Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Saturday Night Live (Classic): “George Carlin/Billy Preston, Janis Ian”

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“George Carlin” (season one, episode one; originally aired 10/11/1975)

The first episode of Saturday Night Live (which, at this point, was still officially going by the name NBC’s Saturday Night, out of deference to its short-lived prime-time rival, ABC’s Saturday Night Live With Howard Cosell, whose comedy repertory troupe included Bill Murray) display what the basic elements of the show looked like before anything gelled. It’s not clear just how much faith NBC had in this experiment, and as the countdown to opening night approached, Lorne Michaels probably had more capacity for self-doubt than he would ever have again. If, like me, you’d seen this episode decades ago, when memories of the original cast were still fairly fresh, it can be disorienting to look at it now and realize just how little the cast and the writing staff contribute to it.

That’s largely because, as a safety net, Michaels loaded the première with so many guest comedians and musicians and allowed the host, George Carlin, to perform what feels like half of his then-current album (which Carlin, in those more innocent, pre-VCR days, holds up and plugs at the end, for all those people at home who want to hear him say all that stuff again with more curse words). Carlin himself lurches through the audience to get to the stage at the start of the show and then stays there; the camera returns to him four times for monologues, and at the end, nobody joins him for the final goodbyes and closing credits. (Reportedly, a lot of planning and production had gone into a big sketch about Alexander the Great being snubbed by the cool kids at his high school reunion, but it was junked at the last minute when Carlin got cold feet and refused to participate. At the time, the show needed him a lot more than he needed it.) In the context of late-night TV in 1975, it must have looked like the intent was to create a sister show to NBC’s late-Friday-night rock series The Midnight Special, with the balance tilted more toward comedy—but with music treated as much more than an afterthought.

But you can see that something new was there, even if it’s just started to take shape. At first, it’s more in the style than the content. The cold open—with Michael O’Donoghue as an English-language tutor and John Belushi as a funny foreigner who continues to mimic him after O’Donoghue clutches his chest and drops dead on the floor—is a staged version of a very old joke. The show’s way of freshening it up is to make it absurdist in a way that’s vaguely sinister and morbid. And though this is partly deliberate—the first phrase that O’Donoghue has Belushi parrot is “I would like to feed your fingertips to the wolverines.”—it also has to do with something that’s probably not deliberate: The butt-ugly set, with the two men sitting in thrift-shift armchairs in a room with cracked, puke-green walls, makes it look as if the action is taking place in a serial killer’s basement. It’s not very funny, but it sets a tone that was different than what was on primetime in 1975. (Another sketch that’s basically a one-act play adapted from an ancient joke—the one about a note with an obscene message being passed around a courtroom—is just a waste of time; it takes forever to get to the punch line and is notable mainly for Garrett Morris’ misguided attempt to do something with a nothing role by adopting a Caribbean accent.)

The thrown-together tackiness of that set is a key to what made the show feel so fresh, even when it didn’t work. It may have an aesthetic borne of budgetary necessity, but it led to a style based on quick-wittedness and not putting too high a priority on production values. This is why so many early reviews of Saturday Night compared the spirit of the show to that of an old “Hey, gang, let’s put on a show!” movie musical with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. If the condescension in this stung Michaels at all, that might help explain why, like so many other children of the ’60s, he’s worked so hard at calcifying into a professional old fart, streamlining his show into an assembly line dominated by recurring characters—beating much of the fun out of his vision in the process. But just because the early SNL was casual, that doesn’t mean it settled for being sloppy.

O’Donoghue, his sometime writing partner Anne Beatts, and many of the performers had spent the first half of the ’70s working for the National Lampoon, which was slipping into a creative decline just as SNL was coming along to displace it. They had learned maybe the best thing that anyone could have learned from the Lampoon during its great days under the art direction of Michael Gross: In satire of the popular arts, precision and verisimilitude heighten the effectiveness of the joke. The clearest evidence of what was to come are the filmed commercial parodies, part of whose point is that a viewer might actually mistake them for the real thing. (In the oral history Live From New York, Tom Hanks recalls turning on the TV just in time to see this episode’s parody of a razor commercial and being dismayed, thinking that it looked like “a ridiculous product.”) They represent a sensibility far removed from the kind of spoofs of TV commercials common on variety shows then, where the fun was supposed to just be seeing Bob Hope or Sonny Bono dressed as the Ty-D-Bowl Man. (Within three or four years, this would come full circle, when a beer company would make a series of rollicking commercials, with actors who resembled members of the SNL cast playing taste buds, and slot them on SNL, in the hope that viewers would at first mistake them for skits.)


But the few clear traces of new-style genius here are provided by “guests” who would become like mascots to the show: Andy Kaufman and Albert Brooks. Brooks is unseen (but briefly heard, interviewing a blind cab driver) in the first of the short films he contributed to the show’s first season, a high-flying riff on Ripley’s Believe It Or Not? And Kaufman introduces his routine where he plays the Mighty Mouse theme song on a portable record player, standing there looking nervous and miserable until he has the chance to mime along to the line, “Here I come to save the day!” Watching this 29 years after Kaufman died, listening to the live audience’s initial incredulity give way to laughter and applause, amounts to seeing a landmark moment in the development of pop culture as a self-aware and self-referential—and generational—force.

Stray observations:

  • The other guests are Billy Preston, who performs his catchy hit “Nothing From Nothing,” and also a bad song; Janis Ian, who performs her bad hit “At Seventeen” (which later inspired a great, towering moment on The Simpsons) and a different bad song; and Valri Bromfield, who does one of those routines that blur the line between stand-up comedy and one-person off-Broadway play, impersonating a teacher and a cheerleader at a school assembly. Her personality is funnier than her material, but perhaps her timing was off: As air time was drawing close, Michaels suddenly decided that he’d overbooked the show and instructed her to cut a couple of minutes out her act. Billy Crystal, who was also booked to appear on this episode, got the same instructions and dropped out. But don’t feel too bad for him: Just a month later, he was on Saturday Night Live With Howard Cosell.
  • After God knows how much fretting over whether the untested young members of the Not Ready For Prime Time Players would be up to the rigors of live TV, the first on-air flub in SNL history is committed by old pro Don Pardo, during the opening credits: After the names of the actors have been sitting onscreen for an uncomfortably long period of time, he suddenly blurts out, “Not For… Reeeady Prime Time Players!” (Carlin, during his farewell address, refers to them as the “Not Quite Ready For Prime Time Players.”)
  • Let the record show that the first drug reference in SNL history comes courtesy of George Carlin, during his opening monologue: Noting that there have been some changes made in the game of football, he says, “They moved the hash marks. Guys found ’em and smoked ’em anyway.” I am not qualified to say whether, to find that funny, you’d need to know something about football, be stoned, or both.
  • I know that George Carlin is a revered figure, and on his best nights, he made me laugh as hard as anybody. But this appearance dates from a moment when he may have gotten a little too comfortable in his role as TV’s house hippie and was overdoing the whimsical free-association shtick. At one point, he asks the unresponsive audience, “Have I done these jokes here before tonight?” I was sort of wishing someone would yell, “You haven’t told any jokes. You were just saying that there’s always one weird-looking strip of bacon at the bottom of the package!”
  • The “New Dad” commercial parody gives thrill-seekers a chance to see Chevy Chase necking with his then-girlfriend and future wife, Jacqueline Carlin. Carlin, an actress whose only screen credit in a non-Chevy Chase-related venture was as “Blonde In Blue Blouse” in the 1978 ensemble disco picture Thank God It’s Friday, is a footnote figure in the early history of Saturday Night Live. Chase, keeping it classy as always, has sometimes included the fact that “I thought I was in love” among the many blameless and unassailable reasons that he left the show to make movies with Benji.
  • The judge in the courtroom sketch is played by the lost Not Ready For Prime Time Player: George Coe, a good, solid, perpetually middle-aged-looking character actor in the Phillip Borsos-E.G. Marshall mold. Coe wasn’t a comedian, but he was hired to cover any older straight man/authority figure parts that NBC figured the kids couldn’t handle. That idea was quickly phased out and his name dropped from the credits, though the show still sometimes threw him work, usually supplying voiceovers or playing spokesmen in commercial parodies. Richard Belzer, who worked as the show’s warmup act, can also be glimpsed in that sketch, taking up space in the jury box and looking as if he’s just about to nod out.
  • The first piece that feels a little like a real, early Saturday Night Live sketch is the “Victims Of Shark Bite” talk show, with Belushi as a man who claims that a shark bit off his arm, though as interviewer Jane Curtin points out, he just has it tucked inside his jacket. It’s just a little one-joke doodle, but the no-budget talk-show format will prove to be an especially durable sketch format, and Curtin’s specialty of playing an unapologetically bitchy, walking reality check is already firmly in place.
  • Most iconic “Weekend Update” joke: The proposed slogan for President Ford’s re-election campaign, “If He’s So Dumb, How Come He’s President?” On the first installment of this effort to bring the comedy of the counterculture to television, this is also the closest thing in sight to political satire.
  • This is also one of those episodes that has the Muppets in it. The Muppets created for this show get no love, and one of the best-remembered lines of Michael O’Donoghue’s life and career has to be his rejoinder when asked to create some material for them: “I don’t write for felt.” Swear to God, I’ve always liked the idea of puppetry, even Muppetry, being a regular element of this show, and I can’t think of a reason why Jim Henson’s aesthetic couldn’t have been a proper fit for early SNL—but that doesn’t mean I didn’t reach for the fast-forward when this sketch was on. It involves the ruler of the Land of Gorch, King Ploobis, being sexually frustrated by his wife, and it seems like Henson’s bid to invade Ralph Bakshi’s territory, which Bakshi himself was having trouble with at the time. Like the première episode’s other least-loved attempt at a running feature, the Bees, the Muppets would quickly turn into a in-joke—the joke being the open acknowledgment that nobody wanted this shit on the show.
  • Jokes that play strangely now: Carline’s monologue about how crazy it is that airlines go to the trouble of searching passengers for weapons, only to put them on board and give them silverware “and all the wine you can drink”; the parody of a commercial for Geritol, the joke of which is that the two people who refer to themselves as a married couple are both dudes; and the “Show Us Your Guns” stunt, which, by taking it on faith that there’s something ludicrous about the idea of a citizenry armed to the teeth, makes 1975 look like a much saner place than 2013.
  • The sketch with Dan Aykroyd as a security-company representative who breaks into Belushi and Gilda Radner’s suburban home immediately establishes the tradition of reserving the final minutes of an episode for what Michaels would probably call the more experimental, off-beat material, and what Krusty The Clown once called “a real garbage dump.”
  • The cover of the TV Guide that Belushi is reading in that sketch shows Glenn Ford and Julie Harris, stars of the short-lived “What if one of the Waltons was a preacher?” drama The Family Holvak. Don’t even ask me how I know that.