Night Live’s Very First Sketch: Watch John Belushi Launch SNL in October, 1975

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.

via Ulti­mate Clas­sic Rock

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Cre­at­ing Sat­ur­day Night Live: Behind-the Scenes Videos Reveal How the Icon­ic Com­e­dy Show Gets Made

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

Clas­sic Punk Rock Sketch­es from Sat­ur­day Night Live, Cour­tesy of Fred Armisen

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

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