Saturday Night Live
Saturday Night Live (SNL) is a weekly
late-night 90-minute comedy-variety show based in New York City which has
been broadcast by NBC nearly every
Saturday night since its debut on October 11, 1975. It is one of the
longest-running network entertainment programs in American television
history. Each week, the show's cast is joined by a guest host and a
Originally, the show was called NBC's Saturday Night because Howard
Cosell was hosting a show on ABC
Night Live With Howard Cosell. After Cosell's show was cancelled
in 1976, NBC retitled its show. The first show with the new title was
broadcast on March 26, 1977.
The show — broadcast from Studio 8H at the GE Building in New York's
Rockefeller Center — has been the launching place for some major
American comedy stars of the last thirty years. It was created by Lorne
Michaels who, excluding a hiatus from Season 6 through Season 10, has
produced and written for the show and remains its executive producer (Jean
Doumanian producing most of Season 6, and Dick Ebersol 7–10).
Format of the show
The show usually follows a standard format. It opens with a cold
opening sketch often parodying politics, pop culture, or other current
events; this sketch always ends with someone saying "Live from New
York, it's Saturday Night!" The show then segues into the opening
credits, which usually open with a shot of the Statue of Liberty and a
montage of the cast members cut with various locations around the city.
The opening credits are voiced-over by long-time NBC announcer Don Pardo.
The show's theme music has been re-arranged many times, but always follows
the same basic chord patterns.
Next is the opening monologue performed by the guest host(s), often
followed by a TV commercial parody. The show continues with more comedy
skits (sketches might feature recurring characters, running gags,
celebrity impersonations, movie and TV spoofs, and skits parodying the
news issues of the day), followed by a performance by the guest musical
act. More recent shows have the second act divided by an animated short by
Robert Smigel. The news parody segment Weekend Update marks the show's
midway point. The second half of the program continues with more sketches,
and in most cases a second performance by the musical guest. Some shows
also feature filmed segments, often featuring cast members, or it may
feature independent film shorts. In a few rare cases, a third musical
performance by the week's musical guest is done at the end of the show,
but in most instances this is just a goodbye segment by the host and
musical guest. Often times, the show "fades to black", or just
blatantly cuts away while the credits roll, most likely a time-saving
measure. Also, in some reruns, shows have been edited to contain a mixture
of skits, and do not follow this sequence.
In 1974, NBC Tonight Show host Johnny Carson requested that the weekend
broadcasts of “Best of Carson” come to an end (back then "The
Tonight Show" was a 90-minute program). To fill the gap, the network
drew up some ideas and brought in Dick Ebersol—a protégé of legendary
ABC Sports president Roone Arledge—to develop a 90-minute late-night
variety show. Ebersol's first order of business was hiring a young
Canadian producer named Lorne Michaels to be the show-runner. He was given
studio 8H, for SNL.
When the first show aired on October 11, 1975, with George Carlin as
its host, it was called NBC's Saturday Night, because ABC
featured a program at the same time titled Saturday
Night Live with Howard Cosell. When the ABC program went off the
air in 1976, the NBC program changed its name to Saturday Night Live
on 26 March 1977.
The original concept was for a comedy-variety show featuring young
comedians, live musical performances, short films by Albert Brooks, and
segments by Jim Henson featuring atypically adult and abstract characters
from the Muppets world. Rather than have one permanent host Michaels
elected to have a different guest host each week (Albert Brooks was
originally booked to be a permanent host, and claims it was his idea to
have a different host each week).
The original (1975-1980) repertory company was called the “Not Ready
for Prime-Time Players”; this was a reference to Cosell's show, which
featured “The Primetime Players,” a group which ironically included
future SNL cast member Bill Murray.
The first cast members were Second City alumni Dan Aykroyd, John
Belushi, and Gilda Radner and National Lampoon "Lemmings" alumni
Chevy Chase (whose trademark became his usual falls and opening spiel that
ushered in the show's opening), Jane Curtin, Laraine Newman, and Garrett
Morris. The original theme music was written by future Academy
Award-winning composer Howard Shore, who--along with his "All Nurse
Band"--was the original band leader on the show. Paul Shaffer who
would go on to lead David Letterman's band on "Late Night" and
then "The Late Show," was also band leader in the early years.
Michaels fought and cajoled network executives to accept his vision for
the show, which was far removed from standard variety-show conventions
(one executive, visiting a dress rehearsal, noticed that the band was in
blue jeans and asked when their tuxedos would arrive). Before the show
began Michaels had remarked that he knew what the “ingredients [of SNL]
would be, but not the proportions,” and that the show would have to
“find itself” on-air. Indeed, the Not Ready for Primetime Players were
hardly featured in the premiere, but quickly became the focus of the show,
with the guest host and musical act playing a secondary role. Albert
Brooks and the Muppets were also dropped after the first season, but short
films by writer Tom Schiller continued to be shown under the title
“Schiller's Reel,” as well as Walter Williams' popular budget
claymation segment "Mr. Bill".
Perhaps due to his recurring news parody sketch "Weekend
Update" (which surives to this day, albeit with new anchors), Chevy
Chase was the first breakout star of SNL, garnering magazine covers,
in-depth interviews, and even some speculation that he would succeed
Johnny Carson if Carson ever left The Tonight Show. Chase had never been
friendly with most of the cast (a rivalry with John Belushi went all the
way back to their work on the National Lampoon radio show), but by the
time he left for greener pastures early in the second season, he couldn't
even get along with Lorne Michaels. Chase returned to host the show
several times over the next few decades, but relations were often
strained, with the cast (whatever their own personal conflicts) usually
uniting in opposition or disgust towards him, even hiding en masse so that
they would not have to share an elevator with him. Perhaps the low points
were 1978, when he got into a brawl with Bill Murray mere moments before
broadcast, and 1985, when he horrified many of the cast by suggesting a
sketch where openly gay performer Terry Sweeney develop AIDS and then show
the audience how much weight he loses each week.
Bill Murray replaced Chase in 1977, after Chase left to pursue a movie
career. Murray had a shaky start, forgetting his lines and seeming awkward
on camera. Many fans of Chevy Chase saw him as a replacement for him, and
had been sending hate mail as well. By the end of his first season, he
began to develop a following with a sleazy, know-it-all persona. Many of
his characterizations, such as Nick the Lounge Singer and Todd DiLamuca
(originally Todd DiLabounta but the real DiLabounta threatened to sue),
were instant classics.
By its second season, SNL developed into something of a television
phenomenon. It was, in many ways, the first show of its kind to appeal to
a younger audience, making it very attractive to advertisers. Recurring
characters and catch-phrases (see below) soon entered the popular
vernacular, and the cast was often described as “The Beatles of
comedy.” It was also one of America's only mainstream national TV shows
that consistently featured topical political satire. In 1976, Ron Nessen,
a minor member of President Gerald Ford's administration, hosted the show.
Ford himself appeared in a pretaped opening sequence. The show had been
very critical of Ford and promised to give him a break that night.
Instead, they humiliated Nessen as well as Ford with tasteless
"gross-out" skits like "Super Bass-O-Matic '76",
"Fluckers Jam" and "Autumn Fizz, the carbonated
douche". In November 1976 Weekend Update played the 1974 broadcast of
pardoning President Richard Nixon -- many backstage felt that decision
was instrumental in helping Jimmy Carter win the '76 election.
Two notable “featured players” on the show included writer Al
Franken and (for the 1979-80 season) Harry Shearer, who later acted in
several films and television series, including The
Simpsons. The show also featured frequent guest appearances by
comedians Steve Martin and Andy Kaufman.
Aykroyd and Belushi departed after the 1978-1979 season and
subsequently found worldwide fame in the movie version of the Blues
Brothers sketch. Belushi famously died of drug-related causes in 1982.
Aykroyd had major roles in several hit comedies and even earned an Academy
The final season with the remnants of the "Not Ready" crew
was underwhelming by most standards. By the 1979-1980 season, drugs had
overtaken most of the cast, writers, and Michaels himself (of the original
cast, only Jane Curtin and Gilda Radner never used cocaine). A burly
bodyguard was stationed directly outside the studio gates to warn Michaels
if the cops were on the way. Laraine Newman had developed serious eating
disorders as well as a cocaine addiction -- she spent so much time in her
dressing room playing Solitaire that for Christmas that year Gilda gave
her a deck of playing cards with herself on the face of the card. Garrett
Morris, degraded from years of small roles and racist sketches (at one
point the writers were going to have him do a fake ad for "Tar
Baby" toothpaste, which would make blacks' teeth stop glowing in the
dark -- only when black crew members walked off the set in protest did
Michaels drop the idea), began free-basing cocaine and literally lost his
mind on many occasions. During rehearsals for the Kirk Douglas show, he
ran screaming onto the set, saying that someone had put an "invisible
robot" on his shoulder who watched him everywhere he went. He pleaded
with them to get the robot off of him.
Radner, meanwhile, was resented by many because she and Michaels had
spent much of the year working on a Broadway play, and album, Gilda Live.
She had recently broken off a relationship with Bill Murray, and they
could barely speak to one another. Murray resented that the other male
cast members had left him stranded and essentially forced him to play
every male lead on the show. Exhausted, Gilda had few starring roles in
the 1979-80 season. Indeed, the most energetic and diverse performer in
that last year was Jane Curtin, who was thrilled to see the "Bully
Boys" as she called them (Aykroyd and Belushi) depart and who debuted
a number of hilarious new characters and impressions while she had the
chance. Other major contributors included Harry Shearer as well as writers
Al Franken and Tom Davis (longtime writing partners who had given
themselves meatier roles as the heavyweights departed) and Don Novello, a
writer whose "Father Guido Sarducci" character was especially
popular and appeared repeatedly during the 1979 season.
By May of 1980, the show was finishing up its fifth season, and Lorne
Michaels was ready for a break. He tried to deal with the network to allow
him six months off to recuperate after a stressful five year stint.
Unfortunately NBC refused this attempt to let the show survive in reruns
for half a year, and would not agree to such terms (a decision that would
come back to haunt them the next season). Michaels subsequently took his
name off the show and left at the end of the fifth season along with the
rest of the original cast and the writing staff, most of whom followed
suit due to loyalty towards Michaels. Harry Shearer, who had zero
allegiance to Michaels, informed the incoming Executive Producer, Jean
Doumanian, he would stay as long as she let him completely overhaul the
program. Doumanian refused, so Shearer also bid farewell (he would return
briefly in 1984-1985).
The remaining "Not Ready For Primetime Players" appeared
together for the last time on May 24, 1980 for the final episode of the
fifth season. The episode, hosted by long-time loyal host Buck Henry, gave
a heartfelt goodbye from all the members of the cast, and Henry himself
who--after hosting 10 times in five years--has yet to return to the show
again, save for an appearance in the September 24, 1989 15th Anniversary
special. At the end of the episode, the entire cast, writers, and Henry
stood onstage for the goodnights. After a short farewell speech, Buck
Henry signed off saying, "Goodnight...and goodbye..." The band
began playing the traditional closing music as Henry led the cast and crew
off the stage, and through the studio exit. The camera panned upward above
the door to reveal the flashing "On-Air" light shut off for the
final time that season, signaling what was indeed the end of an era.
Season-By-Season on SNL
SNL's first opening montage basically consists of different pictures
from around New York, with plain white lettering for the titles. Note that
at this point, the cast members do not have pictures, and are simply
listed on the screen all at the same time. When the show first began, the
"Not Ready For Primetime Players" were considered secondary to
the host and musical guests. By mid-season, the players had made a name
for themselves and became the focus of the show. Around this time, each
cast member was individually announced with his/her picture.
George Coe (last episode as a regular player 10/25/75)
Michael O'Donoghue (last episode as a regular player 10/25/75)
This montage originated in the latter part of the 1975 season, and
carried over into 1976. This version is from later in the season, and does
not include Chevy Chase. Another version of this was used in the spring of
1977 and uses the SNL title that it finally was able to use beginning in
Chevy Chase (final: 10/30/76)
Bill Murray (first: 01/15/77)
Featuring: Michael O'Donoghue
1977's opener had three different variations of a lighted marquee
theme. The first consists of the cast members in Times Square standing in
front of their names being displayed on the large screen as they are
introduced. Another showed the cast members' names and animated portrait
on a binary-light marquee with their face superimposed over the display
(used only in two episodes). The third simply introduced each cast member
as they walked out of the subway (with the exception of Aykroyd and Radner,
who curiously, are introduced using their Times Square opening from
earlier in the season).
- Head writer, and featured player O'Donoghue leaves at the end of the
The montage for the 1978 season is somewhat of an "oil
painting" theme. Various photos from around New York are again shown,
but have an oil painting overlay. This montage would carry over into the
first part of the 1979 season with a few minor changes.
- Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi leave the cast after this season.
1979 had two montages. The first was much like the 1978 opener, but
with a few different pictures and paintings. The second was a
semi-animated opener, which also had somewhat of an oil painting theme. It
was used only during the latter part of the 1979 season (possibly because
it took several weeks to complete). Fans consider the second opener the
best in the entire 75-80 period.
Peter Aykroyd (debuts 11/17/79)
Brian Doyle-Murray (debuts 12/15/79)
Tom Schiller (debuts 12/15/79)
Alan Zweibel (debuts 12/15/79)
- Shearer joins the show as a featured player and is made contract in
- Shaffer is a major part of the show's band and had a role in several
sketches (mainly a Don Kirshner impression) before 1979. Schiller is a
longtime filmmaker for SNL (off and on from 1976-1994), as was Downey.
Schiller's first airdate is 12/15/79. Zweibel, a writer for the
series, debuts on the same day, as does fellow writer Brian
Doyle-Murray (also Bill Murray's brother). Murray will return several
years later for a brief period.
- Almost every employee of the show, including Lorne Michaels and all
of the cast members and writers, leaves the show at the end of the
For much of the decade SNL was in turmoil and many critics wrote
the show off as a pale imitation of its former glory. Jean Doumanian took
over the show for the 1980 season, hiring a completely new cast and new
writers, but it was plagued by problems from the start, and was deemed
disastrously unfunny by both critics and much of the viewing audience.
Lorne Michaels had originally wanted to make Al Franken his successor
as executive producer after he left, and all was in place to do such until
the May 10, 1980 broadcast. During a "Weekend Update" segment,
Franken delivered a harsh criticism of then-NBC President Fred Silverman.
The commentary angered Silverman so much, that any chance of Franken
becoming an executive under Silverman's watch were all but gone.
Jean Doumanian was a talent scout for the show in the early days and
was one of the few members of the staff who stayed behind after the 1979
season. In the summer of 1980, Doumanian accepted the job as the new
executive producer, against the advice of most of her close friends. Many
were convinced that the show could no longer succeed without the original
cast and writers. They warned Doumanian to be prepared for harsh treatment
from the network. It wasn't long before their cynical predictions became a
reality. As a form of almost "retroactive retaliation" against
Lorne's constant pressuring for better financing, NBC started by cutting
Doumanian's budget from $1,000,000 per episode (Lorne's budget by his last
season) to about $350,000 per episode. On top of this, Doumanian had only
two months to discover and prepare a new cast and crew; she claims she
received virtually no support that was promised to her by either the
network or her staff.
Writers from that season recall that petitions were already being
passed around by other writers and crew members to get Doumanian off the
show. Doumanian herself would later discover that many members of the NBC
staff, people she assumed devoted to her, were not on her side at all.
Doumanian would not let writers work together if they had not been hired
as a team, which resulted in the shoddy and unfinished sketches that
permeated that year. From the start, the inner politics of the network
were heated, and indeed the season was off to a rocky start before it had
ever really begun. Doumanian focused on keeping the NBC brass out of the
creative process instead of worrying about the writers and performers who
were in it.
On an autumn morning in 1980, the phone of talent coordinator Neil Levy
began ringing off the hook. A young man at the other end of the line
begged the producer to give him a shot on the show, but was constantly
rejected by the show having already booked a full cast. The man pleaded
with Levy that he had several siblings banking on him getting a spot on
the show. Levy finally conceded and allowed the man an audition. The
caller was a 19-year-old named Eddie Murphy, and his audition performance
had Neil Levy begging with Doumanian to let him on the show. Doumanian
refused, citing that another actor named Robert Townsend had already been
selected as the cast's "token black guy," and that the show's
shrunken budget could not allow for any more actors. Doumanian changed her
mind after watching Murphy's audition and also began pleading with the
network to allow him on the show. NBC only agreed after it was determined
that Townsend had not yet signed a contract, and Murphy was cast as a
A new cast for 1980
The first episode, renamed "Saturday Night Live 80" in the
opening credits, appeared on November 15, 1980, featuring an all-new cast:
Charles Rocket (who was groomed to be the new break-out star), Denny
Dillon, Gilbert Gottfried, Gail Matthius, Joe Piscopo, and Ann Risley
rounded out the new "Not Ready For Prime Time Players." Woody
Allen (who reportedly hated SNL and even went as far as scripting
himself as a writer who quits SNL because he hated it in the movie Manhattan)
suggested to Jean Doumanian that she hire one of his friends, Ann Risley.
Some observers believed that while Ann Risley was a fine serious actress,
she was not inherently funny (perhaps as a demonstration of Woody Allen's
hatred for the show). Elliott Gould had agreed to host the first episode,
assuming he would be working with the old cast. He was astonished when he
reported to the studio and discovered that it was a different group of
The season seemed doomed from the beginning, as in the very first
sketch of that first show, the cast was seen sharing a bed with Gould and
introduced themselves in a "less-than-modest" approach. Charles
Rocket was self-proclaimed as a cross between Chevy Chase and Bill Murray,
while Gilbert Gottfried (pre-signature high pitched "squeaky"
voice) referred to himself as a cross between John Belushi, "...and
that guy from last year who did Rod Serling, and no one can remember his
name..." (referring to Harry Shearer). Indeed this self-serving
comparison to the original cast alienated much of the audience from the
very start, foreshadowing much of what was to come later that night and
throughout much of the season. The rest of the show remained very
inconsistent in terms of acting and writing. At the end of the show, Gould
stood onstage and quickly introduced himself to the cast one more time by
first name and declared "We're gonna be around forever, so we might
as well..." However, Elliott Gould would never host the show again.
The next episode, hosted by Malcolm McDowell, was notable in that Eddie
Murphy made his network television debut as an extra in a skit called
"In Search Of The Negro Republican". Murphy had his first
speaking role two weeks later as Raheem Abdul Muhummad on "Weekend
Update". He made such a positive impression that he would be called
on for more in later episodes. Meanwhile, Jean Doumanian nearly lost her
job before this episode aired. NBC executives were battling Doumanian's
insistence to include a sketch portraying a nun who was not a virgin.
Before Doumanian backed down, Network head Fred Silverman told the
standards department to repeat one of Lorne Michaels' shows, if necessary.
Skits during Doumanian's tenure seemed like someone had started a
half-finished concept and allowed the actors to improvise, but without the
editing and fine tuning that would have made the skit funny.
The high point of the 1980–1981 season probably came with the Karen
Black episode of January 17. It displayed the most consistent writing and
performing of the season. Murphy was soon raised to the status of full
cast member, and Piscopo had established himself as a reliable commodity
with such bits as the eccentric New Jersey-an "Paulie Herman,"
and his impeccable Frank Sinatra impression.
On February 21, 1981, the show featured a parody of the "Who Shot
J.R. Ewing" craze from the hit TV show Dallas.
In a cliffhanger titled "Who Shot C.R?" cast member Charles
Rocket was "shot" in the last sketch of the episode, after a
running gag in which other members of the cast shared their grievances
over Rocket with one another. Onstage for the goodnights, Dallas star and
that week's host, Charlene Tilton, asked Rocket (who was still in
character and sitting in a wheelchair) his thoughts on being shot.
"Oh man, it's the first time I've been shot in my life," he
replied. "I'd like to know who the fuck did it." The cast, along
with some of the audience, reacted with laughter and applause. This was
not the first nor the last time the expletive would be uttered live on SNL
for everyone to hear. However, given the circumstances of the season as a
whole, and the direction it was headed, it was the straw that finally
broke the camel's back. Rocket's minor "slip-of-the-tongue,"
unbeknownst to him, would cost him his job, and almost the entire cast and
crew their jobs, on the show. At the time, Rocket reportedly justified his
action, pointing out that musical guest Prince had performed "Partyup"
(from his Dirty
Mind album) earlier on that very same broadcast; the song featured
the line "Fightin’ war is such a fuckin’ bore." Despite his
release, Rocket appeared in the next week's episode anyway, his
performance clearly affected by his termination. In result of the
disastrous season thus far, and in a direct result of Rocket's behavior
the week before, NBC—who have had enough—also fired Jean Doumanian
after this episode, closing the book on what was then and is still
regarded as the worst period in the show's history.
Ebersol steps in
It looked as if NBC might cancel the show—indeed, many nights NBC
aired the sketch comedy show SCTV in its place—but SNL was given one
more chance when Dick Ebersol was hired to replace Doumanian. Ebersol was
the young apprentice the network had culled from ABC todevelop SNL
in late 1974; he was responsible for hiring Lorne Michaels that year, and
now was given the task of saving the once-acclaimed show from
cancellation. His first show aired April 11, and he planned to fill out
Doumanian's season, but the rest of the season's episodes were called off
due to a writer's strike (Al Franken, who was originally intended to run
the show that season, was scheduled as host, along with Tom Davis, for an
episode that never aired due to the strikes).
In his first week, Ebersol fired Gottfried, Risley, and Rocket,
replacing them with Robin Duke, Tim Kazurinsky, and Tony Rosato. He would
eventually eliminate the rest of the 1980 cast (except for Murphy and
Piscopo) at the end of the season (he had wanted to fire Dillon all along,
but could not afford a replacement for her). Ebersol originally wanted to
bring in John Candy and Catherine O'Hara from SCTV; Candy turned down the
offer and Rosato joined instead. O'Hara initially accepted, but she
changed her mind after Michael O'Donoghue—SNL's original Head Writer,
who had been brought in to rejuvenate the show—screamed at the cast
about the season's poor writing and performances. Robin Duke was added to
the cast when O'Hara suggested her instead. Emily Prager and Laurie
Metcalf joined as featured players, but they would not be retained after
this single episode.
By the fall of 1981, Joe Piscopo and Eddie Murphy were the only
remainders from Doumanian's cast to appear on SNL for the 1981
Season. Murphy had rarely been featured during Doumanian's tenure, but
became a break-out star under Ebersol, and his soaring popularity helped
restore the show's ratings. He created some of the period's best
characters, including the empty-headed former child movie star Buckwheat
and an irascible, life-size version of the Gumby toy character, complete
with life-size star ego. Murphy could also pull off an uncanny impression
of Stevie Wonder (who, sportingly, appeared in a fake ad for the "Kannon
AE-1" camera, which is "so simple, even Stevie Wonder can use
it"). Piscopo was also a popular face and became somewhat renowned
for his Frank Sinatra impersonation. Other new cast members for the 1981
season included Christine Ebersole (no relation to Dick Ebersol), Mary
Gross, and returning as a featured player, Brian Doyle-Murray (also
featured in 1979) who ran the Weekend Update desk for one season. Also
returning were Robin Duke, Tim Kazurinsky and Tony Rosato, who had all
first appeared in the April 11 broadcast earlier that year. In 1982 Gary
Kroeger, Brad Hall and his future wife, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, were added to
the cast, with Jim Belushi arriving in 1983.
However, SNL was mostly a two-man show from 1981–1984, with
Murphy and Piscopo playing a bulk of the lead characters. All other cast
members played supporting roles and were treated with very little patience
by the producers. Unlike Lorne Michaels, Dick Ebersol had no problem
firing people. Among the first casualties after the 1981 Season were
Rosato (who later said that the firing was the best thing to ever happen
to him, because the SNL set helped encourage his drug addiction)
and Ebersole, who got the axe because of her frequent complaints that the
women on the show had little airtime and what they did receive cast them
in sexist and humiliating lights. Michael O'Donoghue was fired in the
middle of the season, due to complex personality issues.
Indeed, Ebersol ran a much different show than Michaels had in the
Super70s. Many of the sketches were built less on "smart" and
"revolutionary" comedy that was abundant in the early days and
followed a much more "straightforward" approach. This shift
alienated some fans and even some writers and cast members. Many writers
felt that Ebersol was simplifying the humor of the show by demanding more
appearances of recurring characters for cheap laughs, among other things,
leading to somewhat inconsistent writing. However, despite these
oppositions there was little argument that Ebersol possessed a keen sense
of business politics, which eventually helped revive a show that would
have otherwise died at the hands of an inexperienced producer. However, by
the later terms of his tenure, Ebersol was generally handling much of the
business aspects and day-to-day production affairs, leaving producer Bob
Tischler in charge of most of the creative facets of the show.
Another new cast
In February 1984, Eddie Murphy left the show mid-season, agreeing to
appear in a few filmed sketches for the remainder of that year. Duke,
Hall, Kazurinsky, and Piscopo also departed at the end of the 1983–84
Upon the departures of Murphy and Piscopo, Ebersol, having lost his key
players, began rebuilding the cast for the 1984 season, enlisting what is
in retrospect known as the "All-Star" cast. Along with veteran
players Belushi, Gross, Kroeger, and Louis-Dreyfus, Ebersol added somewhat
well-known names to the repertory. This new cast included Soap star Billy
Crystal; Martin Short, who had made a name for himself as Ed Grimley (a
character he would bring to SNL that year) on Canada's SCTV; Christopher
Guest and Harry Shearer (who was also a cast member in 1979) from This Is
Spinal Tap; Superman III's Pamela Stephenson; and Rich Hall from HBO's Not
Necessarily The News.
The newcomers helped put together a very memorable year of hit sketches
and widely accepted recurring characters for SNL. As Louis-Dreyfus
noted in a November 2005 retrospective, the newcomers, particularly
Crystal, Short, and Guest, all but took over the show, relegating her and
most of the rest of the cast to supporting roles. Short has noted that his
one year at SNL brought him more fame than his entire stint on SCTV,
but it was Crystal who became the show's break-out star. Crystal had been
scheduled to appear in the first SNL in 1975, but he was cut from
the program during rehearsal. Already known to some for his stand-up
comedy and his role as Jodie Dallas in Soap,
Crystal became the show's latest sensation, bringing the catch-phrases
"It is better to look good than to feel good" and "You look
mahvelous!" (both uttered by his "Fernando" character) into
Harry Shearer would depart after the January 12, 1985 broadcast, citing
"creative differences," (Shearer would later remark, "I was
creative...and they were different..."). Shearer would go on the
greater fame as a cast member of The
Simpsons in which he voiced several characters including Mr. Burns
and Principal Skinner.
At the end of the season, Ebersol requested to completely revamp the
show and include mostly filmed segments. The 10th season is often
remembered for relying heavily on pre-taped content, including
pre-recorded clips of Murphy performing without the rest of the cast, and
Ebersol wanted to take this further. This ambition went against the
network's wishes. After briefly canceling the show, NBC decided to
continue production only if they could get Lorne Michaels to produce
again. Ebersol and Tischler, along with their writing staff and most of
the cast, left the show after this season (those who chose to stay—such
as Billy Crystal—were eventually not re-hired for 1985), which closed
the book on an inconsistent, yet memorable era in SNL history.
Two opening montages were used for this season. During Jean Doumanian's
tenure, it opened with a shot of the Statue of Liberty whose torch
suddenly lights after a few seconds. Using "paint-over" type
transitions, it then cuts to various images of New York with cheesy CGI
neon lights embellishing each picture. Dick Ebersol, however, apparently
wanted a more simple opening. For the one episode he produced this season
(4/11/81), the original SNL theme music returns to accompany a different
shot of the Statue of Liberty, followed by various still images taken from
around New York displayed one after another. The cast is introduced using
all new pictures, and plain-white block lettering reveals their name at
the bottom of the picture. This opener was only used on this one
episode. The original montage is from the March 7, 1981 Bill
Murray/Delbert McClinton episode. The one-episode montage, from April 11,
1981, Chevy Chase hosted; the musical guest was Jr. Walker & the All
Eddie Murphy (first: 11.22.80)
Ebersol Cast (04.11.81 episode only)
- Murphy goes from recurring to contract in January 1981.
- Weathers and Laurance officially debut on 12/20/80 (although they
had previously appeared in an uncredited capacity). Rocket, Risley,
Laurance, Hudson, Weathers and Gottfried last appear in the 3/7/81
episode. Rosato, Metcalf, Kazurinsky, Prager, and Duke first appear on
the 4/11/81. Prager and Metcalf last for a sole episode, the shortest
stint for any featured player (Nearly a decade later, Metcalf returned
for a cameo in a short film piece). Dillon and Matthius are fired at
the end of the season.
- Weekend Update received a name and set change for a single episode
(1981's show hosted by Bill Murray) in which it became SNL NewsLine.
For this final episode, it was hosted by Rocket alone, without
- Jean Doumanian and her writing staff are dismissed after the 3/7/81
show. Dick Ebersol replaces her, and following one more episode, a
writers' strike shuts down the season early for refurbishing purposes.
Another "simple" opening from the Ebersol era, and the only
montage with Mel Brand doing the voice-over. This opener was used
more-or-less for three seasons; it began with shot of a lady lighting a
cigarette, then consisted of various grainy, black-and-white video footage
of New York City nightlife (dance clubs, police dogs, etc.). Despite being
bland, it did, however, have what is considered one of the better opening
music themes of the show, which would be used (albeit in various
incarnations) for virtually every episode under Dick Ebersol's tenure.
Because 'Live from New York' is not yelled, announcer Brand says,
"And now, from New York, the most dangerous city in America, it's
Saturday Night Live."
- Brian Doyle-Murray leaves at the end of the season and Christine
Ebersole and Tony Rosato are fired.
- This is the only season which does not feature the traditional
"Live from New York..." opening. Instead, the cast appears
with the host in a group shot, then runs off to prepare for their
various sketches while the host delivers the monologue. This is also
the only season not to feature Don Pardo as announcer; the job is
taken by Mel Brand. In addition, Weekend Update is renamed "SNL
NewsBreak." The first two changes were made at the behest of
Michael O'Donoghue, as part of his attempt to radically re-vamp the
show (among other suggestions rejected by Ebersol was filming the show
entirely with hand-held cameras). The effort didn't impress viewers
and both the traditional opening and Pardo returned a year later. The
"Weekend Update" name, however, would return with Lorne
Michaels in 1985.
Virtually the same montage from 1981, with a few minor changes: Don
Pardo returned to do the voiceover; The opening shot changes from a woman
lighting a cigarette, to a construction worker lighting a cigarette with
an acetylene torch; also the cast photos are different from last year,
with a chalkboard NYC skyline background.
Same credits as the 1982 season. The addition of Jim Belushi is the
only notable change.
Jim Belushi (debuts 10/22/83)
Eddie Murphy (final: 02/25/84)
- Murphy leaves after the 2/25/84 show. Piscopo, Duke, Hall and
Kazurinsky depart at the end of the season.
A highly unusual, but fan-favorite opening montage. In addition to
flying hot dogs, we scroll right to reveal each "giant" cast
member towering over the New York skyline, and interacting with various
objects along the way in a complete one-camera shot. Note that from
1984-86, The Statue of Liberty was being renovated in preparation for its
100th anniversary. SNL acknowleged these renovations by showing the statue
surrounded in scaffolding during the opening credits for this season and
Harry Shearer (final: 01.12.85)
- This season has more pretaped segments than any other SNL
era, past or future.
- Shearer departs midseason. The rest of the cast and writing staff,
along with Ebersol and Bob Tischler leave at the end of the season.
The Prodigal Son returns
The job Michaels returned to was more challenging than the one he took
on in 1975. For starters, Michaels' "golden boy" reputation was
somewhat tarnished. His latest effort, the previous season's The New Show
was praised by critics but largely ignored by audiences. Also, the '84-'85
season had been a critical and ratings hit, generating memorable
characters and stand-out performers. However, Michaels would not be the
only member of the old guard to return: original writers Al Franken and
Tom Davis would return as producers, and veteran Jim Downey would be head
writer. Fans and critics welcomed Michaels and many of the original
producers and writers back, calling it a return to the show's roots, as
the past five seasons before this were very out-of-element compared to the
Michaels opted to follow Ebersol's lead from the previous season,
hiring established young actors for his ensemble. He hired comedy veteran
Randy Quaid, best known for his work in The
Last Picture Show and National Lampoon's Vacation, as well
as Joan Cusack and Robert Downey Jr.. Milestones included the first black
female regular, Danitra Vance (a young woman named Yvonne Hudson had been
a featured player in 1980 and appeared in some bit parts in '79 and '80,
but never had any strong role or speaking part), Terry Sweeney, the first
openly gay cast member, and Anthony Michael Hall, yet another fresh face
from Hollywood who at 17 was the youngest castmember ever. Rounding out
the cast was future In Living Color star Damon Wayans, and
previously unknown improv comedy veterans like Nora Dunn, Dennis Miller
and Jon Lovitz. Miller, who performed in relatively few sketches (and even
fewer as the years went by), became known for bringing his stand-up wit to
"Weekend Update," becoming the first memorable anchor since
Chevy Chase back in 1975.
With the exceptions of Miller, Lovitz and Dunn the new cast failed to
connect with audiences. Michaels' gamble on a young, brat pack approach
may have made the show seem more hip, but many of the regulars were better
actors than comedians. The writing staff, composed of newcomers and
veterans from the first five seasons failed to collaborate with the new
talent as they had during Michaels' first tenure. At the end of the
1985-1986 season NBC briefly cancelled SNL, but eventually opted to give
Michaels one more chance.
Return to Form
Of the entire cast, only Dunn, Lovitz, and Miller returned when the
'86-'87 season rolled around. For his next crop of regulars Michaels
returned to his original tactic of assembling a strong ensemble of
relative unknowns, led by Dana Carvey, Nora Dunn, Phil Hartman, Jan Hooks,
Victoria Jackson, Jon Lovitz, Dennis Miller and Kevin Nealon. Although the
new lineup contained some of the best actresses since the show's early
seasons, there were reportedly some dramatic behind-the-scenes ego
battles, and tensions eventually forced some members out — notably
Victoria Jackson, who has since been highly critical of Hooks and
especially Dunn, who was romantically involved with Michaels at the time.
With the new cast, SNL began to revive and gain renewed popularity,
mainly thanks to Michaels' inspired casting decisions, vastly improved
writing and increasingly on-target political satire and TV parodies.
Sadly, one of the best seasons, 1987-1988, was cut short by a writers'
strike. Gilda Radner had been penciled in to host a show in the spring of
1988. They wanted to reschedule, but by 1989 her cancer had returned and
she died within the year.
The urbane, smooth-voiced Hartman became one of the show's
longest-serving cast members. Hartman had originally worked as a graphic
designer; among his credits is the band logo for Crosby, Stills, Nash
& Young. Turning to theatre, he became a member of The Groundlings,
where he met Paul Reubens, which led to a featured role in Reubens' cult
80s kids TV show Pee-Wee's Playhouse. When he left SNL in 1994, he and
Kevin Nealon were the longest-serving cast members in the show's history
(eight seasons). He went on to TV success in the popular media sitcom
NewsRadio, as well as appearing in many movies and providing character
voices for numerous film and TV animations. Hartman's life was tragically
cut short on May 28, 1998 when he was gunned down in his home by his wife
Brynn, who then committed suicide.
A turning point came with the 1988-89 season, and the recruitment of a
young Canadian comic Mike Myers. A versatile and inventive comedian with a
gift for accents and a lifelong love of Monty
Python and British comedy, he introduced several classic characters
including Streisand-loving cable talk show hostess “Linda Richman”,
and ultra-pretentious German arts show host “Dieter”. He also formed a
strong partnership with Carvey, which revisited the magic of the classic
Aykroyd-Belushi pairing. Carvey and Myers created and performed one of
SNL's most popular and successful recurring sketches, Wayne's World, which
inspired two successful spin-off movies.
The shows in this period featured some of SNL's best loved recurring
sketches and characters, including “Wayne's World”, the
Schwarzenegger-like Austrian body-builders Hans and Franz (Carvey and
Nealon). Carvey also gained renown for his scowling, ultra-conservative
“Church Lady” character and his impersonations of then US President
George Bush and presidential candidate Ross Perot.
Bolstered by strong scripts penned by the writing team, Carvey's Bush
and Perot impressions were a notable advance on earlier ventures in this
vein, and they set a new benchmark for this aspect of the show's political
satire. The best-remembered political impersonation from the Super70s
period was Chevy Chase's slapstick parody of President Gerald Ford, but
Chase had made no attempt to create an accurate impression of Ford's
character or essay any in-depth political satire — his sketches simply
lampooned Ford's renowned clumsiness and consisted of Chase falling down a
Carvey's Bush and Perot parodies were far more sophisticated and his
Bush send-up was so well received that the former President himself made a
cameo appearance in one show, lightheartedly taking Carvey to task.
Spring 1990 proved a rocky finale for one of the show's most underrated
cast members. Nora Dunn boycotted a show hosted by the sexist and
homophobic comedian Andrew Dice Clay. NBC fired her and a series of ugly
charges and countercharges were lobbied between Lorne Michaels and Dunn.
Many felt that Dunn cared more about garnering publicity than standing up
for women's rights, but others took her side and viewed Clay's appearance
as an all-time low. This episode marked the first turnover in nearly half
a decade, and seemed to be a sad harbinger for the endless turmoil which
would mark the 90's SNL.
This season also had two opening montages. The first lasted only four
episodes, and--like the 1984 season--opened with a picture of the Statue
of Liberty covered in scaffolding (the statue was under renovation that
year in preparation for its centennial celebration). It then showed
various still images of New York bordered with several triangular lines
and post-card like decorations. Starting with the Tom Hanks/Sade episode
on 12/14/85, a new opening montage seemed to tell a story of sorts of a
limo driving through New York, and eventually passing each cast member. At
the end, the limo would approach 30 Rockefeller Plaza, and that particular
weeks' host would then emerge from the backseat. Another version of the
second montage exists that shows a plane landing just before the limo
leaves the airport. The music during this opener would be used for almost
a decade, with a slight change in 1994, and finally being replaced
entirely for the 1995 season.
Robert Downey Jr.
Anthony Michael Hall
A. Whitney Brown (debuts 2/22/86)
Al Franken (debuts 3/22/86)
Dan Vitale (final 2/08/86)
Damon Wayans (final 3/15/86)
- Wayans is fired on 3/15/86 (he was sick of the way the show treated
him and camped up a "straight" character so that Lorne
Michaels would fire him). Vitale is also removed mid-season.
- At season's end Cusack, Downey, Hall, Quaid, Vance, and Sweeney are
all axed. Although each had his/her funny moments (Sweeney's Nancy
Reagan impression was especially popular), the cast never seemed to
come together as a cohesive unit.
- This season included the only SNL episode (unless one counts
the "Who Shot C.R.?" episode from years earlier) to actually
feature a continuing narrative thread linking the sketches together.
In the opening sketch of an episode hosted by George Wendt, the cast
is informed that NBC is turning the show over to respected director
Francis Ford Coppola, in a bid for greater artistic merit. A brilliant
director of feature films, Coppola turns out to be an incompetent TV
director, resulting in a running gag in which each sketch is ruined in
various ways by Coppola's bumbling. The cast finally quits in the
final sketch when Anthony Michael Hall is injured in a war-sketch
after Coppola decides to use real bullets to increase the sketch's
sense of realism. During the closing credits, Wendt realizes just how
much damage Coppola has done to SNL's reputation: the former producers
of the show (actually played by Franken & Davis) have chosen to
tend bar rather than continue watching Coppola's travesty.
This montage was used for two seasons, and is basically just video
footage of each cast member racing the clock to get to what appears to be
a casual night club.
A. Whitney Brown
- This season provides a major cast overhaul which restores the show
to critical acclaim and watercooler value. All players introduced in
this season become long-running cast members and/or major stars. Even
the middle ranked Kevin Nealon remains in the cast for 9 seasons, one
of the longest-running stints for any cast member (he's bumped up to
contract in the 87-88 season).
Same montage as the 1986 season with only two noticeable changes.
1)Kevin Nealon is added to full fledged cast member status in the credits.
2) The host/musical guest photos shown during the montage and bumpers are
now in black in white.
A. Whitney Brown
- This season is trimmed to only 13 episodes due to a writers' strike.
This montage was also used for two seasons, and is just video footage
with a light greenish-blue tint, of the cast members "caught"
engaging in different tasks around areas of New York, intermingled with
various footage of the city. During this season, the now-familiar Saturday
Night Live circular logo appears for the first time.
A. Whitney Brown
Mike Myers (debuts 1/21/89)
Ben Stiller (debuts 3/25/89)
- Ben Stiller and Mike Myers go on to become major film stars, but by
very different routes. Myers remains on SNL for 6 years, as an
increasingly popular attraction, while Stiller is fired in spring '89,
flounders for several years, and becomes a big draw by the late 90's.
Same montage as the 1988 season with little notable changes, except
that every episode in 1990 has a '15' in the center of the circle logo,
commemorating the 15th anniversary of the show.
A. Whitney Brown
- Myers is bumped up to contract player.
- This season has the first real cast turmoil in nearly five years, as
Lovitz departs for other venues and Dunn is fired after boycotting the
show hosted by Andrew Dice Clay.