Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 22, 2021)
45 years after its debut, Saturday Night Live remains a TV institution. For all its peaks and valleys, it seems clear that the series’ initial run will always stand as its gold standard.
With comedy titans like Bill Murray, John Belushi and Chevy Chase, the show’s 1970s run remains legendary. Via “Saturday Night Live: The Early Years”, we find a 12-disc set that boasts 33 episodes from 1975 to 1980.
Though I like to review each episode, with more than 37 hours of content, that proved impractical. Instead, I sampled the series with two episodes per season.
October 11, 1975: Hosted by George Carlin, with musical guests Billy Preston and Janis Ian.
Everything started here, and it becomes interesting to see how much of the standard SNL format existed from the premiere. We get the “cold open” along with a monologue from the host, musical guests, and some pre-taped skits in addition to the live sketches.
Of course, the “classic SNL cast” appears as well – or the “Not for Ready Prime Time Players”, as Don Pardo accidentally calls them. “Weekend Update” is already in place, as is the traditional “live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!” launch.
The cast anomalies come from the inclusion of George Coe and Michael O’Donoghue as “Players”. O’Donoghue would remain a writer and occasional onscreen presence for the series, but he’d lose “Player” status.
The same went for Coe, as he popped up a few times after the debut but without credit. Unlike O’Donoghue, though, Coe wouldn’t stay on the series for more than a handful of shows.
Despite all these standard elements already in place, we get some “work in progress” components. The sketches tend to be shorter than would become the norm, and our host Carlin does a few monologues but he doesn’t act in any of the skits.
The premiere allows for additional guest comics, so we get separate bits from Andy Kaufman and Valerie Bromfield. The former does his infamous “Mighty Mouse lip-synch” routine that reminds oddly compelling. On the other hand, Bromfield offers an annoying piece that makes me glad SNL dropped the “guest comics” motif before long.
Also, the use of the Muppets seems odd and out of place. As wonderful as the Muppets could be, they felt wrong for this show. The crowd – which laughs uproariously at much of the episode – seems perplexed by the Muppets, and they give this segment a subdued reaction. It doesn’t help that unlike the live sketches, the Muppets bit runs way too long.
We get four songs from the musical guests. That doubles the usual allotment, perhaps a view that the series felt more of a need to be a true variety show than a comedy program.
The premiere offers the first of many running characters, as the Killer Bees pop up for a very short “Bee Hospital” sketch. It’s lame enough that I’m surprised the Bees got another shot.
As scattershot and unformed as much of the episode can be, it does produce some decent laughs. I actually like the fact that the sketches usually run short compared to the later standard, as the pieces tend to end before they wear out their welcome.
Some parts of the debut seem oddly prescient, like the three-blade razor. The “Show Us Your Guns” segment could air on Fox News right now, and the attempts to scare homeowners with “security risks” also feels like a glimpse of the then-future.
The debut certainly comes with its ups and downs, but it works better than I anticipated. It’s a mess at times but it has good moments.
November 22, 1975: Hosted by Lily Tomlin, with musical guest Howard Shore’s All-Nurse Band.
December 13, 1975: Hosted by Richard Pryor, with musical guest Gil Scott-Heron.
January 17, 1976: Hosted by Buck Henry, with musical guests Bill Withers and Toni Basil.
February 21, 1976: Hosted by Desi Arnaz, with musical guest Desi Arnaz.
April 17, 1976: Hosted by Ron Nessen, with musical guest Patti Smith Group.
I chose this episode as my second Season One show for one reason: the oddness of its host. Nessen served as the press secretary for President Ford, a position that makes him a strange choice for an SNL host.
However, Chevy Chase’s impersonation of Ford as a dim-witted, clumsy oaf led to Nessen’s appearance here. Via tape, Ford himself does the “live from New York” bit and introduces Nessen.
Looking back, it seems remarkable how willing Ford appeared to be to go along with the joke. I don’t know if I’d call Chase’s impression mean-spirited, but it looks pretty harsh 45 years later.
This makes Nessen’s cooperation even more surprising. He tosses out some barbs during his monologue, and in a sketch with Chase’s Ford, he goes along with the continued depiction of Ford as a boob.
Nessen appears in a decent number of sketches, though he either literally or essentially plays himself. When he doesn’t act as “Ron Nessen”, he portrays other press secretaries.
Nessen holds his own. Sure, he doesn’t have to challenge himself, but he still seems more than competent in the sketches.
This episode more clearly resembles the SNL framework than the debut, with a higher percentage of “Players” sketches and fewer distractions. We find just one musical act, and the Smith Group plays the traditional two songs.
We find two short films, both of which seem surprisingly lousy. Indeed, the one about garbage dumps more resembles a brief documentary than a comedic piece, and it feels like an odd match.
A vestige of the debut, we get a guest comedian, as “Bill” Crystal does a routine. Actually, he goes more into storyteller mode, as he recreates a conversation with a jazz musician from his youth. It’s pretty awful.
A more surprising guest comes from political agitator Jerry Rubin. In a pre-taped bit, he advertises for radical wallpaper. It’s actually a pretty good poke in the eye at sellouts, made more effective by the use of the real Rubin and not a stand-in.
While the show feels more settled than the debut, it comes with one drawback: longer sketches that don’t know when to quit. For instance, a bit about how the Supreme Court invades citizens’ personal lives runs on and on, well past the point of any potential laughs.
That would always be a bugaboo for SNL. They often didn’t know how to end sketches, so they’ll go on too long and then conclude in a tepid manner.
Still, we get some good material here. The Nessen episode remains inconsistent but not bad.
Note that although the Muppets don’t appear in this show, apparently they remained part of SNL. At the episode’s end, Nessen notes that they were unable to take part due to technical issues.
May 8, 1976: Hosted by Madeline Kahn, with musical guest Carly Simon.
May 29, 1976: Hosted by Elliott Gould, with musical guests Leon Redbone, Harlan Collins and Joyce Everson.
October 2, 1976: Hosted by Eric Idle, with musical guests Joe Cocker and Stuff.
October 23, 1976: Hosted by Steve Martin, with musical guest Kinky Friedman.
October 30, 1976: Hosted by Buck Henry, with musical guest The Band.
November 20, 1976: Hosted by Paul Simon, with musical guests Paul Simon and George Harrison.
I admit I chose this one due to the musical guests – mainly Harrison, that is. He and Simon duet for two songs – “Here Comes the Sun” and “Homeward Bound” – while Simon plays “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”, “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, “Still Crazy After All These Years” and “Something So Right” on his own.
We also get music videos for Harrison’s “Crackerbox Palace” and “This Song”. All of that makes this an episode with a much heavier emphasis on music than usual.
The musical segments become the highlight of a spotty show, and Harrison participates in the episode’s funniest moment as well. On a prior SNL, producer Lorne Michaels made fun of then-exorbitant sums offered for a Beatles reunion by way of a $3000 bid for the Fabs to appear on the show.
Famously, Lennon and McCartney were at the Dakota and watched that show as it aired. They briefly contemplated a trek to the studio but alas, they bailed on that notion.
This made Harrison the first Beatle to appear on SNL, and as a continuation of the Michaels gag, he tries to wheedle the full $3000 out of the producer. It’s a fun callback that turns into the show’s best moment.
One other bit competes: when Chevy Chase appears during the cold open. Also famously, Chase had just left the show, and this became his final appearance until he returned to guest host in the future.
Mocking this choice, we see Chase as a busker in front of the studio. It’s a funny gag.
I admit surprise that Chase’s replacement Bill Murray didn’t pop up here. As it turns out, Murray didn’t join the show until the January 15, 1977 episode.
Beyond these elements, this turns into a less than stellar episode. Jane Curtin takes over “Weekend Update” for Chase but doesn’t seem comfortable yet, and most of the sketches offer minor pleasures at best.
December 11, 1976: Hosted by Candice Bergan, with musical guest Frank Zappa.
February 27, 1977: Hosted by Steve Martin, with musical guest the Kinks.
Like the Harrison episode, I also chose this one due to the music. The Kinks had been in the popular wilderness since 1970’s Lola. 1977’s Sleepwalker started their chart rehabilitation, as it made number 21 on the US album charts.
Still, the Kinks remained “passe” enough that they got forced to play a medley of oldies instead of two new tracks. Perhaps “forced” isn’t correct, though, as it’s possible the Kinks chose the collection of hits to remind audiences of their strengths.
Beyond the Kinks, this show offers the package’s first view of Bill Murray. It was his fourth appearance, but because the set doesn’t include the prior three programs, it’s our initial exposure.
Not that we get a lot of Murray, however. He makes a few token appearances and remains background most of the time, though he gets the semi-lead in a couple of sketches. Murray does little to hint at the comic genius later to come.
In an odd choice, Lily Tomlin guest stars and participates in a musical number called “Broadway Baby”. It features SNL’s three female Players and appears to exist just to let Tomlin showcase her talents. It’s a weird sequence that doesn’t fit the show.
Tomlin also plays multiple characters in a short film about a road trip. It brings her repertoire of roles like Ernestine the phone operator and Tess the bag lady. Though it also seems to appear just as a way to remind us of Tomlin’s abilities, it’s moderately funny.
In another “WTF?” moment, we get a short film about a restaurant in New Orleans. Why? I can’t answer that question, as it comes with no comedic value or any other obvious purpose.
Even though I’m old enough to remember this period of Martin’s career, it’s been so long since he left the “Wild and Crazy Guy” behind that it can come as a surprise to see that persona.
Wow, was he obnoxious! Still, Martin was talented despite the over the top nature of his stage personality, and he offers some mirth.
March 26, 1977: Hosted by Jack Burns, with musical guest Santana.
May 21, 1977: Hosted by Buck Henry, with musical guests Jennifer Warnes and Kenny Vance.
September 24, 1977: Hosted by Steve Martin, with musical guest Jackson Browne.
October 29, 1977: Hosted by Charles Grodin, with musical guests Paul Simon and the Persuasions.
In the category of unusual SNL episodes, this one deserves mention. If you look at the show’s Wikipedia entry, it states that Grodin didn’t show up for rehearsals and his refusal to prepare sabotaged the whole shebang. The listing even claims it’s “unknown” if this was scripted.
Whoever wrote that clearly didn’t get the joke, as the whole episode revolves around the pre-conceived notion that Grodin ruins the show. It’s obvious that the entire enterprise was pre-planned, so it’s surprising anyone believes otherwise.
The meta concept works surprisingly well, as it gives the episode a sense of danger and uncertainty. SNL showed a willingness to jerk with the audience, even if it seems clear the studio viewers weren't fooled.
Even without the Grodin concept, this becomes a better than usual show. With funny sketches like Mainstay’s dangerous Halloween costumes and Gilda Radner’s crazed turn as little girl Judy Miller, we get a solid program.
November 19, 1977: Hosted by Buck Henry, with musical guest Leon Redbone.
January 21, 1978: Hosted by Steve Martin, with musical guests the Dirt Band and Randy Newman.
January 28, 1978: Hosted by Robert Klein, with musical guest Bonnie Raitt.
February 18, 1978: Hosted by Chevy Chase, with musical guest Billy Joel.
Here comes the return of Chase, and he becomes the first former “Player” to host the show. Of course, unless you count George Coe, he was also the only former castmember back then, but still, it’s a milestone.
This means some callbacks to Chase’s time with SNL, a theme that starts with the return of Gerald Ford for the cold open. We also find Chase as part of the “Weekend Update” team.
Chase plays a much more prominent role than usual for a host, as he pops up for most of the sketches. Too bad the writers didn’t come up with better material, as the majority of the episode seems mediocre at best. A few laughs result, but I can’t find a single standout sketch here, though “Update” enjoys some good moments.
April 15, 1978: Hosted by Michael Sarrazin, with musical guests Keith Jarrett and Gravity.
April 22, 1978: Hosted by Steve Martin, with musical guest the Blues Brothers.
May 20, 1978: Hosted by Buck Henry, with musical guest Sun Ra.
October 7, 1978: Hosted by the Rolling Stones, with musical guest the Rolling Stones.
Don’t expect to see the Stones as an active presence in the sketches, as they’re here for music mainly. Mick Jagger plays himself as interviewed by Dan Aykroyd’s Tom Snyder, and Charlie Watts and Ron Wood show up as background for the “Olympia Café” bit, but otherwise, they’re just on the show to perform.
The Stones do three songs, a bit more than usual for a musical guest. That said, it seems odd they got called the “hosts” since they didn’t really do anything more than perform.
Does this mean the episode forgoes the usual monologue? No, but rather than get a Stone to do it, then-NYC Mayor Ed Koch performs this part of the show.
Koch shares the monologue with John Belushi, as the former gives the latter a certificate to commemorate the success of the then-current Animal House. It’s not a great bit, but it’s fairly amusing.
Speaking of unusual material, the cold open offers a Big Band tune, with Garrett Morris as vocalist. It attempts no real comedy and seems like a curious option.
As a fan, the appearance of the Stones acts as the highlight, even if it traumatized me as an 11-year-old. I knew little to nothing about the band back then, and the sight of Jagger as he licked Wood’s face creeped me out!
It’s good to hear the Stones in their semi-prime, as they did three tracks from the then-current Some Girls album. Unfortunately, due to a combination of too much partying and excessive rehearsals, Jagger’s voice was shot, and that mars the songs.
Another image that stayed with me: Aykroyd’s appliance repairman with the exposed butt crack in the sketch with nerds Lisa and Todd. Even with that disturbing visual, it becomes a fun bit.
The Greek diner piece works despite the utter inability of Wood and Watts to act. It relies less on the “cheeburger cheeburger” gag than usual and also goes down a surprisingly dark path. It’s a strange deviation but I like it.
This show marks the debut of Bill Murray as the “Weekend Update” co-anchor. In prior years, he acted as show business correspondent, and he maintains that same glib tone in his new position. His shift offers a good twist and prompts laughs.
A sketch in which President Carter reunites the Beatles offers potential but it doesn’t quite work. It doesn’t help that Belushi’s Lennon and Murray’s McCartney are laughably bad. “Danger Probe” fizzles as well.
Even with Jagger’s shot voice, this becomes a solid show. I could live without the odd cold open, but much of the rest of the episode does well, so expect one of this package’s strongest programs.
October 14, 1978: Hosted by Fred Willard, with musical guest Devo.
November 4, 1978: Hosted by Steve Martin, with musical guest Van Morrison.
November 18, 1978: Hosted by Carrie Fisher, with musical guest the Blues Brothers.
As an 11-year-old Star Wars fanatic, the presence of Fisher offered intrigue. Inevitably, SNL spooks that classic flick and casts the characters in a Beach Blanket Bingo scenario.
Though a clever concept, it doesn’t work especially well. Fisher looks good in her bikini – a precursor to Slave Leia! - but the sketch seems mediocre. (I may also be annoyed that the sketch takes place in the 1950s but features concepts from the early 1960s.)
That doesn’t become the episode’s only stab at Star Wars material. Fisher dresses as Princess Leia for the monologue and offers Star Wars-centric jokes, with an off-screen voice of Aykroyd as Obi-wan Kenobi. It never quite gels.
Akin to the cold open for the Stones episode, this one launches with a performance from the Blues Brothers. I remember the first time I saw this as a kid. I waited for a gag to materialize, but also like the Big Band bit from the prior show, the episode plays the music straight.
That’s fine, but the Blues Brothers were never more than a glorified vanity project for Aykroyd and Belushi. Granted, they sounded better than they should because those leads surrounded themselves with a stellar band, but the Blues Brothers still were mediocre at best.
The same goes for this largely forgettable episode. Really, not a single sketch stands out a above average, and most lack much appeal. Maybe the Fisher program seems weaker than it is because I watched it right after the Stones show, but it still feels blah and uninspired.
December 2, 1978: Hosted by Walter Matthau, with musical guest Garrett Morris.
December 9, 1978: Hosted by Eric Idle, with musical guest Kate Bush.
October 13, 1979: Hosted by Steve Martin, with musical guest Blondie.
For the first time since Chevy Chase left at the start of Season Two, Season Five marks the departure of prominent castmembers, as Aykroyd and Belushi split after Season Four. Although SNL brought in Murray to replace Chase, S5 doesn’t attempt to find fresh performers to fill in for Belushi and Aykroyd, which leaves the Not Ready for Primetime Players down to a mere five members.
Harry Shearer officially came on board as a “Featured Player” in the next episode, but he makes an unbilled appearance close to this one’s finale. Don Novello gets credited here as a special guest as well, though the show bills him solely as “Father Guido Sarducci” – and at least for this program, we don’t see him in any other role.
We already saw writers like Al Franken, Alan Zweibel and Tom Davis in various sketches. That continues, though the episode still emphasizes the main cast.
With all that cast-related upheaval, S5 finds SNL unsure of itself. Martin had already hosted multiple times, so he feels at home and manages some laughs.
Probably the best sketch stems from one that views the Ancient Roman-era Vandals as mischievous teens. It offers a clever conceit and produces decent comedy.
Otherwise, this becomes a forgettable open to the season, and even the beloved Mr. Bill wears thin. At least Blondie’s performance adds some much-needed energy, and Murray’s character in the final sketch offers a clear precursor to Caddyshack’s Carl.
March 15, 1980: No host, with musical guests Paul Simon, James Taylor and David Sanborn.
This DVD package really gives Season Five the short shrift, as it includes only these two episodes – and this one appears solely as an “extra”. I’d prefer some greater balance and a couple more programs from S5.
We get return visits from departed SNL participants. Both Belushi and Michael O’Donoghue appear during a “séance” in the cold open, and their presence makes it a fun launch.
Belushi also reappears in a sketch about a medieval proto-rock band. He played Lady Eleanor and so seemed to enjoy himself that back in 1980, I thought this meant he wanted to return to the show. I was wrong.
With no host, we also get no monologue. Instead, Bill Murray does a hyperactive comedic musical ode to the NYC subway that doesn’t really work, though Murray’s manic energy almost carries it.
New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan also appears as the narrator of an “Irish fairy tale” of a tall leprechaun. A weak premise, it never goes anywhere, though it offers an odd contrast to see less-famous siblings Peter Aykroyd and Brian Doyle-Murray act together.
Other guests include a rant from consumer advocate Ralph Nader during “Weekend Update” and Michael Palin during a sketch,
The “nerds” sketch does okay for itself, but like Mr. Bill in the earlier S5 show, the theme wears thin. Note that Paul Shaffer plays one of the teen nerds, and the name “Artie” presages his Spinal Tap role, though he doesn’t use the last name “Fufkin” here.
Speaking of Shaffer, he created one of the series’ most infamous moments when he accidentally let fly the “F-word” during that sketch about the medieval band. The bit uses the term “flogging” as a substitute, and throws it out dozens of times, but Shaffer screwed up and went for the actual notorious term of profanity on one occasion.
That’s about the most noteworthy aspect of the episode. Though it comes with some decent highlights – mainly due to Belushi’s brief return – it demonstrates that S5 wasn’t a great one for SNL.