After 27 years and more than 500 shows, Saturday Night Live is more than just the longest running comedy on television — it's a force that changed the face of television forever, and gave us a stream of stars that rule the airwaves and silver screen.
For their best-selling book, Live From New York: An Oral History of Saturday Night Live, authors Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller talked to the many of the original "Not Ready for Prime Time Players." Read an excerpt below.
Chapter One: Exordium: 1975-1976
Like all show business successes, Saturday Night Live had many fathers. Several mothers too. There is still, so many years after the birth, disagreement over who the real father is. The show had a gestation period of more than a year, during which the concept took various forms, none identical to that of the show we know today. Adjustments and refinements continued after the premiere.
Whatever the evolutionary variations in structure and format, however, Saturday Night Live was from the beginning a lone pioneer staking out virgin territory and finding its way in the night, its creative team determined to make it television's antidote to television, to all the bad things — corrupt, artificial, plastic, facile — that TV entertainment had become.
CBS still ruled the ratings in the mid-1970s, but executives at RCA, which owned NBC, had high hopes for the network's aggressive and competitive new president, Herbert Schlosser, a onetime Wall Street lawyer who took over in 1974. He was anxious to make his mark on television history. And he would.
ROSIE SHUSTER, Writer: Lorne Michaels arrived in my life before puberty, let's put it that way. I swear to God. There was not a pubic hair in sight when he arrived on my doorstep. We were living in Toronto in the same neighborhood. I was with my girlfriend. We were jumping on boards, just letting go - we were just wild prepubescent kids, and Lorne observed me from the sidelines. And I guess he was struck by my mojo, or whatever, and he basically started following me around. We were inseparable after that.
HOWARD SHORE, Music Director: As kids, Lorne and I went to a coed summer camp in Canada. And that was really the beginning of our friendship. I was thirteen and Lorne must have been about fifteen. Rosie Shuster was there, too. We did shows you do at summer camp, like Guys and Dolls, The Fantasticks, things like that. And on Saturday nights, we did "The Fast Show," a show Lorne and I put together quickly - hence the title. We did comedy, we did sketches, we had kind of a repertory company and some musicians. If you think about it, it was truly the beginning of Saturday Night Live, because it was a show we put on every Saturday night, and it was a live show, and it was somewhat improvisational, with comedy and music. We always had a bunch of people around us who were writers and actors even at that age. And that kind of progressed from summer camp to other things that Lorne and I wrote together.
ROSIE SHUSTER: My dad really mentored Lorne in terms of comedy. Lorne had a partner and did radio shows just like my dad had done, and then did CBC specials just like my dad had done. I saw the whole thing unfold, and felt like Saturday Night Live was so much a part of something that grew from my home. Something about the show came from inside my family. Lorne visited my dad inside his little showbiz pup tent where he shared his wild enthusiasms. Lorne was a very avid, eager sponge for all of it; he heard all of the names of everybody backstage at the Ed Sullivan Show, and all the ins and outs of the movies. My dad grew up watching the Marx Brothers and Chaplin. He was just spellbound by all of that, and he shared that love with me and with Lorne.
LORNE MICHAELS, Executive Producer: I grew up in Canada, where we had all three American networks and later a Canadian network. So I was watching CBS and ABC when I was eight or nine, and grew up on the same television that everybody else grew up with. I saw the same kind of movies, but my grandparents owned a movie house and my mother worked in it and my uncle had been a projectionist - the Playhouse on College Street. My mother, who died in 2001, could still play music from the silent movies, from the sheet music the movie companies sent around. My maternal grandmother, who was an enormous influence on me, and my aunts and uncles and my mother of course, all talked about movies and show business in whatever form, and books. That was all a part of my growing up. I don't think I ever thought that's what I'd be doing with my life, although when I was at my peak seriousness, at twentytwo or twenty-three, I thought I'd be a movie director. In 1972 I had presented this pilot to the CBC. They said they were thinking about it, but the head of the CBC- whose name I am clearly blocking - said to me one afternoon when I was talking passionately about why this show would be a breakthrough show, he said, "If you're that funny, why are you here?" And I thought, "Oh my God, it's that Canadian thing of 'If you're good, you go to America.'"
SANDY WERNICK, Agent: When I met Lorne, he was in Canada, producing and starring in The Hart and Lorne Hour with his partner, Hart Pomerantz. I remember when I met him that I didn't think he was that good. The other guy was the funny one, you know, which is typical in our industry. But I remember being impressed with the meeting. I had never met anybody who had a gift of gab like Lorne. He would just mesmerize me with what he was talking about. If you talked about comedy, all of a sudden he would just light up and turn on. I remember introducing him to Bernie because I knew that would be a marriage.
BERNIE BRILLSTEIN, Manager: I met him when he was working on Laugh-In with his partner, who wound up going back to Canada. We were doing the Burns and Schreiber summer show with Jack Burns and Avery Schreiber, and there was a spot for a writer. Sandy Wernick from ICM told me Lorne was available. I said to bring him in to fill the last slot. And I fell in love with him. He wanted to know about old show business, and he had done a short film, The Hockey Puck Crisis, which was great: Hockey pucks grew on trees, and there was a blizzard that destroyed the crop, so they couldn't play hockey in Canada that year. Being a hockey fan and a comedy fan, I thought it was hysterical.
LORNE MICHAELS: Bernie's a larger-than-life character. He was also an antidote, because I was deadly serious about everything I was doing in those days. Bernie had the gambler's love of the sheer larceny of it, whether it was Hee Haw or whatever, it didn't seem to matter. He knew the good stuff from the bad stuff, but it didn't stop him from dealing with either - whereas I thought if I was involved with anything bad, it would destroy my life.
ROSIE SHUSTER: I had done television shows with Lorne in Toronto and in Los Angeles. On one of Lily Tomlin's specials we did "Arresting Fat People in Beverly Hills" together. Bernie Brillstein played one of the fat people. Vertical stripes, you know, only vertical stripes. It got nominated for an Emmy.
LILY TOMLIN, Host: Lorne was used to being a star back in Canada. We were quite close at that time. When Lorne worked with me on my specials, he would spend too much time editing and be too fanatical about everything. Jane Wagner would say, "You're going too far and you're spending too much money and the show needs to be rougher." Lorne and I would get into the editing room and get too perfectionistic, you know. I must say I think some illegal substances had something to do with it.
ROBERT KLEIN, Host: I remember before there was any Saturday Night Live, an actually humble Lorne Michaels used to come to the office of my manager, Jack Rollins. Lorne was a kid from Canada married to Rosie Shuster, who was the daughter of Frank Shuster of Wayne and Shuster, the duo that used to be extremely unfunny on the Sullivan show years ago. Lorne was looking for some work, and Jack was very helpful to him.
TOM SCHILLER, Writer: My father, Bob Schiller, was working on this show called The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show in 1968, and he said there was a junior writer on the show that he'd love me to meet. And I said, "Why?" And he said, "Well, he knows all of the best restaurants in L.A." So one day Lorne comes over wearing a Hawaiian shirt. He seemed like a nice enough guy - a little nebbish, you know. What struck me though was that after my dad introduced me, Lorne lit up a joint right there in the house. I was scared?but I was impressed too, that he had the boldness to do that. We sort of became friends and I started hanging out with him at the Chateau Marmont.
DICK EBERSOL, NBC Executive: In the spring of 1974, I was approached by NBC to come over there and essentially run their sports department. At that time, I was Roone Arledge's assistant at ABC. I said no. I think they were like in shock; how could somebody who was twenty-seven turn that down? But I felt they didn't take sports seriously, that they wouldn't put real resources into it, and besides, I didn't want to compete against the best person who'd ever done it before or since: Roone.
My saying no apparently impressed Herbert Schlosser, the president of NBC. So, lo and behold, in the summer of 1974, Schlosser invited me to his place on Fire Island - along with Marvin Antonowsky, one of his programming executives - and essentially laid out the whole thing: how Johnny Carson had given them fair warning that he did not want weekend repeats of The Tonight Show to exist after the summer of 1975. They had begun to order up some specials. One had Burt Reynolds sort of hosting. It was talky and had some comedy bits. Herb said he was very much interested in finding some regular stuff for that time period. I was intrigued, even though I had no background whatsoever in late night. I'd been a sports kid since I dropped out of Yale to work for Roone in 1967.
I told Roone I was leaving the same morning Nixon resigned. I had a whole deal to come over to NBC as head of weekend late-night programming. I had one year to come up with a show to go into that time period, and if the show was creatively sound, I had Herb's word it would get at least six months on the air.
I thought I'd negotiated every possible thing to protect myself, but I had neglected to ask for a secretary. So when I arrived at NBC, the biggest bureaucracy of the western world, I didn't get a secretary for three months. I was answering my own phones and my office was a mess.
HERBERT SCHLOSSER, NBC President: I had played a role in hiring Ebersol. I can remember when I interviewed him, it was out on Fire Island on a weekend, and he was wearing a pair of pants where one leg was one color and the other leg was another color. Which I guess is what you wore in Connecticut. Johnny Carson was the biggest star NBC had, unchallengeable in his time period. It wasn't like Leno and Letterman fighting each other now. Johnny was very, very important to the network, and we were getting emanations that he was not pleased about the weekend repeats of his show. They'd been on for ten years, and we ourselves weren't that thrilled, but it had been an easy thing for us to do- just put 'em on. So I thought we should try something new.
FRED SILVERMAN, NBC President: When Herb looks back on his days at NBC, he's the only guy that had worse days than I did. He really doesn't have much of a positive nature to look back at. So I can see where he would remember the beginnings of the show so well. Saturday Night Live was a big deal for him. It was Herb's biggest endeavor.
DICK EBERSOL: I spent September and October of 1974 roaming the West Coast, Canada, Chicago, and New York, looking for comics and comedy producers. I came to the conclusion rather quickly that the only way this show would work would be if the young embraced it?if it was a show for a younger audience. Johnny was the most brilliant person in the world but his show wasn't for teenagers.
One piece of talent I thought would give us credibility was Richard Pryor. We had these meetings with Richard, and they went fairly well. He finally agreed to a deal. After that, Lily Tomlin agreed to fall in. So did George Carlin. Someone was trying to sell me Steve Martin and Linda Ronstadt as a twosome.
While all this was going on, Sandy Wernick at ICM, who had Lorne as a client, set up a meeting for us in L.A. I didn't know Lorne but discovered he had substantial credits in specials and that he'd been involved in Laugh-In. Lorne pitched an idea based on Kentucky Fried Theater. I decided right away that it wasn't for me. I just didn't really dig it. But Lorne and I hit it off. Meantime, I'm buying up a lot of talent.
Just after Christmas of 1974 I get a phone call from a managerlawyer in Atlanta, now dead, who says that he represents Richard Pryor and has convinced Richard that television is a disaster and whatever career he has, he'll never be able to do what he does well on over-the-air television. He could not be himself. So the deal was off. I came back right after the first of January and told Schlosser that Pryor was out. Some day subsequent to that he wrote me a memo and said, "Why don't you bring the show back to New York and even think about doing it in old Studio 8H?" So that part was his idea: "Use 8H." Then I got hold of Lorne, the closest contemporary to me I'd met in this whole process. He did not have an idea at this point. We goof now about the number of people who've talked about how "the idea" was "sold to NBC." No idea was sold to NBC. I adore Bernie Brillstein, but anything in his book about selling an idea, it never happened. Get the lie detectors out; ask Lorne. It's all bull----. What did happen was that Lorne just took my breath away in the way he talked about things, how he wanted to have the first television show to speak the language of the time. He wanted the show to be the first show in the history of television to talk - absent expletives - the same language being talked on college campuses and streets and everywhere else. And I was very taken with that, among other things. So I told NBC there were two people I wanted to do the show, which would be a live comedy show from New York: I wanted this guy Lorne Michaels to produce it, and I wanted a guy named Don Ohlmeyer to direct it.
BERNIE BRILLSTEIN: You know that at one point NBC suggested Rich Little as the host? I swear to God. We had a meeting with a guy named Larry White. He was head of NBC programming. And we went to see him with the first real pitch of Saturday Night Live ever. Lorne told him what he wanted to do, and Larry White said, "That's the worst idea I've ever heard in my life."
DICK EBERSOL: The night Lorne picked me up at the Beverly Hills Hotel to go see Kentucky Fried Theater - he never said a word about being married - there was this really, really gorgeous dish who got out of the front seat and into the backseat. So we all went to this play, and Lorne and I sat together and this girl sat next to me. And they had introduced her as "Sue Denim," because Rosie loved having these various names. And we finally got back to the Beverly Hills Hotel, and I'm thinking, "This girl is really a knockout and smart as hell, maybe I ought to ask her out." Because I wasn't anywhere near married in those days. And at some point, when we walked into the hotel to have a drink, it came out that she and Lorne were married, though they weren't living together at that time. But I know they pulled the wool over my eyes for at least three hours.
ROSIE SHUSTER: Dick thought that I was procured for his delight or something. There was a little fuzziness around my introduction.
MARILYN SUZANNE MILLER, Writer: Other than Herb Sargent, I was the television veteran of Saturday Night Live, which is to say I had worked in TV for two and a half or three years, and I had started on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, having had the sort of Lana Turner-ish Schwab's discovery made of me by Jim Brooks, aided and abetted by Garry Marshall. So I was writing Mary Tyler Moore and Rhoda at twenty-two, and I was on the staff of The Odd Couple.
I met Michael O'Donoghue and Anne Beatts through a friend when I was doing Rhoda and living in New York. When Lorne was putting the show together and asked me to be a part of it, I had an overactive thyroid and was living with this guy I really wanted to be with. So I told Lorne, "I can't do the show because I want to get married, but you've got to hire this guy O'Donoghue, because he's brilliant." Lorne of course had his own access to the Second City people and already knew Chevy, which had nothing to do with Michael. So thanks to me, Michael O'Donoghue got hired.
ANNE BEATTS, Writer: I was living a very sort of style-based existence with Michael O'Donoghue, which was severely crimped by the fact that he'd quit the Lampoon and we were completely broke. Michael was rather laid low by the whole experience. At one point I had achieved this thing where we had a gig doing restaurant reviews for the Village Voice - every reporter's dream, right? And free meals. And it was Christmastime and Michael and I cowrote a review of Luchow's, this restaurant where Diamond Jim Brady had gone to romance Lillian Russell. It was very Christmassy because it had a giant Christmas tree in the middle of it. Anyway, Michael insisted on putting some reference to Hiroshima and the Nazis into the review. The Village Voice did not go for this, especially in a restaurant review. Michael quit in a huff and we lost the gig. And I was like, "Oh, no." We were at the bail-out point when Lorne showed up and offered first Michael and then me jobs on Saturday Night Live. And I turned it down because I had sold a book: Titters, the first collection of humor by women. I said, "I can't do this stupid television show." And then a friend of mine was like, "Are you crazy? You have to do it." And thank goodness I did. So then Michael and I were working on it together.
DICK EBERSOL: NBC set up a meeting for eight o'clock in the morning. And Lorne said, "Dick, eight o'clock?!? You know I can't function at that hour." I said, "Lorne, it's breakfast. We've got to do it."
BERNIE BRILLSTEIN: Lorne said, "I can't get up." I said, "Lorne, this is the one time I'll call you and get you up."
DICK EBERSOL: So he came to this breakfast, I don't know if he'd even been to bed, and he's sitting with these two guys who, despite whatever nice things they did for me, I have to give the title of "stiffs." They're basically asking if Connie Stevens is going to do the show. Lorne goes into his best BS. When it's over they say, "Well, he's awfully young. But okay - you can have him." The next morning I bring in Ohlmeyer, who's more akin to their world, and they liked him very much. But Roone would not let Don out of his contract at ABC, and it would be almost two years before NBC got Don away from them.
HERBERT SCHLOSSER: I wanted to do the show live if possible, and I wanted to do it in New York City, because New York had lost all of its entertainment shows. Everything had moved to Burbank. Even Carson had moved to Burbank. Which left a void in 30 Rock. I originally thought it should be two hours and so forth. But the research department was very conservative. Nobody seemed to be enthusiastic at the meeting. Now I'd had an experience with the Tomorrow show, which I didn't want to repeat. I had wanted to put it on, and we went through the procedure as you should of having a financial analysis and a research analysis and so forth, but I never could get an answer from my own network people.
So I was talking to Julian Goodman, who was the chairman of NBC, about my frustration with my ideas for Saturday night, and he said to me, "You should just call Les Brown" - the reporter from Variety. "Have lunch with him and just tell him you're putting the show on." So I did. And it was in Variety a couple days later. Sure enough, the wheels started moving more rapidly.
DICK EBERSOL: I would go to the Chateau Marmont, where Lorne lived, and basically for nine or ten days, between going out to dinner and all this stuff, we worked out a loose thing of what this show is going to be. It's going to be a repertory company of seven, and a writing staff and fake commercials and all that.
BERNIE BRILLSTEIN: About this time, Lorne invited me to his birthday party - his thirtieth, I think - the only party ever held in the lobby of the Chateau Marmont, where they all used to stay. So the party supposedly starts at nine. I was the old man of the group, so I arrive at nine-thirty. And there's not a soul there. Not one. And finally Lorne comes down in slacks and pajama tops, just waking up or something. He said people would be there in a while. This is so Lorne. And about eleven o'clock, here's who walks in: Richard Pryor, Lily Tomlin, George Carlin - the entire underground of Hollywood comedy. And that's when I knew Lorne was a real somebody.
NEIL LEVY, Production Assistant: Lorne's a cousin of mine, and he had brought Paul Simon up to a cottage where I was staying. I didn't actually know who he really was. That's what an idiot I was. I asked him if he was from Simon and Garfunkel. He said, "Yeah, used to be." They had broken up four years earlier, I didn't even know. I did some magic tricks for Paul Simon. I think that impressed Lorne. After that he took me down on the dock and asked me if I wanted to be his assistant on this new show. Oh man, I think my bag was already packed. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. I was nineteen when I first came on the show - the youngest person on the staff. I just watched the whole thing come together with all these famous people slowly gravitating toward the show. I slept on Lorne's couch for a couple of weeks, long before the show ever started, and one day I came in and Mick Jagger was sitting there - in Lorne's apartment, on the couch. I don't know how Lorne knew Mick Jagger, because at that point he wasn't even "Lorne Michaels." But people were drawn to him.
ROBERT KLEIN: Some time had passed between when I met Lorne and the formation of this show. Next thing I know, I was immediately sought out as the host. Lorne came down to see me with Chevy Chase, who'd been in Lemmings, and checked me out at the Bitter End on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village. And I remember Lorne suggesting - he was no longer humble - that I should be more "vulnerable" in my act. He said this not directly to me, but through my manager, Jack Rollins. Anyway, it was definitely agreed that I had too big a reputation already to be, quote, "one of the kids," but that I should host the show.
ALBERT BROOKS, Filmmaker: Here's how Saturday Night Live came about. I was doing clubs and performing a lot, and Lorne used to come a lot to the shows. I knew that he was a fan. And something was brewing. They decided, I think around September of 1974, that they were, in fact, going to open up eleven-thirty on Saturday. I was first approached in the late fall, early winter of 1974. I was sort of asked by Dick Ebersol if I wanted to have a show - be the permanent host every week. Lorne Michaels was around. I mean, you know, it was both of them. I think I met with Ebersol alone, and Lorne alone, and then both of them together. But that was the first time I heard, "Do you want to host your own show?" And I actually had just done a short film. I wrote this article in1971 for Esquire: "The Famous School for Comedians." PBS had that Great American Dream Machine, which was a show of short films, so I made the "Famous School for Comedians" into like a fake infomercial, and it was hugely successful. The PBS stations ran it during pledge drives, and it just turned out to be a great experience for me. So this is what I wanted to do. But in any case, I knew I didn't want to do television, and I told that to Ebersol and Michaels. And then, you know, a month later, they come back: "This is going to be a big thing. Why don't you do it?" Now, as I did with everything - every time I said no to someone in my life - I always felt compelled to come up with an alternative idea so I didn't sound like an asshole. So I swear to God on my own life, I said to them, "You don't want a permanent host anyway. Every show does that. Why don't you get a different host every week?" And so I really have to tell you, when I said that, they both went, "Oh, okay!" So that was my suggestion. And then nothing else was said. Then November, December, January, I get another call. They had not really done anything. They hadn't proceeded in any one direction. So what was said to me was, "We want you involved." And at that time there were no cast members. There was nothing. I think serious auditions started in the late spring. So I said, "I want to get into the film business. I want to make short films. What if I make a short film for you?" They all liked the idea and they all said yes, but they didn't have a show yet. So, you know, no one had thought far enough ahead to think, "Well, gee, okay, so then this show is going to have at least a short film." Now, in turn for that, what I did for them is that in February or early March, there was a junket at the Sheraton Universal for the affiliates about the new season. You know, you'd walk in and the guy from New Orleans would put a palm tree and a bottle of booze there, and you'd stand in front of it and he'd say, "Welcome to New Orleans, Albert." I was there standing with Lorne, and the day was filled with people asking the same question: "So, what's this new show going to be about, Albert?" And I said, "I'm going to do some short films, but I don't really know anything other than that." Then Lorne said, "Well, we're not sure but, you know, we're going to do cutting-edge comedy." So I am positive that I was the first person brought on. Because I never saw anybody else, and nobody else was ever mentioned.
DICK EBERSOL: Long before anyone else, Albert had signed on to do those short films. They were inordinately important, because if you look at the early shows it's not really until show ten or eleven, with the exception maybe of Candy Bergen, show four, that you see anything roughly akin to what the show evolved into. So Albert's stuff from the beginning was wildly important. And it came from just running into him one day on Sunset Boulevard.
ALBERT BROOKS: I always said one thing to these guys - and they didn't take my advice, and in this case I'm sure it's good they didn't?but I said, "This 'live' stuff, it's absolutely meaningless to me. I grew up on the West Coast. I didn't see anything live. It was always tape-delayed. If Ed Sullivan takes his pants down, I'm not going to see him." To me Johnny Carson was as live as you want to get. If you were bad, you were bad; nobody did it over again. But you did it earlier. You didn't have to stay up until eleven-thirty. So what happens when you stay up until eleven-thirty? Guys like Belushi do nine gallons of coke to make it up that late. I know from being a stand-up, the late show, the midnight show, was the one I hated the most. So my suggestion was, tape a show without stopping tape, do one at four, do one at six-thirty, put the best of those two together, and show me that at eleven-thirty. I'm in California; nothing's live.
DICK EBERSOL: So now we get to early April, and we're summoned back to New York to make a presentation to the then-NBC program board, a fine group that I don't think made it out of that year. And when it's time to make the presentation, a guy whose name is Bob Howard, then president of the network under Schlosser, tells me a few hours before the meeting, "You can't bring Michaels to the meeting because he's not an NBC employee, he's a freelance producer. We want to hear about the show from you." I said, "What?!?!" So here's this presentation, which is largely Lorne's, and they won't let him in the room. Schlosser does sit in on it. I outlined the whole thing and finished and got stunned silence. Nobody says a word. Nothing. Herb finally says to Bill, "What do you think of it?" Bill Rudin was head of research, and he never wanted to have an opinion in his life until he heard the lay of the land, but he then uttered the famous words, "I don't think it'll ever work because the audience for which it's designed will never come home on Saturday night to watch it."
I went back and told Lorne how it had gone, and tried to keep him from being completely in a snit. Two weeks later, Dave Tebet, the network's head of talent, tells me, "You've got to go to Burbank right away. Carson wants to see you." Neither of us - Lorne or me - had a relationship with Johnny. We're both thinking our lives with this whole thing may be over, because this man, not only is he a genius but our show is going to exist only because he doesn't want his repeats airing on the weekend.
So we get to Burbank and we're taken to Johnny's office. He's there with his producer, Fred DeCordova, who's dressed like Mr. Hollywood, and there's Johnny in a dirty undershirt, sweat stains under each arm, gray slacks. It's maybe one-thirty in the afternoon. Johnny said very little at the meeting, he just wanted to know a few things about the show. Then Fred DeCordova started into this thing about separation. They were talking about guests. We said we didn't have guests, but they said yes you do, you have these hosts. So we worked out this thing that nobody could be booked on the show for a month before a Tonight Show appearance and we couldn't have them for a week or two weeks after. We were scared to death the whole time. So when we got out of there, we just went, "Whew."
TOM SCHILLER: The hip thing to do in those days was to go to the desert and eat hallucinogenic mushrooms. So we went to Joshua Tree and Lorne did the mushrooms. I don't think I really took them myself; it just seems like I did. He was talking a blue streak about this television show he was going to do; he would just never stop. I was really surprised that he could still take phone calls from New York at the pool after he had ingested those mushrooms. He never becomes noticeably different under any circumstances. You can't get through the glaze of brown eyes. You can't go behind them.
I didn't want to work in television; I wanted to be a great director, but I said yes to Lorne because I hated L.A. so much. When I first arrived in New York, I slept on the couch in Lorne's apartment. He would entertain people like Mick Jagger at the apartment, and Jagger would be sitting on the very couch that I was going to go to sleep on. I just couldn't wait for him to leave, because the second he got up, I would go to sleep.
HERBERT SCHLOSSER: No matter what anyone else tells you, the guy who created the show, and made it what it is, is Lorne Michaels.
LORNE MICHAELS: So much of what Saturday Night Live wanted to be, or I wanted it to be when it began, was cool. Which was something television wasn't, except in a retro way. Not that there weren't cool TV shows, but this was taking the sensibilities that were in music, stage, and the movies and bringing them to television.
Michaels continued his search for talent, listening to suggestions from network executives that he never for a moment considered, protected to some degree by Ebersol from direct interference. Some performers had to be pursued, others threw themselves at Michaels. He also relied on the many contacts he'd made as a performer and writer in Canada and on talent gleaned from improvisational groups like Chicago's and Toronto's Second City and the Groundlings in Los Angeles. If he had a fully conceived concept of the show in his head at this point, that's where he kept it, sharing it with almost no one.
DAVE WILSON, Director: I got involved because I was editing a show called A Salute to Sir Lew Grade. British television decided to salute him on his eightieth birthday or whatever it was, and they did an all-star show at the New York Hilton. Gary Smith and Dwight Hemion were actually the producers, but they couldn't stay so they left it all in my hands to get edited. And while I was editing, the production assistant on the show said she was going for an interview, there was a new show starting at NBC, some late-night thing that a Canadian kid was going to be producing. And I said, "Oh, what's it called?" And she said, "I don't know. I think it's called Saturday Night." I said, "Isn't that Howard Cosell and Roone Arledge at ABC?" And she said, "Oh no, that's the prime-time Saturday Night. This is the late-night Saturday Night." I called my manager and said I was interested and could he get me an interview. The funny thing about it was, I had to fight with my manager. He kept saying, "Oh, you don't want to get involved with a late-night thing, you want to be involved with a prime-time show." I said, "No, I don't want to be involved with a prime-time show, this late-night show looks like it's got some very interesting people involved."
I got an interview in a weird way too, because Lorne wasn't seeing anybody. I guess he had just had it with people being forced down his throat. But luckily my manager was a very good friend of Bernie Brillstein, and I had worked with Bernie on a Muppet show, "Sex and Violence with the Muppets." And Bernie said, "I know Dave Wilson, he gets along great with Jim Henson. And if he can get along great with Jim Henson, he can get along great with anybody." So he put in the word to Lorne that maybe I was somebody he'd be interested in seeing.
HOWARD SHORE: I actually had to find the band. I'm an avid collector of music and of jazz and R&B, and I just called people I'd listened to on records. I got in touch with as many people as I could that I was interested in. I knew they were in New York. I started to put the band together, started to write original music for the show, themes and original music for the band itself. The Carson show was big-band music. Although I sort of grew up in that a bit in the fifties - Glenn Miller and Ellington and Basie I listened to - the big-band thing was not really my generation. My generation was more R&B and rock and roll.
PAUL SHAFFER, Musician and Performer: Howard Shore called me to be in his new band for Saturday Night Live. Howard had worked for me in a theatrical show in Toronto on saxophone. I was conducting Godspell, the Toronto company. We had a wonderfully talented cast. Gilda was in the cast. Also Andrea Martin, Eugene Levy, Marty Short, and Dave Thomas, among others. These were the funniest people I'd ever come in contact with. I met Lorne up in his seventeenth-floor office. For some reason I have this recollection of him looking at two pots of coffee brewing and saying, "Which one of these coffees is fresher?" And I'll always remember that. I thought, "This is a guy who speaks in comedic pentameter." I remember that and the fact that his skin was all broken out, because he was nervous. He was putting this show together from scratch, and he hadn't hired anybody yet.
DAVE WILSON: I first met with Lorne up on seventeen in his office, back in the days when he was wearing a T-shirt that said "Dracula Sucks" and jeans and a ponytail. I was there in my interview suit. I remember coming home from the interview and telling my wife, "Well, I guess I didn't get that job," because Lorne kept saying things like, "This is a young person's medium" and "I'm going to go off in a new direction." Luckily, by happenstance he also said, "For example, our first host is going to be George Carlin. Do you think you and he could understand each other?"
What he didn't know, and what I wasn't even sure that George would remember, is that George and I went to camp together as kids. So I said, "Of course, George Carlin and I are old friends - old, old friends, from when we were like little kids." And he said, "I'm going out to the coast to meet with him, I'll say hello for you." I kept praying, "I hope George Carlin remembers me after this whole thing." Turns out he did, and Lorne, I guess, was sort of impressed by that. Then I went for a second interview and got the job.
DICK EBERSOL: We were walking through the rain one night after dinner, sort of going from awning to awning, and Chevy ran ahead. A couple hundred feet away, he goes into a pothole, does a complete ass over teakettle into this immense pothole, and comes out of this thing just soaked. And he walks back and he and Lorne look at me and say, "Now how could you say no to somebody who was crazy enough to do that?" So Chevy became a cast member. And he ended up with a magnificent loophole, since he already had a signed one-year contract as head writer. From the time the show launched, every time the performer contract was put in front of him, it never got signed.
BERNIE BRILLSTEIN: I had to call Gilda Radner in Vancouver and urge her not to do the David Steinberg show, a syndicated show. It was an offer she'd been considering. I had never met Gilda. That's how I got to know her - over the phone. I made her laugh, you know. Lorne, of course, wouldn't make the call himself, so I had to do it. Even then, there was no direct route. Why it's that way with him I don't know. Fear of rejection, I guess. And clean hands - you know, it's like, "I have nothing to do with it."
DICK EBERSOL: Late April, early May, Lorne started laying out the cast. One day he's got this really bizarre guy with smoked glasses, Michael O'Donoghue, and I'm thinking, "Oh God, what have we gotten into here?" And then one day he told me, "This girl is the funniest thing and just a super human being, you're going to be crazy about her," because I had okay over these people. So this thin young woman shows up with a kid who says hello and excuses himself. But the woman is Gilda. And here I am talking to this young comedic actress, and I'm absolutely mesmerized by her. So she's the first person signed to do the show after Lorne.
DAN AYKROYD, Cast Member: I went through so many auditions. Live auditions, tape auditions. After the first one, I thought, "I'm not going to get hired," and I ended up driving across country with John Candy to do Second City in Pasadena. We went from Toronto to L.A. in thirty-eight hours in a big old Mercury Cougar with me and him switching off driving. And then we got to Pasadena and I started my first week of rehearsals and Lorne called and said, "Well, come back out." So at my own expense, I got on a f------ plane, flew back to New York, and had this other series of tape auditions. I think I did like newscaster guy, announcer guy type of thing, and if anything got me on the show it was that type of fast-rap announcer, the Ron Popeil sort of thing.
There was one audition in the summer, a live thing, a cattle call. I came down with a friend from Toronto. We had a song prepared, but then I saw all the people lined up, waiting outside in the hall there. There were a hundred people waiting to get in, and I was at the end of the line. And I thought, "Boy, it's three o'clock now, it's going to be seven o'clock at night when we get on. This song ain't going to go over too well."
So I just kind of cut through the line and busted into the room- because I knew Lorne from Canada - and walked up. "Hey, how are you boss, what're you doing, nice to see you." I said, "Well, I'm here," and I did a sort of quick five-minute kind of fast rap and then got out of there. And I think they were impressed. After that audition, it was clear I had the job. I went home to Canada, got my motorcycle, and drove down into the city for the first season in '75. I had just turned twenty-three.
PAUL SHAFFER: Gilda and I had both worked on the National Lampoon Radio Hour here in New York, so we became friendly with John Belushi and Doug Kenney and this cast of characters associated with the Lampoon. I remember Gilda was trying to get Belushi hired for Saturday Night Live. A lot of people were telling Lorne he had to hire Belushi. And I remember seeing Gilda with Belushi one day, and she said, "We're sitting shiva because Lorne won't hire John."
CHEVY CHASE, Cast Member: In fact, Belushi was an afterthought. I mean, he had told Lorne at some point that he was not enchanted with TV per se and he didn't want to do TV. And Lorne didn't particularly care if he saw him or didn't see him. Then John did an audition and Lorne said, "Well, he's funny, and we could use somebody who looks like him."
DAN AYKROYD: Lorne was concerned that Belushi and I would be a duo that would give him a lot of trouble. He thought, "Oh, get these guys together and their strength will be my weakness, because they'll be rebels." And you know, in a way, he was right. Certainly there was an energy around us.
John was a kid out of Chicago, the Chicago Second City troupe, and I was out of the Second City in Toronto. I came from the capital city of Ottawa, the child of two government workers; his father ran a restaurant, was in private business. But we grew up loving the same things: The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, old black-and-white TV. When we first came up with the Blues Brothers, that was prior to SNL. John came up to Toronto to recruit for the National Lampoon Radio Hour; that's when I first met him. He managed to get Gilda to come down to New York to work with him. I had this gig on a kid's TV show at four in the afternoon, I had my job at Second City, I did radio and television commercials, and I had my speakeasy bar, which was all cash, no tax. So I was flush. I had rockets going everywhere. I was making more money than the prime minister of Canada. I had a car, a bike, an apartment in the city, my tent at the farm. I was living a beautiful life up there. There was no way I wanted to go to the States.
JUDITH BELUSHI, Writer: In John's first interview with Lorne, one of the first things he said was, "My television has spit all over it." That's how he felt about television. He was asked to do a few television things. He was offered a guest shot on Mary Tyler Moore, which everyone thought could easily turn into a character role. And it was kind of a big deal to say no.
He even liked Mary Tyler Moore. But he needed to be political and outrageous.
LORNE MICHAELS: I had worked in television for eight years, so I was bored with people who go, "I don't do television." I had no patience for it, for people putting it down. They say, "I'm not doing television," and then I go, "Well, then, there's no point to us talking." I told John, "I hear what you're doing is great, but I don't want you to have to do something that you don't want to do." My instinct was that he was going to be trouble.
JUDITH BELUSHI: John went to talk to Lorne because, he said, "Well, if he's hiring O'Donoghue and Anne Beatts and Gilda" - they were people John liked working with, and so he figured the show was going to be something different.
ANNE BEATTS: They had been paying us the same amount, which was a big $750 a week. You can imagine, if we were happy to accept free restaurant meals from the Village Voice, $750 a week represented a considerable sum to us in those days. I mean, our rent was $675 a month, which everyone thought was just horrendously high for what Belushi called "the Winter Palace" on Sixteenth Street.
And then NBC told me, "Oh, we're not supposed to be paying you as much as Michael. We've been paying you $750 a week, but that's a mistake. And we want the money back." They said it had been a bookkeeping error. And I basically said, "Go f--- yourself." You know, "The money's gone and you're not getting it back. Furthermore, you better start paying me $750 a week." Why shouldn't I make the same as him? I don't know. Because he had more credits or something. Or because he had a penis.
DICK EBERSOL: Some of the auditions took place in a Steinway rehearsal hall on West Fifty-seventh Street. When we came back over to 30 Rock, even after John's incredible audition, Lorne was really troubled about how one could discipline him. John was always the best person available in New York, bar none. But he always made it perfectly clear that he thought television was s---. Everything about television was s---. And yet he kept showing up for all these meetings and auditions. And Lorne was very worried about it. Finally, on the day the decision was made, the three of us - Michael, Anne Beatts, and I - really argued for John in a big way. And I think Lorne said at the time, the thing that finally turned his mind was I said I would take responsibility for him. I made a vow to Lorne that if he's the nightmare some people think he'll be, I'll take care of him. I'll be the minder of Belushi- which led to some awfully fun stuff for me, including him almost burning my house down. He did the same thing to Lorne's place in New York.
JUDITH BELUSHI: Just before John and I were married, I kicked him out of the house for this or that, and he went and stayed at Lorne's place. He fell asleep with a cigarette going, and the mattress caught on fire. He didn't burn the whole place down, but I'm sure it caused some damage. Lorne called me afterward and said, "Can I send him home now?"
BERNIE BRILLSTEIN: I went down there after the fire, and there were odors I had never smelled before in my life. I mean, it was terrible. I was an old guy. I was used to comedians in tuxedos and ties.
CHEVY CHASE: John was wonderful. He was trouble later on for me. Jesus, oh God, was he trouble.
GARRETT MORRIS, Cast Member: I'd been a licensed schoolteacher, taught two years at PS 71 in New York plus five years at the projects with drug-addicted kids. And you know what, I hadn't worked in like a f------ year and a half. I'd done Cooley High and that was it. I left the school system to go back into a thing called Hallelujah Baby. My license had even expired.
I didn't have a job. I was starving. So Lorne offered me a job. I won't tell you how much it was, but it was good money.
LARAINE NEWMAN, Cast Member: I worked for Lorne the first time on a Lily Tomlin special. He had come to see me when we had just formed the Groundlings and we had our theater over on Oxford and Santa Monica. It was just the armpit of Hollywood, and he came to see the show. I was doing my characters and my monologues. They really were looking for men for the Lily Tomlin special, they didn't need any more women. But they ended up hiring me. And that was just thrilling. I was twenty-two. The following year, Lorne told me he had been approached to do a weekend replacement show for The Tonight Show and said it would be a cross between Monty Python and 60 Minutes. And I thought, "I'd watch that," you know. It was a big break and I thought, "This'll be great."
JANE CURTIN, Cast Member: John and I were the last two people hired, and John was hired about a week after me, so I didn't have any idea of what was going on there. But I knew John, because John and I were also auditioning for the Howard Cosell show. So I was working with John in those auditions too. He was much sweeter back then, I think, because he couldn't afford the drugs. He was more in control. He was accessible. I actually liked him when we were working on the Cosell show auditions. I thought he was a lot of fun, and I thought he was very talented. And then when he got hired by Saturday Night, I thought it was a very good idea.
LORNE MICHAELS: Gilda and John and Danny had known each other from before. Danny and I had known each other because when I came down, I brought him down from Canada. Gilda and I went back forever. And so you had Laraine, who I brought from L.A., Jane Curtin, who we kind of heard about, and the girl we were going to choose, this girl named Mimi Kennedy. But Gilda was worried that they were too similar.
GARRETT MORRIS: The way I got on the show as an actor is that a couple people on the writing staff were trying to get rid of me as a writer. Mind you, I had two plays that had been produced in New York City. In fact, New York commissioned a play from your boy, okay, and then I wrote another play, which was produced in New York and in L.A. I'm a playwright, so I was having trouble getting my stuff down to a minute or a minute and a half, to fit into some sketch. The first three months or so, a guy there stole an idea and then added a little something to it, and he didn't even give me credit for cowriting. This guy stole from me and then told Lorne I couldn't write. Lorne's response was even-tempered. He wasn't necessarily stroking me like I was a pet, but he was fair. When the challenge came to get rid of me as a writer, Lorne let me audition for the Not Ready for Prime Time Players. He did not fire me. And to this day, I am thankful for that. So I got with the Not Ready for Prime Time Players, and the look on that guy's face for the next four years was the only thing that saved me from jumping on him.
BERNIE BRILLSTEIN: Lorne really stuck to his guns at the very beginning. He told the network, "I must have seventeen shows. Give the show time to grow." They thought we were insane. And maybe we were. But it wasn't until the tenth show that they really hit their stride. Lorne was this great young writer who had this vision of this type of show. He was also a good producer, but everybody forgets what a great writer he was, and certainly a great editor. He was like a conduit for all the comedy brains at the time. He was just "The Guy."
JOHN LANDIS, Film Director: This is all hindsight, okay? I don't want to take anything away from Lorne, but he was in the right place at the right time. There were comedy movements going on everywhere. In England you had the Pythons, in San Francisco you had the Committee, in Chicago you had Second City, and then in New York - starting in Boston but then moving to New York - you had the National Lampoon Show.
If you look at Saturday Night Live's cast for the first three or four years, you'll see they were all either Lampoon or Second City. He cherry-picked people of great skill and talent that had been trained and gotten their chops.
EUGENE LEE, Set Designer: I can remember Lorne - he would not remember - saying to me, "God, this is going to be so great! We all get to just hang out in New York together." I was living on a sailboat in Rhode Island, working with what was then called the Trinity Square Repertory Company - where I still work - and someone called my boat about this Canadian producer doing a comedy-variety show. They wanted to know if we - my wife, Franne, a costume designer, and I - would be interested in talking. He was at the Plaza, we could call and make an appointment. Well, why not? Franne and I both came in to see Lorne. We brought along, as designers do, a few things to show him what we did. He didn't seem that interested. I don't think he ever looked at any of them.
ALAN ZWEIBEL, Writer: In 1975 I'm this Jewish guy slicing God-knows-what at a deli in Queens and selling jokes to these Catskill comics for seven dollars a joke. At night I would go on at Catch a Rising Star. I had taken all the jokes that the Borscht Belt comedians wouldn't buy from me because they said the stuff was too risqu? for their crowd and made them into a stand-up act for myself, hoping that somebody would come in, like the material, and give me a job in television.
Everybody hung out at Catch a Rising Star and the Improv in those days. And I'd just met Billy Crystal, who was starting out the same way. He lived on Long Island, three towns over from where I was living with my parents; he was married and had a kid already. We would carpool into the city every night. One night about four months into this horror show, it's about one in the morning and I'm having trouble making these six drunks from Des Moines laugh, and I get off the stage sweating like a pig and I go over to the bar, and I'm waiting for Billy to tell his jokes so he can drive me home to Long Island. And this guy sits down next to me and just stares at me. Stares at me. And I look over - "What?" And he just looks at me and he goes, "You know, you're the worst comedian I've ever seen in my life." And I went, "Yeah, I know."
I said that I wanted to have a wife and kids someday but they'd starve if something else didn't happen soon. He said, "Your material's not bad. Did you write it?" I said, "Yeah." He said, "Can I see more?" And I said, "You bet." I didn't even ask who he was; I mean, I would have shown it to a gardener at this point.
But it was Lorne, and he was combing the clubs looking for writers and actors for this new show. So I went back to Long Island and I stayed up for two days straight and I typed up what I thought were eleven hundred of my best jokes, jokes that I wrote for the Borscht Belt comics, jokes that I practiced writing for other comics, jokes I heard in third grade - I mean, I just went nuts. And so I took my phone book full of jokes and went into the city for my interview with Lorne.
Oh, but first I called Billy Crystal, because he had been talking to Lorne about him being a part of the show from the beginning, either as a cast member or some sort of rotating player. So I said, "Look, I'm supposed to meet with this guy Lorne, can you tell me anything about him?" So Billy told me he used to submit jokes to Woody Allen, he's produced a Monty Python special, and the new show is going to have these little films by Albert Brooks. Oh, and he hates mimes. Lorne hates mimes. So I said fine, I went over to the Plaza Hotel and met with Lorne.
He takes the phone book of jokes, opens it, reads the first joke, and goes, "Uh huh." And closes it. And he says, "How much money do you need to live?" I said, "Well, I'm making $2.75 an hour at the deli - match it." So he said to tell him more about myself. He figured before he'd commit to that kind of money, he wanted to know what he was buying. I said, well, Woody Allen's my idol, I love Monty Python, and maybe my career will go like Albert Brooks's you know, short films and then bigger ones. "But," I said, "if there's one f------ mime on the show, I'm outta there." And he gives me the job. The joke that I had as the number one joke in this compilation of jokes was, just to show you how long ago this was - because of the reference in it - was that the post office was about to issue a stamp commemorating prostitution in the United States. It's a ten-cent stamp, but if you want to lick it, it's a quarter. We even did it on the show. I remember we were short on jokes. Chevy might have done it. Yeah, I think he did. I think that was my one contribution to the first show, the one that George Carlin hosted.
ROSIE SHUSTER: I read Alan Zweibel's book of one-liners that came to the Marmont and discussed it with Lorne. I remember talking a lot about Chevy as a writer. Marilyn Miller we knew from Lily Tomlin. Anne Beatts and Michael O'Donoghue were celebrities, especially O'Donoghue, who was, you know, the darling of the Lampoon, so they came presold. O'Donoghue had a lot of charisma and he was very dark. He was an exciting character in his subversiveness. Al Franken and Tom Davis were a two-for-one kind of bargain basement. They were just starting and anxious to get into the business - you know, let's give them a tryout. I was definitely in the conversations about all that stuff.
ANNE BEATTS: I truly think you can say that without Michael O'Donoghue, there wouldn't have been a Saturday Night Live, and I think it's important to remember that. I think Lorne would probably be generous enough to acknowledge that. Because I always said Michael was Cardinal Richelieu. He wasn't very good at being the king. He was much better at being either the person plotting revolution or the power behind the throne, telling the king what to do and think. I'm not saying he was manipulating Lorne. It doesn't always have to be about manipulation. It could be about actual helpful guidance.
AL FRANKEN, Writer: Tom Davis and I had known each other since high school in Minnesota. In 1974 we were a comedy team out in L.A. We were the only writers hired by Lorne who he didn't meet. We always thought that if he had met us, we wouldn't have gotten the job. We weren't making money at the time, and the only variety shows around were Johnny Carson's- and we're not joke writers, so we couldn't do that - and Carol Burnett's, which was a good show but not our territory. Oh, and I think Sonny and Cher was on, which was a piece of s---. Actually, we wrote a perfect submission for Saturday Night Live, a package of things we'd like to see on TV - a news parody, commercial parody and a couple sketches. Basically from that, we were hired. We heard that Dick Ebersol wanted to hire a team from New York instead of us so he could save on the airfare, but Lorne insisted on us. Michaels was aghast at the condition of NBC's historic Studio 8H, which despite its noble traditions was technically primitive and had been allowed to deteriorate. He didn't think it had hosted a weekly live TV show since Your Hit Parade succumbed to rock and roll and left NBC in 1958.
Meanwhile, NBC brass were consumed with nervousness about the content of the show - about giving ninety minutes of network time a week to Lorne Michaels and his left-wing loonies. On the first show, with sometimes-racy comic George Carlin hosting, the network planned to use a six-second delay so that anything unexpected and obscene could be edited out by an observer from the Department of Standards and Practices (the censor), who would theoretically flip a switch in the control room and bleep the offending material before it went out naked onto the American airwaves. Over the coming months and years, various hosts or musical acts would make NBC executives more nervous than usual, and the notion of making the show not quite precisely literally live kept coming up.
JANE CURTIN: NBC sent me out on a limited publicity tour weeks before we went on the air. I didn't really know what the show was going to be like, but I was the only one in the cast that they weren't afraid of. They knew I wouldn't throw my food.
• Click Here to Continue Reading Chater One of Live From New York
Excerpted from Live From New York by Thomas W. Shales and James Andrew Miller Copyright © 2002 Little, Brown & Company.