“Saturday Night Live” is 40 years old this year.
Forty years before its debut — Oct. 11, 1975, during the Ford administration — Jack Benny was in his third year on radio; the Marx Brothers were starring in “A Night at the Opera,” their first movie without Zeppo; Bob Hope and Bing Crosby were still five years away from their first “Road” picture; and there was no TV at all.
Forty years on, the world has changed, and changed again. The cast that launched “SNL” — the initials now suffice — are now in their 60s and 70s, and some are no longer of this Earth.
But “Saturday Night Live” itself has proved remarkably durable and structurally consistent. It has long since become an institution, a university. And like one, the flavor changes with each new class, some brighter, some less bright, while the institution itself remains sound, retains its essential character, purpose and way of doing things.
It is still the same rough mix of celebrity impersonations, film pieces, commercial satires, talk-show parodies, topical humor, repeating characters and catchphrase-coining. There’s an introductory “cold open” at the head and the topical “Weekend Update” in the middle and a couple of musical performances for excitement and relief and keeping things young. It is still made in six days, like Jehovah’s universe, from the first word written to the last word broadcast.
It has preserved its length, as well, 90 minutes — the span of the old “Tonight Show” and half again as long of any program now running regularly on American television. On the downside this means the pieces often run too long, and on the upside that there is greater chance for something to succeed.
Getting a sketch on the air can be notoriously difficult — some writers and performers remember their time there as an exercise in serial frustration — and, as in any successful enterprise, there can be a dulling tendency to repeat what works. But there is room in that hour and a half to play.
It was designed in part as a throwback to programs two decades its junior. Like Sid Caesar’s legendary “Your Show of Shows,” it’s broadcast live out of technological necessity, but more closely knit into the public moment because of it — shows that wrote themselves into history while you watched.
As in a circus act, the possibility of failure is part of the compact and the appeal. It is television as theater, striving for perfection and polish that in real time can never be achieved. And even if one doesn’t watch in real time, at air time — as was impossible then, and common now — that it was performed live, and went out live, still matters.
Late-night Saturday was a remote outpost on the network schedule when “Saturday Night Live” began — a time slot without any real meaning or significance, ripe for colonization. New York itself — whose name is proudly shouted at the head of every show — was still a dangerous place, in the worst and best senses of the word: literally bankrupt, wild and crazy, covered in graffiti, with punk clubs, artist’s lofts, drug dens and halfway houses where gourmet markets, expensive restaurants, high-end clothing stores and multimillion-dollar condominiums now squat, its block-to-block juxtapositions of rich and poor, bourgeois and bohemian more marked than they are now. Gentrification was not a word on anyone’s lips.
With the possible exception of the Monkees, also on NBC, whose producers were soon to be responsible for “Easy Rider” and “Five Easy Pieces,” it was the first real expression of youth culture — that is, of youth culture expressing and creating itself — on network television. The stars, not just not ready for prime time but intently outside of it — or so it seemed at the time — were taken up like rock stars.
Rolling Stone, which moved to New York not long after “SNL” bowed, put the cast on the cover, the comedy troupe as rock band, like an American Monty Python. And in John Belushi, “SNL” had its own icon of excess, of Promethean genius brilliantly, if ultimately unfortunately, unbound.
It matters, too, that the show’s roots are in sketch comedy — from a confluence of the National Lampoon, Second City and L.A.'s own Groundlings, which gave the show Laraine Newman, Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig, Phil Hartman, Jon Lovitz, Will Forte, Maya Rudolph, Cheri Oteri, Chris Kattan, Julia Sweeney, Chris Parnell and Ana Gasteyer. However badly things may be going for, or between, any individual members behind the scenes — the feuds and fusses and complete mental breakdowns have been much reported over four decades — its music is that of a group.
Some years have been better than others. Indeed, there are times when the network’s hand was on the plug, ready to pull. Famously, it has not been a good fit for some who go on to (or come from) success elsewhere.
Not every casting choice was a brilliant one and, if for some the show was the first step to stardom, for others it was the last stop before obscurity. Some have been obscure even before leaving the show.
Still, its progeny are everywhere, some brilliant, some merely useful. It has produced fine utility players like Dan Aykroyd and Parnell; a franchise creator like Mike “Austin Powers” Myers; a popular film property in Chevy Chase and a national treasure in Bill Murray, whose name now lends an aura of integrity to any project he deigns worth his time.
If it was for too long deficient in diversity — if my count is right, there have been only 17 African American cast members out of 144 in 40 years — one of these was Eddie Murphy, and two of them, Tim Meadows and Keenan Thompson, are among the longest-serving cast members. If there were times when the show didn’t know what to do with its women — its guest hosts, too, have skewed male — it has given us Wiig and Rudolph, Gilda Radner and Tina Fey and Amy Poehler.
It is not hard to make a case, through them, for producer Lorne Michaels — now 70 and, except for a five-year hiatus in the 1980s, the hand on the rudder from the first show to the next one to air — as the most important person in American comedy in the last half-century. Through Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers, he has colonized NBC’s weekly late-night programming as well.
The show itself, as the Palace everyone wants to play, has exerted a continued influence on the comedy culture — it inspired “SCTV,” its ongoing importance has helped make possible groups like the Upright Citizens Brigade, through whose portals many of the day’s best comics now pass.
From the Coneheads to the Californians, from Samurai desk clerk to Caveman Lawyer to Miss Meadows, poetry teacher, the show has managed to keep true to itself as it renews itself. As an easy-to-excerpt sketch show, it was well-adapted in advance for modern viewing habits — there is an app for it now, a variously searchable compendium of bits, for your mobile-platform time-sucking convenience — and social-media distribution.
It’s in the air, it’s everywhere, and it’s 40.