The complete Season 2 of Saturday Night Live is coming out on DVD today. Despite being one of the more well-chronicled TV series in history, SNL‘s early years remain somewhat misunderstood, largely because of the way we’ve seen the show these last 25 years or so. Most people watching old SNLs today see the sketches on best-of discs devoted to various performers, from Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi to Will Ferrell and Alec Baldwin, where most of the material is reasonably strong. Before that, the show was syndicated for several years in edited half-hours, which made it seem like a continuous parade of genius moments. The E! channel ran the show three or four years ago in edited hours, but quickly dropped the early episodes in favor of more recent ones.
Late last year, Season 1’s release permitted viewers to see the series as it really was in its infancy. As such, it provided a valuable reminder for students of TV history. Yes, SNL was always innovative, and it was always a showcase for the sorts of acts that didn’t usually find a home on network TV. But it was also hit-and-miss, veering from comedic brilliance on one side of a commercial break to stultifying stupidity on the other, prone to repeating itself, and frequently failing to be entertaining for long stretches of time.
The early episodes depict a show trying to figure out what it would be and how it would work, and they look strange and primitive now. George Carlin hosts the premiere (October 11, 1975), but he appears only in a couple of monologues, allegedly because he was too coked-up to appear in sketches. The second episode, hosted by Paul Simon, features 11 musical performances and only a couple of sketches. Not until the third episode, hosted by Rob Reiner, does it looking like the SNL we know. Candice Bergen hosts the fourth one. She was known primarily as a movie star and photojournalist at that point, not a TV personality—and she looks to be frightened out of her mind. (She’s better in the Christmas show just a few weeks later.) It’s not until the sixth episode, hosted by Lily Tomlin, that a truly classic sketch appears—the one in which Belushi as Beethoven writes “My Girl” and “What’d I Say.” At that point, there’s generally at least one fondly remembered sketch per episode, and at least one other one that works fairly well. The episode hosted by Madeline Kahn, which aired in March 1976, is strong from start to finish, and is not just the best show of the season but one of the best of all time. The set also includes the infamous July 1976 episode hosted by Louise Lasser. Her monologues at the beginning and end of the show, and the interminable film she directs in the middle, weren’t the first time SNL broadcast something pointless or painful. But Lasser brought an extra degree of incoherence and self-indulgence that doesn’t look like an act. She became the first guest host banned from future appearances, although by the time she appeared, her 15 minutes were nearly up anyhow.
The Not Ready for Prime Time Players are billed as a group until January 1976, when they are finally introduced individually. Chevy Chase was the breakout star, and it didn’t take the writers—of whom Chase was one—very long to realize it. Chase gets more face time in some episodes than all the other cast members combined, even in appearing in sketches where another cast member might have served just as well. His traditional “fall” to open the show is incorporated in various clever ways (the “Dead String Quartet” is the best one), but most of the time, he plays variations on a single character—a non-sequitur-spouting doofus—whether he’s anchoring Weekend Update or doing Gerald Ford. Aykroyd and Belushi are more versatile actors and clearly superior talents, as is Gilda Radner. It’s been well-documented that SNL was a boys’ club, and that the women of the cast had a hard time getting on the air, or being treated with much respect. The best evidence is the underutilization of Gilda, who’s clearly game for anything and almost always funny doing it. More damning evidence of the writers’ attitude toward women is found in sketches where the laughs are intended to come from the physical abuse of Gilda’s characters by male characters, which seemed funny in 1975, but not so much now. Toward the end of the season, the female cast members are better served, especially in sketches by female writers, such as “Slumber Party” in the Madeline Kahn episode.
The show, as originally conceived, was an entertainment smorgasbord. Episodes from the first half of Season 1 always featured a stand-up comic, although only Andy Kaufman’s performances are especially memorable. The first half of Season 1 also featured overlong films by Albert Brooks, which run the gamut from mildly entertaining to unwatchable. Later films, by Gary Weis, are better, as are some of the home movies submitted by viewers. (One viewer film features the first appearance of Mr. Bill.) The early episodes also featured a recurring sketch with the Muppets, which was sometimes titled “Dregs and Vestiges.” There’s a reason you’ve rarely seen these since 1975: They’re awful. During the second half of the season, the “Dregs and Vestiges” characters interacted with cast members. These bits are generally better.
What makes the DVD sets especially notable is that they include all of the musical performances. Musical performances are notoriously hard to clear for repeats, which is why many classic variety shows are never seen in syndication or on DVD, and if they are, it’s often without the musical guests. (It’s why WKRP in Cincinnati was released on DVD with most of its original music missing.) Today, SNL‘s musical guests are generally bleeding-edge hip. From the vantage point of 30 years, that doesn’t seem true of SNL‘s first year. Yes, early episodes featured Jimmy Cliff, Gil Scott-Heron, Al Jarreau, Betty Carter, Leon Redbone, Patti Smith (whose proto-punk performances of “Gloria” and “My Generation” may well have been the hardest-rockin’ in the history of TV to that point) , and Simon, but musical guests in the first season also included Neil Sedaka, Anne Murray and ABBA. While the latter three had hits at the time they were on, it’s hard to believe anyone considered them hip. A turtle-necked, sport-coated Sedaka looks like Pat Boone at a rave; Murray’s cheery country-pop seems like it belongs on another show. And although other performers sang to recorded musical backing, ABBA was the only act in the show’s history (until Ashlee Simpson, anyway) to lip-synch a vocal, allegedly because Lorne Michaels didn’t believe they could sing live. (The forthcoming Season 2 features far fewer questionable musical guests, a measure of the show’s growing cultural importance.)
Nevertheless, even though the choice of musical performers is odd in Season 1 (and seems to have been left to the guest host in the early episodes), it’s highly democratic, and it offered a showcase for artists who’d never have gotten on network TV otherwise. ABBA was one of those—and in 1975, they were not the phenomenon they would become a couple of years later. Their appearance was unusual because their songs were incorporated into sketches. They sing their then-current hit “S.O.S.” on a set that’s supposed to be the ballroom of the Titanic. In mid-song, the ship hits the iceberg. Host Robert Klein, playing the captain, is supposed to be trying to stop water from shooting into the ship while sitting at a table with other passengers, but the water is merely trickling in, and the bit fails miserably. Klein clearly knows the thing is dying and does his best to mug his way through it. The members of ABBA seem embarrassed by the whole thing—as well they might. Later in the same episode, the show repeats the bit with a second ABBA performance, which is just painful to watch. Later in the season, Gordon Lightfoot does a quick bit with host Buck Henry involving the cutting of his guitar strings, but that’s the only other time a musical guest participates in the sketches. (Paul Simon would frequently appear in sketches beginning with Season 2.)
So, although the first season of Saturday Night Live is not quite the comedic monument we seem to remember, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go out and pony up the scratch to buy it, or Season 2. It’s fun to watch SNL becoming SNL a little bit at a time, especially if you were a person who made it a priority to be in front of the TV at 10:30 on Saturday night for fear of missing what everybody would be talking about on Monday.