Distilling 4 decades of Saturday Night Live down to just 10 episodes

Distilling 4 decades of Saturday Night Live down to just 10 episodes

With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD every day, it gets harder and harder to keep up with new shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. If you watch those 10, you’ll have a better idea of what that series was about, without having to watch the whole thing. These are not meant to be the 10 best episodes, but rather the 10 most representative episodes.

Saturday Night Live grew out of the dream of a legendary television entertainer who became a culture hero to his generation. That man’s name was Johnny Carson, and his dream was to take more vacation time from The Tonight Show. To this end, Carson sought to increase the value of his own reruns by instructing NBC that he was no longer good with affiliate stations being allowed to air them on weekend late nights. This development reignited the daydream some at the network had of colonizing that patch of broadcast real estate with original programming. That opened the door for two guys who formed an uneasy alliance based on their shared identification as members in good standing of the Baby Boomer generation: 30-year-old writer/comedian-turned-producer Lorne Michaels, and 28-year-old NBC executive Dick Ebersol. Though Michaels and Ebersol were still pretty young, they weren’t as young as they used to be, and they’d figured out that other members of what used to be called “the ’60s generation” might feel like spending part of a weekend evening sitting at home, watching the kind of entertainment they’d always had to seek out at concert venues and comedy clubs. 

Allegations that SNL isn’t funny anymore, which go hand in hand with charges that it’s “lost its edge,” date back at least as far as 1979, when that cutting-edge journal of the electronic arts TV Guide ran an article called “Saturday Night Moribund.” (Yes, plays on the show’s name go back at least that far, too.) When really old people make these charges, they mean that SNL has lost the freshness and counterculture vibe it had in the mid-’70s. But it had that vibe because it was a necessary component to connecting with its target audience then. As the show became more successful, it became bigger, less intimate, and splashier, but it has also changed to fit the times. At some point it turned into an institution, and institutions are conservative by nature. That doesn’t mean the show’s politics became conservative, though that’s sometimes been the upshot of its efforts to embody, and never challenge, the zeitgeist. (The story that Lyndon Johnson looked up from the evening news and announced that he knew he’d lost Middle America on the Vietnam War because he’d lost Walter Cronkite is apocryphal, but it’s true that people in the first Bush White House breathed a sigh of relief when they watched Saturday Night Live during the 1991 Gulf War and saw that, rather than satirizing the rationale behind the war, the show was doing sketches harshly ridiculing dumb ol’ reporters who thought they had any business asking questions about it.) 

The show has only had three producers in all its years on the air: Michaels, who ran it from 1975 until 1980, returning in 1985 after having failed to make lightning strike twice with the ambitious prime-time The New Show; Jean Doumanian, who was responsible for the justly infamous 1980-81 season; and Ebersol, who held the reins until Michaels wanted them back. Michaels, a deft self-promoter who started making self-mythologizing cameo appearances early in the show’s history, usually gets the credit for shaping and guiding SNL, but Ebersol, who often gets treated in show histories as a humorless interloper, may have better understood the nature of the beast.  After Doumanian, who had a vague notion that the show needed to remain relevant by embracing a “New Wave” spirit, had devalued the brand, Ebersol built it back into a hit by making the trains run on time and emphasizing whatever elements seemed most popular with the audience. When Michaels came back, he tried to inject some wild daring back into the show—for instance, assigning Terry Sweeney, the show’s first openly gay cast member, the job of official Nancy Reagan impersonator. When this version met with mixed reaction from audiences and critics, Michaels retooled, and the version he settled on—and is still grinding out to this day—looks a lot like a shinier version of Ebersol’s show.

Although SNL has been used by people who had an agenda, the show itself has no agenda beyond being funny, timely, and popular. Its great value is in offering talented new people a chance to show a national television audience what they can do within those guidelines. Some of them go on to great things; some of them latch onto one catchphrase or supremely irritating character and try to milk it all the way to their graves. Damned if some of them don’t seem intent on doing both. (“Every great band should be shot,” Too Much Joy once opined, “before they make their Combat Rock.” Somebody should write a song like that about Kristen Wiig and Gilly.) Keep in mind that what follows, in accordance with TV Club 10 tradition, is an attempt to suggest, in 10 episodes, the broadest, least sucky outline of the show’s accomplishments, not a “10 best” list. We could spend the rest of the year just arguing over what a “best” episode of Saturday Night Live might look like.

“Richard Pryor” (season one, episode seven): Guest stars were much more important to SNL in its first years than they would ever be again. Rock-star comedians such as George Carlin (who hosted the first show), Lily Tomlin, and Robert Klein were used to give the show credibility and signal to wary, TV-hating audiences that this might be a show worth checking out. As the hippest comic and funniest man alive at the time, Pryor was an especially essential “get,” and Michaels made accommodations for him that he probably wouldn’t make for anyone today, agreeing to let him bring in his own writers, pick the musical guest (Gil Scott-Heron), and allow one of his ex-wives, Shelley, to deliver a whimsical beat-poetry fable about forbidden love between a mismatched pair of merry-go-round horses. For his reward, Michaels wound up with an essential 90 minutes (including commercials) of television, and the purest distillation of Richard Pryor, the greatest stand-up comic who ever lived, that ever appeared on the box.

“Steve Martin” (season three, episode 18): Martin was still a largely unknown stand-up comic when he first hosted the show in the fall of 1976. He became the first outsider to take on the stature of an honorary cast member; this was the fifth show he hosted in 18 months. (Buck Henry, another regular face whose hosting the season finale became a tradition, was more of a senior figure/mascot, beloved for his easygoing style and happy willingness to do material that had been cut from previous shows.) This Emmy-nominated episode has acquired a reputation as the best of all Martin’s hosting gigs; that’s debatable, but it does epitomize the point when SNL moved from cult hit to cultural steamroller. It certainly sums up the unlikely moment when the show even took command of the pop charts: The musical guests are the Blues Brothers, and Martin stars in a production number that serves to introduce his novelty song “King Tut.”

“Ron Howard” (season eight, episode three): One of the most likable things about the early days of SNL is the way it captured the schizoid nature of Boomers’ feelings about their old friend and babysitter, the TV set. Many of the young writers on the show professed nothing but contempt for television, but the tenderness with which the show treated its hosts who had serious ties to TV history, such as Desi Arnaz, Broderick Crawford, and Rick Nelson, tells another story. (The show later caught some grief by extending too generous an amount of rope to Milton Berle.) Some of that comes through in this episode from the Ebersol era, starring Ron Howard, just when he was positioning himself for the permanent move behind the camera. As if saying goodbye to his TV persona, Howard indulges in beer-swilling and mild cussing during the monologue, before busting up a Mayberry gone bad in the “Opie’s Back!” sketch (featuring a cameo by the actual Andy Griffith).

“Jesse Jackson” (season 10, episode three): This season shows Dick Ebersol’s well-oiled machine in full, streamlined effect. To better create a show that would practically run, if not watch, itself, Ebersol loaded his regular cast up with established “all-stars”—Billy Crystal (who would have made his TV debut on the very first episode of SNL if his standup routine hadn’t been cut for time), Martin Short, Christopher Guest, and Harry Shearer—and used a record number of pre-taped bits. (Shearer, who had already gone through an unhappy experience with the show during its fifth season, bailed midway through this one, but remained listed as an official cast member all the way through, to spare Ebersol the headache of re-doing the opening credits.) As a result, the hosts often seemed superfluous, but Jackson, capping a year he had spent running for president, fits into this format better than expected. He anchors “Weekend Update,” clarifies his universal tolerance for all mankind by explaining that it does not extend to Dick Cavett, endures a plane ride sitting next to Ed Grimley, and emerges with his dignity intact.

“William Shatner” (season 12, episode eight): The late ’80s represent a peak of professionalism; with solid pros like Phil Hartman, Jan Hooks, Dana Carvey, and Jon Lovitz in place and more or less sober, things were running as smoothly as they could be without the show becoming less-than-half live, the way it sometimes seemed to be under Ebersol. These conditions must have been highly amenable to the guest performers, and Shatner used his hosting gig to launch a second (or third, fourth, somewhere in there) phase of his career by publicly announcing that he was in on the joke. He was greatly assisted by the Star Trek convention sketch (“Get a life!”) contributed by a writer who established himself as one of the most distinctive behind-the-scenes comic sensibilities connected to the show since Michael O’Donoghue: Robert Smigel, whose “TV Funhouse” cartoons were often all that the show had to hang its hat on in the ’90s.

“Christopher Walken” (season 15, episode 11): SNL is useful as a showcase for new talent, but it can be just as exciting when a well-established talent uses the show to demonstrate that he has abilities that, for some reason, his best-known showcases have made no use of. (Sadly, anyone who missed his 1992 episode remains unaware that Jason Priestley is actually funny.) Walken is the preeminent example of this phenomenon. Sure, he was weird and brooding and intense. One may even guess that he had a sense of humor. But who knew the son of a bitch could dance like he was triple-jointed from the nipples down?

“Alec Baldwin” (season 24, episode nine): At the same time Baldwin was running his movie career into the ground, he was laying the groundwork for his comeback with his SNL hosting duties, of which this Christmas episode was the eighth. It offers one of the last chances to see him cutting up with his youthful beauty mostly intact, bringing a level of conviction to saying “Schweddy Balls” that he just never could to The Shadow or The Hunt For Red October. Hard-to-ignore moment: When Baldwin makes a joke about his famous brothers, he mentions Stephen and “Billy,” but not Daniel. No doubt it was an oversight, just as whenever Bill Murray did a roll call of the original SNL cast members, he always somehow forgot about Chevy.

“John Goodman” (season 25, episode 18): Another host turned honorary cast member, Goodman auditioned for the show in its early days, and some part of him must have felt that he could never stop proving that whoever decided not to hire him was an idiot. This was his 11th time as host, in addition to various surprise appearances. How good is he? The monologue routine is all about how his drinking is out of control, and he has to stop before it kills him; since then, Goodman had made the rounds on the talk-show circuit talking about how his drinking really was out of control and he had to stop before it killed him, and it’s still funny. And as usual, his energy is so contagious that it gooses everybody else on the show.

“Justin Timberlake” (season 32, episode nine): Four words: “Dick In A Box.”

“Anne Hathaway” (season 34, episode four): This election-year episode from 2008 nicely sums up the show’s best range in recent years. On the one hand, there’s Tina Fey’s pitch-perfect Sarah Palin impression (paired with Jason Sudeikis’ Joe Biden, which is almost as good), a career high point for a woman who, as head writer and “Weekend Update” anchor, brought actual satire back to the show; on the other, Mark Wahlberg talks to the animals. (“You eat apples, right? I produce Entourage.”)

And if you like those, here are 10 more: “Candice Bergen” (season one, episode four); “Elliott Gould” (season one, episode 22); “Ray Charles” (season three, episode five); “Christopher Lee” (season three, episode 15); “Eddie Murphy” (season eight, episode nine); “Bill Murray” (season 12, episode 14); “Tom Hanks” (season 13, episode 12); “Britney Spears” (season 25, episode 19); “Ian McKellen” (season 27, episode 15); “Peyton Manning”  (season 32, episode 16); “Jon Hamm” (season 35, episode 13).

Availability: The first five seasons are available on DVD, as are numerous compilations devoted to various regulars, favorite hosts, and the incalculable contribution to Western culture that is “TV Funhouse.” There are also truncated versions of every episode through season 36 available on Netflix, and every episode through season 37 on Hulu, but whoever has edited them down has made some inexplicable calls. (For instance, the Jesse Jackson episode has lost a lot of terrific material in order to make room for the classic comedy stylings of Jim Belushi.)