Behind the gilded Art Deco facade of the RCA Building in NBC's studio 8H is a particularly venerable soudstage. There, Arturo Toscanini directed the NBC Symphony Orchestra, and the Kraft Television Theater contributed to the Golden Age of TV. But on the night of Oct. 11, 1975, a performance of quite a different sort took place in 8H. Beamed live to an audience of nearly 5 million, a bearded English teacher (Michael O'Donoghue) looked at his chubby Eastern European student (John Belushi) and intoned the lesson, "I would like...to feed your fingertips...to the wolverines."
That wasn't exactly the fodder that TV viewers expected to chew at the time. Yet that bizarre beginning marked the birth of the most influential comedy institution of a generation. From the moment Chevy Chase first uttered the opening lines, "Live from New York! It's Saturday Night!" American television changed forever. There was instant fusion between a nation ready to laugh at itself and a white-hot ensemble--Belushi, Chase, Newman, Gilda Radner, Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris and Dan Aykroyd--that burned with lunatic glee. No other show has endured so many changes of cast and fortune, or made such a profound impact on the way American laughs. On Sunday, Sept. 24, NBC will herald the start of Saturday Night Live's 15th season with a live anniversary special, featuring some of the show's most memorable sketches and stars. On the following pages, those stars recall the behind-the-scenes secrets and off-the-wall humor that made up life inside SNL. "I have a couple of rules that I try to live by," explains producer Lorne Michaels. "One is not to do a show that you wouldn't watch. The other is not to work with people you wouldn't like to have dinner with..." Welcome to the SNL crazy salad.
In 1975 NBC's 11:30 P.M. Saturday night time slot was a ratings wasteland, filled with old movies or Carson reruns. So there seemed little to lose when Dick Ebersol, NBC's long-haired director of weekend late-night programming, teamed up with Lorne Michaels, a young Canadian comedy writer and producer, and pitched their idea for a live, 90-minute comedy variety series.
When NBC officially announced the show on Sept. 22, 1975, the only things SNL had definitely lined up were six short films by Albert Brooks and running guest appearances by Jim Henson's Muppets.
By the time SNL won four Emmys for its first season, its impact was beyond dispute. It had become a fount of the wildest, most irreverent humor TV had ever seen. Representative example--Gerald Ford's campaign slogan on Weekend Update: "If he's so dumb, how come he's President?"
O'Donoghue: Any good humor is sophomoric. Sophomoric is the liberal word for funny.
Newman: When we did a commercial parody on deoderant for your house, I had to demonstrate with this four-foot-long deoderant stick and roll it on the drapes. The only thing that gave me stage fright was, "This is so heavy. Will I ever really be able to make it look like I'm effortlessly applying roll-on?"
O'Donoghue: Our least favorite thing was writing for the Muppets. We used to pay each other money out of our own salaries to write for them--anything rather than write for those dopey Muppets. Finally I helped get rid of them. I wrote a piece called "The Muppets Are Away."
Writer Al Franken: There was a certain biting honesty in critiquing other writers that you don't really have today. O'Donoghue would say things like, "How much are you making again? $160 a week? I spent that much last week getting my cat's paws rotated."
At times, the on-camera outrageousness was surpassed by offstage chaos.
Curtin: I loved doing the Coneheads, but I hated the cones. Sometimes it took an hour to put on and you had maybe 45 seconds to take it off, so the only way was to rip it. It was glued to your head.
Stage Manager Joe Dicso: Going into the first show there were times I thought, "We're not going to make this." Sometimes the performers didn't make it to the set until after we'd started. I'd tell the control room, "Laraine's not here," and the director would say, "We'll go to a close-up of Belushi. Let us know when she's there." And that's what we did. There've been heel marks on the floor from when I grabbed people on the wrong way to their marks.
Curtin: Bill Murray would be off doing something, and I'd be in place to start Update. He'd have two seconds to get there. And I never, ever doubted that he would.
Dicso: They were doing Samurai stockbroker. John Belushi whipped out his sword and turned around to face a chart of stock performance. He was going to "cut his losses," but when he brought the sword back, Buck Henry was standing right behind him and caught the tip of it right on his forehead. Cut him pretty good. That was live. So they bandaged him up. And it was Chevy, I think, who went around and put Band-Aids on everybody's forehead for the rest of the show.
Then there was the time we were doing snake worshippers and Danny was waving around this handful of snakes. One of them turned around and bit him on the thumb. He did not drop the snake. A true professional.
The show's writers had no interest in safe material, a stance that often brought fire from the censors, NBC's standards department. One they got away with: "I have paid for worse than you," said by Steve Martin, one of the Czech brothers, to a woman at a disco.
O'Donoghue: I had some pretty good fights with the censors, but, if it was funny, they'd give in. I had a thing called Pussy Whip, the first dessert topping for cats. They let it go.
Chase: There was a man named Professor Backwards who was known for talking backwards. He was murdered. Michael wrote that his last words were "Pleh, pleh." I did him on Weekend Update, and I got a lot of ooh's. I didn't understand until I got letters explaining that he was a real person with a family.
Guest host Candice Bergen: Once, we had one of the Gray Panthers on, a little gray-haired old lady who said s---on the air. For Richard Pryor they were alert. But for a Gray Panther they figured they were safe.
Censor Bill Clotworthy: Incest, cancer--we've touched on all of them. There is nobody we haven't taken on, every religious group. We're an Equal Opportunity Offender.
In the first year Michaels had gone begging for guest hosts. A season later, they were begging him for the honor.
In the pressure cooker of the show's grueling day-for-night production schedule, there was romance and also internecine feuding.
Michaels: John had been with Judy [Jacklin] from the beginning, and Danny had been living with Rosie [Shuster, Lorne's ex-wife]. Billy had gone out with Gilda, but then married Mickey [Kelly]. When Billy and Gilda split up, it didn't affect things; they didn't refuse to be in sketches with each other. When they were doing Todd and Lisa, you could tell there was real affection between them. It would be hard to be that intimate onstage with someone if you didn't trust and care about them. He could give her noogies.
Michaels: John was fired a couple of times for behaving badly--hurting someone's feelings or donig something to one of the girls. Then other people would come in and say, "You can't fire John!"
Curtin: John once refused to come out of his dressing room to do a piece because it was written by a woman.
Michaels: If John was locking himself in his dressing room, it didn't mean he didn't want to do the sketch. It just meant he wanted everyone to know he didn't want to do the sketch.
Curtin: Gilda and Laraine and I shared a dressing room for three years. It was tiny, but there were times when that was the only place to go to get any sort of peace. Gilda was doing a lot of interviews, and the only place she could go was in our dressing room. Laraine and I would sit there in that very, very small room and act nonchalant.
Michaels: Sisterhood is powerful, but to pretend that women aren't competitive is like saying men aren't competitive. Laraine would hear more applause for Gilda's name in the montage and she's lose self-confidence. It was like being in a family, with all the sibling rivalry.
Chase: I came head to head with Billy when I first went back to host. I came in as a big, self-important first star. I think Billy felt, "I'd like to take him down a notch." He came at me like a tiger.
Newman: John was very jealous of Chevy. And I was terribly jealous of Gilda. Terribly. I knew she'd earned it. The audience loved her. But it hurt so much.
Michaels: I didn't fire anyone the first five years. But my office was the court of the Borgias. If John came into my office and complained that Danny was driving him crazy, I knew that he loved Danny, but at this particular time, Danny was driving him crazy. A lot of people saw only part of the picture. I knew the why of things.
Dicso: Lorne could talk the devil out of his pitchfork.
As time went on, the creative tension that once fueled SNL nearly blew it apart. By 1980, the end of the fifth season, the original cast had disbanded.
Curtin: I was tired not of the show, but of the hype. It got to be too much, all the people wandering around backstage. There were all these stars everywhere. It became impossible to get from point A to point B because you'd bump into some celebrity who took your breath away, and they'd be standing where you were supposed to be.
Bergen: After my third hosting spot I didn't do anymore shows. There were huge egos to deal with, and it was loaded in terms of who had become famous and who hadn't. The fun wasn't there. And there were drugs. There was just a darkness that had not been there before.
Curtin: It wasn't just the performers. I would find people going through my purse looking for money. It was crazy. I told them to stay out of my things. What was hard to deal with was the demise of very talented people. You would see the talent disappear and psychosis take over. It was watching people's spirits die.
O'Donoghue: I got tired of dealing with this family that I was randomely assigned to and suddenly had to spend 24 hours a day, six days a week with. We all got so convoluted. Everyone had slept with everyone else. Everyone had had a fight with someone else. It was such a Gordian knot. After a while you just wanted to cut it and leave.
Newman: It was a marriage, a summer camp and a family all rolled into one. The first year was like a slumber party. The second year was like a slumber party you got paid for. The third year we started to get on each other's nerves. The fourth year we were just trying to keep it together. The fifth year we made the most of it because we knew it was the end. The last time we were all together was at my birthday party in March 1987. I invited 40 people and got my best R&B; 45s together. Billy became the deejay for the evening. We cleared out the living room and everybody danced, Michael Palin and Steve Martin, Billy and Danny and Gilda and Lorne, [photographer] Edie Baskin and [writers] Tom Schiller and Anne Beatts. That was the last time I saw Gilda. The best thing was that everybody was together, and everybody danced.
Nothing symbolized the end of the original SNL more than the drug-overdose death of John Belushi in March 1982.
Brillstein: One night in Chicago, John went out with me incognito. He walked into a bar, and no one knew who he was. After five minutes, he couldn't stand it--I mean, Chicago was his hometown. So he whipped off the hat and glasses and yelled, "Drinks for everyone!" Then he turned to me and said, "Bernie, do you have $100?"
Michaels: The host would get a limousine, but John took to dropping them off and keeping them all night. Sometimes he would just ride around with his face out the window so that people would recognize him. It was tremendously important to him--too important ultimately. He got swallowed by fame, eaten by it.
Curtin: It's very difficult to deal with an ego that is out of control. I blame that on a lot of things, that there was no discipline on the show. There should have been a point when someone said, "All right!"
Franken: Once Danny, John and Tom Davis and I went up to Danny's house in Canada to build a porch. We were all working except John. It was like this character he played--the Jewish guy who always got out of work. "I'm gonna go over here. I really don't want to..." Sort of whining. He could charm his way out of anything. I was pounding nails, Tom was clearing a field, Danny was working. And John was lying in a hammock.
Newman: Once, we'd had some argument about music, and after the show John dropped by with a really rare 45 and gave it to me. Even when he wasn't well, he wasn't a bad person. He was irresponsible, but he wasn't evil or mean.
O'Donoghue: Certain people die and they're semireplaceable. But John was a big gypsy king. There was only one him.
Ebersol: In December 1981, Bill Murray came to host the last show before Christmas. The night before the show, Susan [Saint James, Ebersol's wife] was in my office, which had a huge window overlooking the studio. It was a dinner break, and the studio was totally empty. John Belushi was in the room with us. It turned out it was 2 1/2 months before he was to die. He looked out the window and saw Billy Murray down on the set by himself, just walking through some of his moves. John waved and he came up. A real popular song in America at that point was "Physical" by Olivia Newton-John. The two of them spontaneously started performing it in this little office that was no bigger than 11 by 12 feet. Of the last eight years of Saturday Night Live, I think the best show I ever saw was in that office. They were flopping all over the floor and climbing the desk and singing the song at the top of their lungs. I kept wishing I could just let it be the show. Now I'm glad it's just a private memory.
During the 1980-81 season, SNL hit its low point. A new cast and new producer, Jean Doumanian, got off to a rocky start.
Charles Rocket, cast of 1980-81: There's nothing worse than being in the middle of a sketch while you're in 40 million living rooms and having it bomb. The relationship between Jean and the writers was really bad. Everybody was at each other's throat. It was hard enough just going on the air every week, let alone getting in the middle of that stuff.
Gilbert Gottfried, 1980-81: I thought of it as punishment. I was probably Hitler in a previous life, and this was a way of getting back at me. What was amazing was the way critics turned on the show.
Denny Dillon, 1980-81: I prayed a lot. I meditated a lot. I tried to keep a sense of humor.
Rocket: Drugs at that point were a waning scene. If we had all been there for five years, who knows? Maybe we would have all become fabulously accepted heroin addicts.
Dillon: One of the reviewers who didn't like us said that maybe we should have used drugs.
One of that season's few memorable moments came when Rocket inadvertantly said f--- on the air.
Clotworthy: When he came out with it, I remember that everyone in the control room--and there were about 15 of them--all turned and looked at me. Nobody said, "Oh, my God!" Nobody said a thing. I just put my head down on the table.
Rocket: I'm not proud of the fact that it slipped through, but that's all it was--a slip. It just happened, but Charlie Rocket saying the F-word still fascinates people.
After 12 shows, Doumanian was replaced by Dick Ebersol--with Lorne Michaels's blessing.
Terry Sweeney, then a writer, later a performer: It was like a military coup. Jean came in, and she was gone by morning. They marched her out of her office and you couldn't see her anymore. Then Dick Ebersol arrived. It was like being in El Salvador. One minute it was El Presidente! The next was "She's gone! Don't mention her name!"
Ebersol: Michael O'Donoghue has been telling people around New York that the show should be put out of its misery. Ten days later he went to work with me. He thought it would be a fun ride on a death ship.
O'Donoghue: I walked into those offices and people were so dispirited. It looked like the district office of the Union Carbide Corporation. Everything was neat and orderly, and there were little pastoral scenes hung up on the wall that had been ordered by NBC. I scrawled a maxim from Bill Burroughs--NOTHING IS TRUE. EVERYTHING IS PERMITTED--in five-foot letters in flourescent blue spray paint in the hall. It's a good motto for the show. They thought I was totally berserk, but I was just trying to give a little esprit de corps.
Slowly, very slowly, the show went into turnaround. Aiding and abetting the rescue were some brilliant cast members, including Eddie Murphy, Joe Piscopo, Billy Crystal and Martin Short.
Joe Piscopo: Of all people, Robert Blake put it in perspective when he was host. He saw me and Eddie working on sketches and he said, "I get it. You've got your backs against the wall. You put your helmets on, stay in the trenches and save your own ass."
Mary Gross: People say to me, "Gee, that must have been so much fun." And I stare at them for a few moments and say, "You know, fun isn't the first word that occurs to me."
Billy Crystal: We were in our late 30s, our sensibilities were a little less angry that the first group. We were a kinder, gentler Saturday Night.
Ebersol: The 1984-85 season was the funniest since year three of the original show. To look at Crystal and Short and [Christopher] Guest work together was just like a thing of gold.
Crystal: For me, every day was like, "Ooh, what can I try this week?" I was driving in Florida on a week off week Janice and the kids, and I turned to her and said, "Why don't I do a transvestite piano-bar singer?" She said, "Okay, honey." It was a constant challenge to come up with something new. But we had everybody talking again, whether it was, "You look mahvelous!" or "I hate when that happens!" or "I must say." I woke up one morning to watch one of the first shuttle missions. Houston's saying, "How does Earth look from there?" The astronaut says, "You look mahvelous!"
Since the 1985-86 season, when Lorne Michaels resumed producing, SNL has made a pretty fair return to late-night glory. The players may be younger than ever, but the talent is solid. And if the humor isn't quite as lunatic as it was in the beginning, hey, neither are the times.
Sadly, not all of the original SNL players are around to witness the show's torch being passed to a new generation. This past spring, Gilda Radner died of cancer at the age of 42.
To size up SNL's contribution to pop culture, the PEOPLE staff conducted an unofficial and incorrigibly biased house poll. If you don't agree with our choices, well, excuuuse us.Best Characters 1)Wild and Crazy Guys (Martin, Aykroyd)
Poor Mr. Bill. Since 1976, when he was first mutilated on SNL by the sadistic Sluggo, the Play-Doh loser has been:
Shot from a cannon
Flattened by a rolling pin
Dropped from the Empire State Building
Seared by a blowtorch
Squashed by a bowling ball
Swallowed by a whale
Fried in the electric chair
Shrunk in a steam room
Devoured by a shark
Harpooned by Jacques Cousteau
Chewed by a bicycle gear and chain, and...
Lobotomized by a pair of scissors
Miskel Spillman, 92, stands alone in the annals of SNL history. Beating out 150,000 other entrants in the 1977 Anyone Can Host essay contest, the New Orleans grandmother is the only nonceleb to ever host SNL. "I'm 80 years old, she wrote. "I need one more cheap thrill, since my doctor told me I only have another 25 years left." Twelve years after her cheap thrill (in which, among other things, she posed as Belushi's girlfriend) Spillman still tunes into the show. "I love the current cast, especially that fella in the dress," she says referring to Carvey's Church Lady. I take naps in the afternoon so that I can stay up. I'd love to host again," she adds. "I have 13 more years left, you know."
People, September 25, 1989
By Susan Schindehette and Jeannie Park, Victoria Balfour, Alan Carter, Leslie Strauss and Mark Zwonitzer, Michael Alexander, Tom Cunneff and Vicki Sheff
Transcribed by L. Christie