The scent of marijuana wasn’t the only funny thing to be found the night of Oct. 11, 1975, on the 17th floor of NBC’s Rockefeller Center offices. A new live comedy show, NBC’s Saturday Night, was about to be hatched, and its satirical, druggy ”guerrilla comedy” was a long way from Milton Berle.
Producer Lorne Michaels, a former writer for Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, hired writers and actors with youth, talent, and irreverence: Before his audition, John Belushi, star of Off Broadway’s The National Lampoon Show, paced for four hours, ranting, ”I hate television!”
They had plenty of attitude, but not much time. The hours leading up to the first show became a race to the finish. The night before, the 90-minute show’s run-through was two hours too long. The studio’s sound system had to be replaced at 2 a.m., and the exposed-brick set was still being constructed at dawn on Saturday. As the audience prepared to file in, Michaels was still frantically cutting whole sketches. To add to the confusion, Belushi refused to sign his contract until moments before airtime.
In the opener, Belushi, with a thick European accent, repeated after language coach Michael O’Donoghue: ”I would like…to feed your fingertips…to the wolverines.” Suddenly O’Donoghue fell, in mock cardiac arrest. Belushi did the same. Then, Chevy Chase stepped between them and shouted, ”Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!” and they were off. Anxious censors bit their nails over guest host George Carlin, who at one point suggested that God was only a ”semi-Supreme Being, because…everything He has ever made died.”
The reviews were tepid. The New York Times said, ”Even an offbeat showcase needs quality.” But when A.C. Nielsen Co. disclosed that 75 percent of viewers were 18- to 49-year-olds, sponsors saw dollar signs. The following May, Saturday Night won four Emmys, including Best Comedy-Variety Series. Now entering its 18th season, the show has long since become a TV institution. As one of its writers, Anne Beatts, put it, ”You can only be avant-garde for so long before you become garde.”
Time Capsule: October 11, 1975
E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime tore up the best-seller lists; All in the Family was tops on TV. Dog Day Afternoon was the hot flick, and Neil Sedaka’s ”Bad Blood” liquidated the charts.