By Saturday Night, Were They Still Alive? : Backstage in the Early, Chaotic, Glory Days of NBC-TV’s Comedy Hit

<i> Doug Hill is a staff writer for TV Guide</i> .<i> Jeff Weingrad is an editor at Women's World magazine. </i>

“Saturday Night Live” was chaotic by design. From producer Lorne Michaels on down, the production philosophy of the live, late-night comedy show that NBC put together in 1975 was that inspiration, accident and passion were of greater value than discipline, habit and control. “Saturday Night” was the first program of its kind to commit itself consciously to the subconscious, to emulate as much as it could the spirit of artistic abandon embodied and endorsed by the gods of 20th-Century hip. Baudelaire, William Blake, D. H. Lawrence, William Burroughs, Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, Lenny Bruce, Ken Kesey, the Beatles and Hunter S. Thompson were as much the fathers of “Saturday Night” as Kovacs, Carson, Benny and Berle. Dan Aykroyd called it Gonzo Television. They were video guerrillas, he’d say. Every show was an assault mission.

Michaels was very much a child of the television generation, and something of an angry young man of the ‘60s as well. He was the sort of man that women described as “cute"--sweet-faced and slight of build, intensely funny but, beneath the jokes, intensely serious. He was also very smart, and something of a dreamer. The Hawaiian shirts and reindeer-patterned ski sweaters he wore were casual but carefully chosen. His dark hair had a flyaway quality, as if he’d just come out of the wind.

What distinguished Michaels more than anything was his love of television. He not only worked in TV (he won an Emmy in 1974 for writing a Lily Tomlin special), but he also watched it, constantly. It was said that when Michaels moved from his room on the second floor of the Chateau Marmont to one on the seventh, he had to be picked up and carried upstairs in his chair during a commercial.

The slowest day of the week was Monday. Everyone showed up at 5:30 or so for the writers’ meeting in Michaels’ office. The host would be introduced to the group and the writers would toss up for consideration whatever ideas they were working on, if any. People often pretended they had some great things in mind even if they didn’t, since the meeting served the function of assuring the host that, yes, there was a good chance there’d be 66 minutes of material--the amount of actual program time without commercials--written by Saturday night. It was a sure bet there wasn’t much written by Monday.


Pitches in the writers’ meetings ranged from full-blown sketch ideas to oblique one-sentence summaries. Chevy Chase was one of the most animated pitchers: He’d fall all over the room and the people in it acting out a bit he wanted to do. Dan Aykroyd sometimes gave full-scale manic performances in which he’d play several parts in several different voices, leaping up on chairs and desks, doing the entire sketch and then storming out of the room. Marilyn Miller, on the other hand, usually offered only the barest outline of an idea. “Well, Lorne,” she’d say, “I’m working on a piece where Danny is a Hammond organ salesman in a shopping mall with the organ going around on a turntable.”

Other writers would chime in with suggestions, offers to work on a piece, derisive comments or gratuitous remarks. Michaels would sit back, at ease (Michael Palin, a member of Monty Python who hosted “Saturday Night” several times, described Michaels as “the very definition of laid-back”), throwing out comments and jokes of his own.

“I don’t have anything this week, Lorne,” Anne Beatts said once, “but I noticed that if you fold a grapefruit juice label like this, it looks just like a little mouth.”

“Information is always acceptable in lieu of ideas,” Michaels said.


When the writers’ meeting broke up, various pairings would generally go out to dinner, during which ideas would frequently be fleshed out on place mats, napkins, menus, matchbooks or checks. By midnight a majority of the writers were back in the show’s offices on NBC’s 17th floor, where they’d often work through most of the night. The serious all-nighter, however, was Tuesday, because pieces had to be in some reasonable shape for the read-through Wednesday afternoon.

The unspoken rule was that the more time spent on 17, the more material one was likely to get on the show. The writers were there virtually nonstop from Monday night till Wednesday morning and sometimes for 16-hour days the rest of the week. Of the cast members who weren’t writers, Gilda Radner was probably the most dedicated. She hung around constantly, handing out Linzer tortes and improvising ideas that often turned into sketches. If she went home to sleep she kept her telephone next to her in bed, always ready to come back to work on a piece. She once showed up on 17 in her pajamas at 2 a.m., claiming she’d actually been dressed when the writer called but that she’d changed into more appropriate attire to come to the office.

The Wednesday read-through was the crucial test for a script. If the reception was good, it was launched into the production chain: Sets were ordered; blocking time was scheduled; costumes, sound effects, and props people went to work on it. After the read-through, at about 5, Michaels, director Dave Wilson, chief studio assistant Audrey Dickman and a few others retired to Michaels’ office to lay out the show. Then the writers were told what was in and what was out, what should be cut down and what expanded, what needed to have another cast member written into it and what cast member already had too much to do that week.

Wilson, meanwhile, would be conferring with set designer Eugene Lee and his assistant, Leo Yoshimura, figuring out what sets had to be built, which should be built first, where they would work best in the studio, and how the show should be configured to accommodate costume and set changes. Michaels would come in periodically to explain the inevitable missing sketch--the great idea someone just thought of that wasn’t written yet but would definitely be ready by Saturday. That was another quality Michaels had that the writers and performers appreciated, even if Wilson, Lee and other members of the production staff did not: He was always ready to rip up the show at any point during the week to make room for a new idea he really liked.

As the sets were being built, Franne Lee was choosing costumes at the Brooks Van Horne warehouse; her assistant, Karen Roston, was riding cabs around the city looking for other clothing they needed; Yoshimura and prop master Trip Ullrich were scouring furniture stores and hole-in-the-wall shops for set dressings; various production assistants were tracking down obscure pieces of film, odd photographs, or impossible-to-find sound effects. Realism had by then become almost a religion to Michaels, and as a result the detail he wanted in sets, costumes and props was painstaking, and expensive. The unit managers often tried to talk Michaels into cutting corners, but he almost always refused. Once a unit manager asked him why he spent $65 on a skirt for Radner that would be visible on camera for only a few seconds.

“Who’s gonna know the difference?” the unit manager demanded.

“Gilda will know,” Michaels replied.

Friday was a long night for a lot of people. The wardrobe ladies stayed until 3 or 4 a.m. altering and pressing costumes; sometimes they were back in Studio 8H a few hours later to finish their work. Sets were still being finished in the Brooklyn shop, trucked to NBC and assembled in the studio. As the hours ticked by, the union crews shifted into the overtime category called, for obvious reasons, golden time. The writers were still rewriting sketches they’d been rewriting all week and just starting work on the three parts of the show that were almost always put off till the last minute: the cold opening, the host’s monologue and Weekend Update. The opening and the monologue often as not were merely the victims of procrastination, but Update was intentionally left flexible to make it as topical as possible. The idea was to approximate a real news operation, and the writers took great pride in getting jokes on Update about an event that had just happened.


Alan Zweibel was sitting in a restaurant with Michaels late one Friday night just after a news item appeared that the equine star of the television series “Mr. Ed” had died.

“Can we get a horse?” he asked Michaels.

“You’re not thinking of interviewing Mrs. Ed, are you?”

“Yep,” Zweibel answered.

Michaels told him to go ahead, and Zweibel called the property master at home at 4 a.m. By Saturday afternoon a horse was contentedly munching hay backstage.

About noon Saturday the production assistants handed out the latest, but by no means final, version of the script for the entire show. The first full run-through of everything except Update was scheduled for 1 but usually didn’t get rolling until 2. Costumes were worn (theoretically, at least) but not makeup. Michaels and Wilson started with the most difficult sketches because they almost never had time for them all. That meant that many sketches--often as many as half--were never performed in costume until dress rehearsal that night.

The run-through always ended at 5:30 p.m., when the inviolable one-hour dinner break required by the unions began. The writers and performers ate in the ninth-floor greenroom; letting anyone out of the studio at that point could be disastrous. The production assistants used the time to make sure the cast members had all the latest changes in their scripts. Dinner was an important cooling-out period during which some wits were gathered and many desserts consumed in preparation for the seven-hour blitz to come.

After the meal break Weekend Update was rehearsed for the first time. The cast members, when they weren’t on the Update set, prepared for dress, going over script changes as they sat in the makeup room or in their dressing rooms. Radner carefully marked off her parts in each new script with a yellow felt pen. Aykroyd, usually refreshed by a nap during the dinner break, seemed to have an almost photographic memory. He’d flip through the pages of the scripts, mechanically ticking off the changes as he read: “Got it. Good cut. Got it.” Belushi and later Bill Murray relied more on cue cards; Belushi often retired after the dinner break to his dressing room for a massage.


The NBC pages ushered the dress rehearsal audience into the studio around 8 p.m. and dress began about 8:30. Michaels positioned himself next to his monitor to the left of center-stage. During rehearsal he watched the screen more than he did the stage so he could see how the show would look on-air. Michaels’ attention to detail often astounded the writers. One of Rosie Shuster’s sketches opened with a man giving a woman a bouquet of flowers. “Make it candy,” Michaels told her, “because she’d have to put the flowers in water and we don’t want to take the time to do that. If you don’t, it sets up an anxiety in the audience’s mind--'Why aren’t the flowers in water?’ ”

Dress usually ended about 10:20 p.m., but sometimes ran as late as 10:50. Often as not the show came out of dress 25 minutes long, so the writers always knew their sketches were vulnerable. All that had transpired through the week was but preamble to the insanity that ensued between dress and air at 11:30.

There were two meetings, both in Michaels’ ninth-floor office overlooking the studio. In the first, Michaels met with the writers and the heads of all the production teams; in the second, with the cast members and the host. In cases of extreme time pressure, the two meetings were compressed into one.

The atmosphere in these meetings was one of controlled hysteria, the main idea being to take care of necessary business without succumbing to the tension. Michaels kept his comments short and to the point--"Lose a minute from that” was a frequent request. There might be some argument, but everyone knew there wasn’t time now for debate. Michaels joked a bit when he could and seldom raised his voice, but on occasion he’d be insistent. “Damn it,” he’d say, “make this work!”

Although Michaels generally had a good idea of what could or couldn’t be done, it was always a moment of truth when he’d turn to someone in the room and say, “Can you do it?” People often amazed themselves when they said yes: then they had to scramble to deliver. Karen Roston once raced downtown to Brooks Van Horne at 10:30 looking for a coat Belushi could wear to play Babe Ruth in a sketch added at the last minute. Brooks’ owner had been called to send someone to open the building, but once inside they couldn’t find the light switch and ended up rummaging through the racks with a flashlight till they found what they needed.

When the first meeting ended, the production people dispersed to confer with their staffs while the writers who still had rewrites to do hurried to a typing room. The production assistants had to make sure all the changes got to the control room, to the performers and to cue cards. Sometimes the performers didn’t get all the changes before they went on, and in the control room, people would be holding their breath as a sketch came up, knowing that the actors would be reading lines they’d never seen.

As the show went on, Michaels again took his place by his monitor. During the show he’d stare at his monitor and silently mouth the words of every sketch as it played. Backstage, the performers rushed in and out of the wardrobe and makeup rooms. Often they’d go onstage wearing three different costumes in layers; other times their costumes would be cut down the back and attached with strips of Velcro so they could be ripped off in a second.

Periodically during the show, Michaels walked into the control room to check timings with Dickman. If there was time to fill, a short film or parody commercial could usually be added to absorb a few minutes. More often the show ran long, and in this case any short films and commercial parodies scheduled in the show were expendable. But occasionally more radical measures were required. Some sketches were cut in half backstage while the show was on the air. Once when Steve Martin was the host, he and Radner ran out of time in the middle of a sketch. When the show came back from the commercial that had interrupted them, Martin shrugged and said they’d have to finish the sketch the next time he hosted. They never did.

The miracle of “Saturday Night” was that things didn’t go wrong on-air more often than they did. The terror seldom talked about was that a member of the studio audience would yell, run on camera, or perhaps even pull a gun. Once, an overenthusiastic fan was intercepted as he rushed the stage, and once or twice someone heckled the host during the monologue. But never in the history of “Saturday Night” was there a serious disruption of that kind, a remarkable fact considering the type of fans the show sometimes attracted and how easy it would have been to do it.

In fact, not a few on “Saturday Night” complained that the show was too controlled. Wilson, the director, was a principal focus of these complaints. His detractors felt he was more concerned with having a neat and tidy show that wouldn’t embarrass him with his cronies than in taking risks that might be genuinely thrilling if they worked. His defenders, including Michaels, would say that “Saturday Night” was like a jet plane and Wilson was the pilot who had to land it every week. But performer Don Novello echoed the sentiments of many when he said, “Yeah, Davey was a pilot all right, but he was no test pilot. Strictly TWA.”

Michaels, too, took his knocks for being overly concerned with control. His philosophy that he didn’t want the show to be different for the wrong reasons was too inflexible in the eyes of those who would have liked “Saturday Night” to look more ragged and experimental. Chevy Chase was the only one who got away with ad-libbing with any regularity on the show, usually on Update, when it was relatively safe. Writer Tom Schiller was among those who felt Chase’s looseness had a lot to do with his appeal, and one of those who regretted that “Saturday Night” did not more often use the opportunity of being live to, as he put it, “take the moment to comment on the moment.”

But Michaels had already taken his moments before the show went on. His high was snatching it back from the brink.

Adapted from “Saturday Night: A Backstage History of ‘Saturday Night Live,’ ” by Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad, published by Beech Tree Books and the William Morrow Co.