Continue reading chapter one of Live From New York: An Oral History of Saturday Night Live, by Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller.
Chapter One Continued:
BERNIE BRILLSTEIN: In the first six months, Lorne threatened not to come in to work a lot. He had no way of dealing with these network people. Because Lorne had a vision, and they didn't understand his vision. This was a new show at that time. He made them rebuild the goddamn studio, and they didn't understand that. And he made them get great sound in the studio because they were going to have rock acts, and they didn't understand that.
HOWARD SHORE: What we were going to be doing was really quite technically complicated, but the studio hadn't been kept up to the standards of broadcasting. It was stuck in the late fifties. They hadn't refitted the technology of it over the years. I remember going for that first tour of the studio, and they had game show sets in there and they were doing very low-tech productions in there because it didn't have any of the technology that was really needed to do a live broadcast. I remember feeling like you were still in Toscanini's studio. It's incredible to think that in the 1950s NBC, this great American broadcast network, hired an Italian conductor and gave him his own orchestra, the NBC Symphony Orchestra, and his own studio and his own elevator for the maestro to get up to the eighth floor. When I asked for a music stand to put my scores on, an old stagehand went back into props and brought out Toscanini's music stand - this huge, black, ornate, five-foot-high carved wooden monstrosity. It came up to about my chin. And they said, "You can put your scores on that." That was the only thing of Toscanini's I'd actually seen. It was wonderful. You felt the history of the place.
BERNIE BRILLSTEIN: When Lorne told NBC they had to spend like three hundred grand to rebuild that studio, they nearly had a breakdown.
CRAIG KELLEM, Associate Producer: He was in a constant battle with the network as it pertained to the economics, particularly about the set. Lorne wanted the set to be like almost this architectural prototype. The argument was, "Hey, you can't even see that on camera," and Lorne's attitude was, "Yes, but I want it. I want it anyway."
EUGENE LEE: They hired Dave Wilson to be the director. He'd done a lot of TV. Dave was a nice man, but he had very strong opinions about things and said them. And there was a lot of incredible feuding about the layout of the studio. All I remember is, we worked on it and worked on it. Dave and I fought tooth and nail about how it would be laid out. I laid it out my way?longways. There was a lot of muttering about how there wouldn't be enough space. I said, "The cameras are on wheels, let the cameras roll to the scenery and not the other way." One day just out of the blue, Lorne comes by and says, "Hey, we've got to go upstairs." And I went with him, and we took the model of the set up to whoever - I think it was Herb Schlosser. We laid it on the coffee table. And Lorne hadn't said much about any of this. But he explained it perfectly to Schlosser. He was like brilliant! I mean really, no kidding. I was knocked out. He said, "This thing goes here, and the camera moves here, and it all stretches around this great big environment." And after that, money didn't seem to be a problem.
DAVE WILSON: The idea of having part of the audience sitting around home base was not that new. I'm sure that kind of thing had been done many times. But the idea of putting an audience in front of those side stages was a little different. It worked well because it gave performers more of an intimate feeling of audience, that they were performing not just for cameras but for a live audience.
HOWARD SHORE: It's true - there is no theme song for Saturday Night Live in the traditional sense. This is inherent in the nature of the show. I wanted the theme music for the show to have an improvisational feel, like the show itself, and I wanted it to grow and change from year to year. And that's why when I listen to the show now after twenty-five, twenty-six years, it still sounds fresh to me and sort of classic, and it wouldn't have if you kept hearing the same hummable melody over and over. Because the nature of the music on the show was interplay between the ten musicians, which is completely different than what you have in a big band or the Carson sound, which is very formalized arrangements written very specifically, and everybody plays what is written on the page. So with the ten musicians I wanted to create interplay like jazz musicians have amongst themselves, and R&B musicians.
It's the same thing as the cast. You have to think of the musicians in the band the same as you think of the cast and how they would play off each other and kind of riff off each other. That was the same feeling that I wanted to create in the music. So it had to have an improvisational nature. The saxophone was just a thing that I loved, and I am a saxophone player, so it was inherent in my soul that it be the predominant voice. Instead of a band playing a piece with a melody, it was an improvisation by a great blues soloist.
BRAD GREY, Manager: Bernie was there for the first dress rehearsal. He looked out and he saw the band rehearsing. And it was getting close to starting time. So he turned to Lorne and he said, "Hey, Lorne, you know the band doesn't have their tuxedos on yet. Better get them into wardrobe." That always made me laugh, because it was so honest of Bernie. Tuxedos! And that's sort of, I guess, the merging of two generations.
DICK EBERSOL: Lorne's telling me every day that Chevy's got this great idea to open every show with a fall, and I am absolutely opposed. But Chevy was the only one who was funny and could write television for television. We were reading scripts in those early days where people would have a three-or four-minute sketch take place on five sets, and it didn't take a real scholar to know you couldn't do that if we were going to do a live television show in a box the size of 8H.
DAVE WILSON: Many of them had written for magazines or the National Lampoon Radio Hour or that kind of thing, so it wasn't as if they were brandnew to writing, it's just that they weren't familiar with the medium of television. So of course we'd always go through things where you'd read their script and it says, "We start with a flooded studio." And you'd say, "Well, you better rethink that."
JANE CURTIN: Before the show went on the air, we would all have to hang out on the seventeenth floor with the writers and pitch ideas and do all of that kind of stuff, and Lorne would call us all into his office for whatever reason, and he would always end up by telling us what "stars" we were. And I'm thinking, "Hey, we haven't earned it yet," not understanding the machine - the PR and all this stuff that was going to happen and that they were going to make happen. I think Lorne was trying to pump up the arrogance and the adrenaline in the room- which wasn't hard - and I understand now that in order to do that kind of a show or any kind of a comedy show, you have to have arrogance and you have to have adrenaline. And by telling people they're stars, maybe that's one way of doing that. But sadly, a couple of days later, I think some poor elevator operator was punched because he dared to ask somebody in the cast for an ID. I just kept fighting that kind of thing. I just kept thinking, "No no no no no, it's just a TV show. It'll be okay, and I'm fine."
BILLY CRYSTAL, Cast Member: Three months before the show was supposed to debut, Lorne had found me in a club called Catch a Rising Star. I went, "This is a television producer?" He sounded like David Steinberg the comedian because he was from Canada. He was very appealing, he was very smart, and he was funny in a different way than I envisioned television producers to be. He asked me if I was interested in being a resident in the company. He felt I would do six appearances on the show, and then he saw me becoming a host of the show, among all the other hosts, in two years. They'd be grooming me to be one of the main guys. That's how it came down prior to the show.
BUDDY MORRA, Manager: Billy turned down a Bill Cosby special, who was the hottest thing in the country at that time, to take Saturday Night Live, because they said, "If you do the Cosby show, we're not interested in having you do this." And so we opted to do Saturday Night Live. We had agreed in advance for Billy to do his special piece on the first show, and that the piece required a certain amount of time; it wouldn't work in less time. So Billy was coming in every day from Long Island, and he just sat around all day long. They never spoke to him, they never got to him, they never said anything to him. He'd leave at the end of the day, after spending eight or nine hours waiting around, and then come back the next morning again. This went on for pretty much the entire week.
BILLY CRYSTAL: Then we get to the Friday night. We had a run-through for a live audience and some NBC executives. Now my routine was an audience participation piece and it utilized Don Pardo and it was this African safari thing with sound effects. I played Victor Mature - it's not going to sound funny - walking across the camp in Africa to knock the tarantula spider off Rita Hayworth's chest. So that was the setup. Don Pardo, who we never saw on camera, had his hands in a big bowl of potato chips, and every time I took a step, Don would crunch the potato chips so it was like this whole sound effects thing. It was really funny on Friday night. And it ran six, six and a half minutes, because it took a long time to explain it. But there were laughs in the explanation and then the piece just sort of went on its own. And Friday night, it was the comedy highlight of the night, and I thought, "I'm in great shape here." George Carlin's hosting this new show and I knew everybody in the show and this is going to be sensational. Lorne sent in notes after the Friday night run-through and he said to me, "I need two minutes." And I said, "Cut two minutes?" And he said, "No, I need two minutes. All you get is two minutes." So it was a drastic cut in the piece, and frankly as a new performer then I didn't have a little hunk like Andy Kaufman's Mighty Mouse. I didn't have a two-minute thing that I could plug into the show, and I didn't have a stand-up piece that felt like what the show should be that I could have scored in two or three minutes. So we had a big dilemma. And after being involved with Lorne and the show for so long, we were all kind of confused as to what to do. And then when we saw the rundown, they had put me on at five to one. The last five minutes of the show, how can you score? This wasn't what we had talked about. So my representatives said they were going to come in on Saturday and talk to Lorne.
LORNE MICHAELS: Buddy was a strong advocate for Billy, and I think what I objected to was him telling me what I should cut as opposed to just making the pro-Billy case. He made the who-was-funnier case, which was not a good thing to do. He said I should cut Andy Kaufman. I probably didn't have the nerve to cut Carlin. One, he was our host, and two, he'd lent his name to the show, which was, at the time, a big deal. I think Andy, because he was surreal and there was nothing else like him on the show, had the edge. Albert had submitted his first film, which was thirteen minutes long. Fortunately he also submitted his second one, which was a lot shorter, and that was the one we ran. I thought Billy was really funny, or else I wouldn't have put him on the show. But I also thought that he was the one thing we could hold, the one thing we had the most of - stand-up comedy, because of Carlin. Buddy turned everything into high drama. It became very heated.
BUDDY MORRA: We took him off the show Saturday because they weren't living up to what we had agreed to. Jack Rollins and I decided if we couldn't get what we were promised early on, we would take Billy off the show. Earlier in the week, I had said just that to Barbara Gallagher, who was the associate producer. The piece was supposed to run about six minutes or five and a half minutes, and it just wouldn't work in any less time. You could shave a few seconds off, but that would be about it.
LORNE MICHAELS: Buddy had no idea what was going on. I don't think Bernie did either. They were from another time of show business. We were eating vegetables; they were eating doughnuts. It was a different world. We were much more like a crusade. It was a very passionate group of people. Billy was sort of one of us - but now suddenly it went into this other kind of mode. The talk with Buddy was of another time. And it made Billy not one of us. And I think that was unfortunate for all of us, because he had been.
BILLY CRYSTAL: I was waiting in the lobby with Gilda for the dress rehearsal to take place at eight o'clock while my managers talked to Lorne. We had asked for five minutes in the first hour which, given what we had been through with Lorne in the preparations, didn't seem like an outlandish request. About seven o'clock, my manager, Buddy Morra, and Jack Rollins come out and suddenly said, "Okay, we're going, that's it." I said, "What happened?" They said, "Lorne went, 'I can't do it, I can't do it, I can't do it. I can't promise anything.'" So Buddy said, "We're going to go, there's no time, you're being bumped, and that's it." I had my makeup on! Gilda got all upset and angry. I was totally confused about the whole thing.
BUDDY MORRA: It comes down to a matter of what they thought was most important. I know how bad Billy felt for a long time. I'm talking about several years after that. It still always bothered him. And it bothered me too. We walked out of NBC that night, and I can tell you my stomach was not in great shape, and it wasn't for several days after that. It wasn't an easy thing to do, but we felt it was the right thing to do.
BILLY CRYSTAL: I was upset - mad, I guess - because I had wanted to be there. I was mad at my own managers, because I wanted to do the show. And I didn't want it to look like I was the guy who stormed off the show. That wasn't the truth. But my managers were protecting me, and Lorne was protecting his show, which I respect.
LORNE MICHAELS: We were all under enormous pressure. None of us had done this before. It was a big night for an enormous number of people, Billy included. To be cut was I'm sure terribly hurtful for Billy, but there was no implication at all that it was about his not being good enough or of not wanting him on the show. This was straight confrontation. It was Buddy; it wasn't Billy.
BILLY CRYSTAL: I was friendly with John and especially with Gilda. They were always confused and blamed my managers. Especially John; he used to say, "They screwed you, man!" And then after that, things weren't great for me for a while. I felt bad. I did come back the next year when Ron Nessen hosted the show and I did a routine and that was great. But after that, there was eight years when I didn't do the show.
CRAIG KELLEM: At that time the power was on the network side. We had the power in terms of our spirit and our determination, but they had the money and it was their show. So we were constantly being pressured. One of the things the network wanted was for the cast to sign their talent contracts. I got the dubious job of chasing these guys around to get them to sign, which became like a running joke. Like, what is the next excuse going to be for somebody not signing their contract?
BERNIE BRILLSTEIN: Five minutes before the first show, I came through the back door where the food and coffee was and there was Belushi, sitting on a bench with Craig Kellem, who was the associate producer, and Craig was saying, "John, you've just got to sign your contract. NBC won't allow you on the air until you do." And I just happened to walk by at the time, and I didn't really know John well at all. I couldn't believe NBC in its stupidity was pressuring him at such a time. So John said to me, "Should I sign this contract?" and I said, "Of course you should sign this contract." He said, "Why?" I said, "Because I wrote it" - which, by the way, wasn't true. But I knew I had to get him to sign it. He said, "Okay, I'll sign the contract if you manage me." I swear to God, it was five minutes before showtime. Belushi knew I managed Lorne. So why shouldn't he be managed by the same guy who is managing the boss, right? At that time, I didn't know how great Belushi was, so I just said yes to get him to sign the goddamned contract. It worked out great, and he turned out, obviously, to be one of my best friends.
TOM SCHILLER: Before the offices on seventeen were filled up with furniture and stuff, I somehow got the key and went up there one night, and I was still enough of a hippie or a spiritual person that I lit a candle in each office as a sort of general mantra or prayer that the show would be successful and that it wouldn't hurt anybody. So at least that part came true. And then on the first night of the show, still in my hippie phase, I went to every point underneath the bleachers and every point around the studio to try and send out good vibrations to the home viewing audience. Knowing we were sending out a signal across the ether that would be received all across the country, I wanted us to be sending it out with good wishes.
HERB SARGENT, Writer: The very first night of the show, between dress and air, Chevy and I went down and had a cup of coffee at Hurley's bar downstairs. And Chevy said, "What's going to happen to me?" Because it was a big moment, you know, for all those people. He says, "Where am I going to go from here?" I said, "You'll probably end up hosting a talk show." I was kidding. But it's strange, you know. He wasn't frightened - but he was very curious. And it was like an empty vista out there. The interesting part of that for me is that even before the first live show, he was already thinking about what the next step was.
NEIL LEVY: There was a feeling even before it started that something important was happening. It was almost like all the leftover spirit of the sixties found its way into this show- that spirit of rebellion, of breaking through whatever boundaries were left. There was something so special about being there that you knew from the moment you got there that this was going to work. Of course, some writers weren't so sure. Even Dan Aykroyd - he had a bag all packed. He said, "Neil, this show could fold in a second, and I got a nice little spot picked out on the 401, and I'm going to open a truck stop." He had a whole plan! There were people who thought every paycheck was their last. At the same time, there was this infectiousness. It was a joyous thing, really. Everybody had been fired up with this concept of the inmates running the asylum, and the idea that the writers were the most important aspect of the show, and how we'd be able to do whatever we wanted - all the stuff that Lorne talked about. You could see that everyone there was on fire. It seems in retrospect that everything was perfect - that it was this perfect, amazing, hilarious show, but even back then it was hitand- miss. They had a lot of clinkers. But the thing of it was, it had never been done before. And it was just the times. Nixon had just resigned, the Vietnam War had just finished - and we lost it - and America wasn't laughing. And this show came along and said it's okay to laugh, even to laugh at all the bad stuff. It was like a huge release.
CRAIG KELLEM: We almost didn't get on the air, because dress rehearsal went so poorly. I remember Lorne seriously asking the network people - or having me ask them- to have a movie ready to go, just in case. And I don't think he was kidding. George Carlin was the host when the show- then called NBC's Saturday Night- premiered, on October 11, 1975. Only about two-thirds of NBC's affiliated stations carried the show, which had received very little advance publicity from the network. Over the course of its ninety minutes, Carlin - "stoned out of his mind," according to observers - delivered three separate comedy monologues, probably two too many. Iconoclastic comic Andy Kaufman sang along with a recording of the Mighty Mouse theme song, a seminal and now legendary moment. There were also several numbers by musical guests Janis Ian and Billy Preston, an appearance from a new group of "adult" Muppets invented for the show by Jim Henson, and a short film by Albert Brooks. The Not Ready for Prime Time Players - so named, by writer Herb Sargent, because Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell over on ABC at eight P.M. had a small comedy ensemble known as the Prime Time Players (one of whom was Bill Murray) - actually appeared very little on that first night. When they did, they were dressed as bees. The young performers were supplemented by an older Broadway actor named George Coe, who helped with narrations and commercial parodies and stayed around for one season only. The format was more like that of a traditional variety show, with nearly as much music as comedy and the repertory players there as laugh insurance, even filler. Among the consistent elements from the beginning was the "cold open" prior to veteran announcer Don Pardo's recitation of the bill of fare and the opening credits. Many a modern movie had started this way, with a "grabber" or "teaser" scene prior to the credits, but it was something new for a TV show. The very first cold open was new, too: an absurdist encounter between bad-boy writer Michael O'Donoghue, playing a teacher of English, and bad-boy actor John Belushi as a semiliterate immigrant who repeats everything O'Donoghue says - including, "I would like - to feed your fingertips - to the wolverines." When O'Donoghue suddenly keels over with a heart attack, Belushi's character dutifully does the same, falling to the floor. Thus did John Belushi feign death within the first three minutes of the very first show. Then, Chevy Chase as the floor manager, wearing a headset and carrying a clipboard, sticks his head in, sees the seemingly dead bodies, smiles broadly in that phony-television way, and says - for the first of more than five hundred times that it would be said in years to come - "Live from New York, it's Saturday Night!" Cue music, cue announcer, cue flashing applause sign - cue America to a seismic change in television comedy, in the whole notion of What's Funny, and especially in what you can say, and do, on television.
LORNE MICHAELS: I made the decision Thursday to open cold with "Wolverines." It seemed to me that, whatever else happened, there would never have been anything like this on television. No one would know what kind of show this is from seeing that.
EDIE BASKIN, Photographer: For the title sequence, I just went around and photographed New York at night. Actually, the first titles had no pictures of the cast, only pictures of New York. Lorne had loved some pictures I'd done of Las Vegas and some of my other work, which was very different for that time.
LORNE MICHAELS: The major focus of the night, weirdly enough, was over a directive we got that Carlin had to wear a suit on the show. He wanted to wear a T-shirt. The directive came from Dave Tebet; he was head of talent and very supportive of the show, but he was also trying to anticipate. The fear was that if George was in a T-shirt and it looked like the wrong kind of show, we would lose affiliates, and we weren't anywhere near 100 percent as it was. And the compromise was a suit with a T-shirt instead of a tie. That was a much greater distraction than can possibly be understood right now.
CRAIG KELLEM: Tebet was the Don Corleone of network executives. And at that time I didn't look all that good - people dressed pretty sloppily there - and I went up and Tebet was reading the riot act about the prerequisites for Carlin's performance. And they included, "He's going to have to get his hair cut and have it look neat." And he went through this whole diatribe about what Carlin was not going to do, and it was uncomfortably close to the way I looked in the office. He went through the list - suit, tie, hair - and then he looks down at my bare ankles and says, "Socks!"
DICK EBERSOL: If you go back and look at the first show on the air, the two people by far who had the most to do on the show were Chevy and Jane. There were only four or five sketches. The rest of it was four songs, six monologues - three by Carlin, one by Andy Kaufman, his Mighty Mouse bit, and one by what's-her-face, a comedienne who ended up in the show instead of Billy Crystal - Valri Bromfeld, from Canada.
ROSIE SHUSTER: We were buzzed. I don't think we had any clue what kind of phenomenon was going to happen. Carlin later confessed that he was pretty loaded. Andy Kaufman was on that show. There were a lot of featured guests - there wasn't a lot of comedy on that show. But there was the live buzz you just got from that studio audience and it was pretty upbeat. I think everybody knew there had to be a lot more comedy sketches and that the cast had to be used more.
CRAIG KELLEM: I was involved with booking Carlin for the first show. I've often wondered about it. Carlin was my first client as an agent. He has had a wonderful career and is still, in my opinion, a comedy icon. But it's interesting that he has never been invited back to Saturday Night Live. I remember that from the first show, you always knew when Lorne wasn't that thrilled about having a particular host, and Carlin was obviously somebody he just wasn't high on.
STEVE MARTIN, Host: I do remember when I first saw the show. I was living in Aspen, and it came on and I thought, "They've done it!" They did the zeitgeist, they did what was out there, what we all had in our heads, this kind of new comedy. And I thought, "Well, someone's done it on television now." I didn't know Lorne at the time. I didn't know anyone.
HERBERT SCHLOSSER: I can remember the first time I saw it. I was in Boston staying at the Ritz for the Cincinnati-Red Sox World Series and I had been with Bowie Kuhn. You always sit with the commissioner if you're president of the company. That was a truly great World Series. We had dinner, and I asked if he'd like to see a new show we were putting on. And that was the first show in October of 1975, with George Carlin. Neither of us knew what to expect. Now Bowie is a nice man but very straitlaced, very proper, and a religious man. I sat on a chair, and he and his wife sat on the couch. He didn't laugh. And I thought, "Well, that's Bowie." And then after a while, he started to chuckle. And then he'd actually laugh. And I figured, "Well, if he likes it, it's going to have a wider audience than most people think."
AL FRANKEN: I felt very confident that the show was going to work. It was youthful arrogance, I guess. I looked around and I thought, "This has never been on TV before, and this will work, this should work, and of course it's going to be a hit" - which is an attitude I've never actually had since.
LORNE MICHAELS: The only note we got from the network on the first show was, "Cut the bees." And so I made sure to put them in the next show. I had them come out and talk to Paul Simon. He says, "It didn't work last week. It's cut." And they go, "Oh," and just walk off.
PAUL SIMON, Host: I was up for doing the very first show. It didn't seem like there was much downside risk. Then Lorne said, "No, let me just work out the kinks on the first show." But I would've been happy to do the first show. It would've been more historical. But he went with George Carlin, and I did the second one.
EDIE BASKIN: They had used publicity pictures of Carlin for the first show. I already had pictures of Paul Simon, so my pictures of Paul became the bumpers. And then Lorne said to me, "I think you should photograph next week's host instead of using publicity pictures." And that's how it all started.
PENNY MARSHALL, Guest Performer: I met Lorne when he came out and talked to Rob about hosting the third show. I wasn't anybody; I'd been on The Odd Couple, but Laverne and Shirley didn't go on until four months later. Rob was on All in the Family. I listened to Lorne talk to Rob at Lorne's apartment, and I kept my mouth shut. At the end, Lorne said to me, "Penny, what do you think?" And I said, "I think you're the most manipulative human being I've ever met, and you do it beautifully." And we've been friends ever since.
NEIL LEVY: Rob Reiner refused to go on after dress rehearsal. I was in his dressing room. It was hilarious because it was like a monologue, him going, "I can't do this show, I can't do this show! It's bad, it's horrible, I'm going to make mistakes, I don't know the lines, I can't do it, I'm not doing it, I'm sorry, that's it!" And it was like he was not going to do it. And Lorne just talked him through it. And of course Rob did a good show.
ALBERT BROOKS: We had agreed on how I would make these movies, and certainly I wasn't going to make a living off of it. If I remember correctly, we agreed on a budget of like a thousand dollars a minute, which I bring up because it's funny that I was actually able to do that. I think all six films probably cost, you know, fifty grand. Most of the films were four minutes, but one - the open-heart surgery movie - ran thirteen minutes, and Lorne refused to air it. But then Rob Reiner, who is my close friend, hosted the show and insisted on showing it. Otherwise, it would have never been seen.
LORNE MICHAELS: My agreement with Albert had been for films of three to five minutes. I'd wanted three, he wanted five. Because the heart surgery one was thirteen minutes, it necessitated commercials in the middle and on either end - which meant we were away from the live show for close to twenty minutes.
CRAIG KELLEM: One of Albert's films got lost at the Grand Central Station post office and he went completely apeshit. No one could find it. So Albert, long-distance, through his willpower and his endless energy, managed to actually find the specific postal clerk who had handled it. It was like a whole investigation conducted by Albert Brooks to find the lost film, which he eventually did.
HERBERT SCHLOSSER: The Albert Brooks films never appealed to me, to be honest with you. They slowed the show down. I think he's a brilliant guy, but I just didn't find him that funny.
JUDITH BELUSHI: In the first three shows, John was the opening scene of the first show and I don't think he had a good scene again for three shows. Something that made a break of sorts was the third or fourth bee scene, when he went off on "I hate being a bee" and this whole "bee" thing, and he had his antennae swinging around his head in some special way. It was really the first time he got to show his personality and show that there was more to him, and he got a great response. But it took a while. It was slow to grow.
CANDICE BERGEN, Host: After the first couple shows, the dynamics of everything became so complicated and so loaded. People were learning things. They realized that you couldn't do the show stoned, because they were missing their costume changes. A live show was not compatible with grass. And then the burnout rate was so high, especially for the writers, because they were really just putting in all-nighters routinely.
CHEVY CHASE: On "Weekend Update," I was being a newscaster; I was being Roger Grimsby, actually. You know, it came out of that: "Good evening, I'm Roger Grimsby, and here now the news." One of the strangest pieces of syntax I've ever heard in my life: "And here now the news." But I knew I should say something. And on the fourth show, it just came out: "Good evening. I'm Chevy Chase, and you're not." And that was it.
CRAIG KELLEM: There was a momentum from the beginning, but what was interesting was that, even though I don't remember the ratings being unbelievable after the first couple of shows, Lorne - ever the decider of what was what - decided the show was a hit right from the beginning and acted out of that belief, and it was infectious. I remember what he said. He said, quote, "I guess we're a hit." I thought, "Where's that coming from?" But it was vintage Lorne Michaels. He believed it was a hit. He felt good about it. It got on the air. He looked on the bright side of the numbers and the bright side of the reviews. He certainly got good feedback from friends and family. And that was it. It was a hit show. It's wonderful, the strength of his belief in how he sees things in this world. He's also not the type of guy who's going to humbly share credit for something when he feels and thinks that it's his baby, and why should he share, particularly with Dick Ebersol? Ebersol came from ABC, where he worked for Roone Arledge, and Roone managed to work his way into being executive producer and was also the network guy. So I think Ebersol kind of wanted to follow in Roone's path and had a sort of stage-door-Johnny aspect to his persona and wanted to be part of it and wanted to be one of the gang. But he wasn't one of the gang. He was Dick Ebersol from NBC.
DICK EBERSOL: Lorne and I never had any real disagreements between us until the fourth show, the first time Candice Bergen did the show. There was a complete fuckup that night with NBC, where they made this enormous electronic mistake. They basically cued real commercials off of fake commercials. Somebody wasn't paying attention in broadcast control. And Lorne went nuts. If you asked Lorne what I contributed to the show, what I think he would say is that during the development stage and the launch, I created an island on which he could exist and no one else could touch him.
LORNE MICHAELS: Candy's show, the fourth show, was the first show, I would say, that was a Saturday Night Live like the ones we have now. The week before, when Rob Reiner hosted, Andy Kaufman did a long piece, there was a long Albert Brooks film, and a long monologue by Rob. On the Candy show, we sort of hit our stride. We'd had our first week off, and we worked hard on the writing.
DICK EBERSOL: Now comes week five. New York magazine comes out with Chevy Chase - on the cover. John is radically pissed off, because he sees Chevy running away with the show; now it's going to be all about Chevy. Onstage, John had been the star, not Chevy. We do show six, which is a wonderful week, Lily Tomlin's come to do the show. Now we got Thanksgiving off. On Friday, we all get an advance copy of the Sunday New York Times. Major story: Saturday Night Live is called the most important and most exciting development in television comedy since Your Show of Shows. It's this drop-dead b--- j-- It was just unbelievable. And this is the same New York Times that did not even review show one with George Carlin. They also printed a review that John J. O'Connor wrote on the second show, where Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel got together again for the first time, and his review essentially was that the show was not very good, but he couldn't be entirely fair in saying that because he missed connections on his way home from dinner on the subway, and so he missed forty minutes of the show. Can you believe that they f------ printed that thing?
LORNE MICHAELS: It was humiliating that the critic thought it was a music show and reviewed it that way. He said, "Another Simon and Garfunkel reunion," of which there hadn't been one since 1968.
ROSIE SHUSTER: One of the things we heard about the first four or five shows, while it was becoming the sensation that it would be, was that Chevy kind of jumped ahead of the pack, so to speak, and that started a kind of a resentment on the part of some people, particularly John, toward Chevy. Chevy was writing his own segment using his own name - "I'm Chevy Chase, and you're not" - plus doing the physical shtick at the beginning. He was easily identifiable, whereas it took people so many years to catch on to what Danny's talent was, because he would disappear into characters. And Chevy just shot ahead. It wasn't that surprising. It was going to take John a little while longer. He was used to being beloved on the stage of the Lampoon show and had a following of people, but to translate to television, especially if you have an attitude about television, takes a little while.
CHEVY CHASE: I felt it was relatively easy. I'd come in and pick stuff up and learn stuff and simply walk through it, basically. I don't remember it being particularly difficult. You know, I have to say that, going in, one of the things that made the show successful to begin with that first year and made me successful was this feeling of "I don't give a crap." And that came partially out of the belief that we were the top of the minors in late-night television and that we wouldn't go anywhere anyway. So we had no set of aspirations in the sense that this would be a showcase to drive us to bigger and better things.
ALAN ZWEIBEL: We worked on "Update" to the very last minute. Between dress and air on Saturday nights, I would go up to my office and I would watch the eleven o'clock news and if something hit me, I'd write it and it would be on television a half-hour later. You know, there were two shows where I was literally under the "Update" desk writing stuff and handing it up to Chevy while he was actually on the air.
ROBERT KLEIN: Everyone was quite terrified about the live television aspect of the show. Most of the people in that building at NBC in New York hadn't done a live show since Howdy Doody. As a matter of fact, one of the first SNL shows had a blank gray screen for forty-five seconds. A network show and nothing but gray for forty-five seconds because of the improvising and screwups of doing it live.
NEIL LEVY: Lorne quit on the Robert Klein show. They took away his lighting man and his sound man. Lorne had promised his guests the best sound and the best lighting. That was one of his promises to the people he'd gotten to do the first ten shows. He was furious that NBC had taken away his people. I think he realized at the time that if he didn't make a stand, they'd be stepping all over him. So he told NBC that he would walk unless they returned his lighting guy and his sound guy. And he walked. He was not there. He left. He went back to his apartment and stayed there most of the week playing poker. Robert Klein showed up and said, "Where's the producer?" And we said, "Oh, he's around. He'll be here soon." And the whole week went by and he wasn't there. But Lorne won. It was a victory. I think he came back Friday or Saturday. A lot of people would have said, "We'll make do with this sound guy and this lighting guy," and he said, "No, I've got to have the best." And that philosophy has served him well.
HOWARD SHORE: We were really kind of subversive in a number of ways. O'Donoghue and I were always trying to book acts on the show and then do things to them. They were so happy to be on the show, they didn't really notice. I remember when Robert Klein hosted, O'Donoghue put Abba on a Titanic set and tried to drown them. He thought Abba was kitsch.
LORNE MICHAELS: Abba was the first and only act that lip-synched. And that was Dick. Dick was Abba. That was all he cared about; he left the rest of the music to me and Howard. But with Abba, he just wouldn't take no for an answer.
DAVE WILSON: Lorne did not like lip-synching, and Lorne did not like - and I always thought it was a tribute to him- Lorne did not like close-ups of fingers on instruments. He always said, "We're not giving music lessons." Because you want to see the man's or woman's face; it was their inner feelings in creating this music that was worth seeing, not where their fingers were placed on the strings.
LILY TOMLIN: I don't remember entirely the first time I saw the show. I think I just thought it was a good, young comedy show. What do you think I should have thought? I think Belushi always thought he was so cutting-edge or so ahead in some ways, or he thought he was a rebel. Even though we liked him, we couldn't get him to come on our special. Jane had seen a lot of the Lampoon kids, and we tried to get some of them for our show. Live TV was old, basically, but this was like new because they were doing it in a different time frame. Jane Wagner and I had always wanted to do a live TV show because we had to spend all our money editing anyway. A live show is great, but you're always going to have rough spots, and there's always the chance of something happening. Having been on Laugh-In, and I guess just doing comedy for a long time, I thought it was hip, probably - hip and current like that. I don't think that I thought it was something I'd never seen before.
HOWARD SHORE: By the time Lily Tomlin hosted, Lorne was sending the host over to the music department, which essentially was me in an office with a desk. NBC had a wonderful record library - phenomenal. When NBC started, I believe they actually filed every recording ever released. I couldn't believe I had access to this library. I found this old blues recording of "St. James Infirmary" there and thought of doing an arrangement for the band. And I played that song for Lily and she liked it. And O'Donoghue said, "Have the band dress as nurses to do it." So we did. And I sang it with Lily. We did another show at Christmas where we all dressed as angels. It's just something that we got into - we've got these ten guys and one girl and what could we do with them that would be funny?
CRAIG KELLEM: Lorne had us working hard to induce Richard Pryor to host the show. Richard had a lot of questions and was playing very hard to get. We went to a jai alai arena in Miami where he was performing; that was the beginning of the Richard Pryor saga in terms of trying to get him to do the show. He wanted his ex-wife on the show, he wanted a couple of writers, performers on the show, and he wanted a tremendous number of tickets - which was an issue, really, because it wound up being the majority of the seats in the studio. So it was tough going. With Richard, as wonderful and as adorable as he was, it was also very tense being around him. Lorne loved Richard. He thought he was quote-unquote the funniest man on the planet. But it took so much work and effort to go through this process of booking him that Lorne, in a moment of extreme stress, sort of candidly looked around and said, "He better be funny."
Once he was booked, Herb Sargent and I were assigned to go to his Park Avenue hotel and greet him and hold his hand. He was there in a suite with his guys, and the first thing he wanted to know was, where was the script. What we couldn't tell him was, there was no script. Everyone was just recovering from the last show, and there was the usual chaos. So we were in this uncomfortable situation. Now Herb is a very gentle and sensitive guy, and in the course of this meeting, the pressure became so intense that Herb suddenly said he was going back to the office to get the "script." He left the suite - and never came back. And guess who was stuck there with seven or eight very angry guys? Richard knew there was a certain amount of bullshit going down. He was saying, "Where is that guy? What happened to him?"
That was the beginning of the host game, which is, "There is no script. Try to make them feel comfortable and quote-unquote trust me."
BERNIE BRILLSTEIN: When Richard Pryor hosted, NBC wanted a five-second delay because they thought Pryor might say something filthy. We ended up with a three-second delay, I think. But it was a new negotiation every week.
DAVE WILSON: You know what? I don't think we ever really went on a "delay." They tried to go on a delay the first time we had Richard Pryor on. And the Standards people couldn't make up their minds fast enough so that something got erased or bleeped. It was like a ten-second delay, and by the time they decided whether what he said was okay or not, it had gone past.
LORNE MICHAELS: I resigned in preproduction over Richard Pryor in December. It was like an absolute "you can't have him" from the network. And I said, "I can't do a contemporary comedy show without Richard Pryor." And so I walked off. There was a lot of me walking off in those days. Richard did wind up hosting, of course. But he wouldn't come into the office until we started rehearsing, so I brought John over to his hotel to see him. John had done his Toshiro Mifune for his audition, and he did it for Richard, who thought it was funny. Richard wanted to do it on the show, and so we wrote "Samurai Hotel."
CANDICE BERGEN: I remember the terror. You know, the total exhilaration of it. I just didn't know you could have that much fun after thirty. It was like the inmates taking over the asylum. Totally. On the Christmas show, we did a skating routine, a sort of Sonja Henie Bee-Capades skating routine. We went down to shoot the Bee- Capades after Rockefeller Center had closed, after the rink had closed, so we were in the elevators at midnight and I was dressed in a red velvet skating outfit with an ermine muff and then Belushi and Aykroyd and Chevy and everybody were dressed like bees. And the elevator operators, who still, after two months of the show, didn't know how to deal with it, just never looked at any of us, never said a word. I think it was like that for a long time. You just couldn't understand how they took control of a place like NBC.
LORNE MICHAELS: The Candy Bergen Christmas show was not as good as the other Candy show, so I went into a tailspin. Chevy and I and Michael went into the office and worked over the holidays, and that's when we wrote the Elliott Gould show, which later won the Emmy for writing that first season. We wrote a sketch where the Godfather goes to the shrink, and we were in a "let's just blow it out" state of mind. By that point, I'd hit stride, we all had, and everyone was focused. The Gould show was our first big show which wasn't about the host. Gould was just a big goofy guy who'd been in M*A*S*H.
ELLIOTT GOULD, Host: The first show I ever hosted was a very good show. One of the sketches was written by Michael O'Donoghue. It was a psycho group therapy session, with Belushi as the Godfather in it. I heard it replayed on the radio recently and it was so funny, it even worked on radio. Laraine Newman being in group therapy with Vito Corleone. I was the psychiatrist. My contribution was that I smoked a pipe. At this point I don't think I would, but then I needed a prop. Also I think it was the first show that I was the head of the Killer Bees, which was very, very funny. Through the show there was a thread where Gilda Radner had a crush on me and at the end of this first show that I did, we married; Gilda Radner and I had a wedding ceremony, and Madeline Kahn's mother was cast as Gilda's mother and Michael O'Donoghue married us at the end of the show. And that was the representative show they submitted, and it won them their first Emmy. I was really pleased to be a part of it.
BUCK HENRY, Host: On the first show I hosted, I made a suggestion for an ending for a sketch, because I came up in the school that says you end a sketch with an ending. And I heard one of the writers behind me say to the others, "Hmm, 1945." And I nodded inwardly. "I see. I get it." It was considered really corny to go for a joke. They thought somehow it was like Carol Burnett.
LORNE MICHAELS: Buck Henry came in to host and taught me a whole other level of things. Buck so totally got it. When he got there he said, "Do you want to do the Samurai again?" And we had never thought of repeating things until that moment.
ALAN ZWEIBEL: I wrote all the Samurais with the exception of one. Belushi auditioned for the show with the Samurai character. On the Richard Pryor show, Tom Schiller wrote a piece called "Samurai Hotel," about a two-minute piece or so, and that was that. That was like the seventh show we ever did. The eleventh show we ever did, Buck Henry was hosting. Lorne came by my desk and said, "You used to work in a deli, didn't you?" I said, "You name it, I sliced it." Lorne said, "You would be perfect to write 'Samurai Delicatessen.'" I said sure. I had no idea what he was talking about. But I wrote "Samurai Deli" and all the other Samurais after that. What started as that one two-minute sketch ended up being a franchise. When I say I wrote all the Samurais, what does that mean? It means I wrote all the stuff for Buck Henry or whoever did it that week and then I go, "John throws up a tomato and slices it," and "John indicates in his gibberish whatever," you know. I wrote no dialogue for John. The only time I wrote anything that looked like dialogue for him was when I had to indicate what the gibberish was meant to convey.
BUCK HENRY: On the Samurai sketches that I did with John, one never knew where it was going because John's dialogue could not be written. You never knew what was going to happen next. In "Samurai Stockbroker," he cut my head open with the sword, but it was really my fault; I leaned in at the wrong time. And I bled all over the set. It was a very amusing moment. You would not believe how much blood from a forehead was on that floor. A commercial came on right after the sketch and someone shouted, "Is there a doctor around?" And John Belushi's doctor was in the audience - which made me a little suspicious. So the guy came and put this clamp on my forehead. We went on with the show. It didn't require stitches, darn it, but it required a clamp for the rest of the show. When "Weekend Update" came on, which was about ten minutes later, Chevy appeared with a bandage on his face. Then Jane had her arm in a sling. They featured the moment when I got hit by the sword on "Update" like it was a hot news item. Only Saturday Night Live could do that. By the end of the show, when the camera pulls back, you see some of the crew are on crutches, others have bandages or their arms in slings. As if the whole show caught a virus. It was pretty funny. And the genius of Saturday Night Live, it seems to me, is encapsulated in that event. John didn't say anything to me right after it happened, but then we didn't see each other for another half hour at least. I was in one place and he was in another. But it wasn't John's forte to apologize anyway.
NEIL LEVY: When Buck Henry got nicked by the Samurai sword and everybody started wearing Band-Aids, they all bonded. I think it was the same show where Lorne had done that Beatles offer and they got a phone call that John Lennon was over at Paul McCartney's house and they were both coming over. Lorne was thinking, "What are we going to do when they get here?" He had an idea, he said. "How about this, they get here and they want to play a song and I ask them where their guitars are and they say they didn't bring their guitars and I say, 'Oh. Well, then you can't play, because there's a union rule that you have to have your own guitar.'" His whole thing was to have the Beatles there and not let them play. I don't know if he would have gone through with it. But they never made it, because they realized it was too late. Just the fact that they were on their way was good enough. I was sent downstairs in case they showed up, because there was this old security guard who turned away everybody. He couldn't tell a star, he didn't know anybody. It didn't matter who you were. Not all the stars brought their ID. "Don't you know who I am?" "No!" And Lorne finally got him moved to another entranceway. But I had to go down and make sure that he recognized Lennon and McCartney and let them in. So I was waiting there with the security guard at like twelve forty-five.
TOM HANKS, Host: I remember the first time I saw the show. I was working as a bellman in a hotel and got off late and came home. And one of the first things I saw was a parody of a razor blade commercial. Remember the one? It was in the first season, and it showed this cartoon of here's how it works, the triple-header. And they'd be yanking out this hair and doing this very painful thing. And I honestly couldn't figure out what I was looking at. Who would sell such a ridiculous product? And then I saw the first time they were in their bee costumes, and I could not figure what was going on. I just thought, "Wow, okay, we're into the undiscovered country here, if they're doing this kind of stuff on TV."
LORNE MICHAELS: We wanted to redefine comedy the way the Beatles redefined what being a pop star was. That required not pandering, and it also required removing neediness, the need to please. It was like, we're only going to please those people who are like us. The presumption was there were a lot of people like us. And that turned out to be so. In its first weeks, the show looked little like it does today - different even from the episodes that aired mere months later. The repertory players got relatively little time at first, but that grew along with their popularity. Albert Brooks's films didn't turn out as Michaels had hoped, and there were frequent arguments over the fact that they weren't short enough. Brooks was angry - and is still irked to this day - that in its first review of the show, Newsweek gave credit for some of the clever parodies of network shows included in his short film not to him but to the show's writers and performers. In fact, Brooks was working in a virtual vacuum on the other side of the country. He went on to a brilliant career as comic and filmmaker. The Muppets didn't starve either; soon after being dumped, they were signed by England's Lew Grade to star in The Muppet Show, a hugely profitable, globally syndicated half hour that made Jim Henson a millionaire many times over.
ALAN ZWEIBEL: Whoever drew the short straw that week had to write the Muppet sketch. The first time I met O'Donoghue, I walked into Lorne's office, and Belushi's there, Aykroyd's there, people the likes of which had never crossed my path before, and I look in a corner of the room and there's a guy I learned was Michael O'Donoghue. What was he doing, you ask? He had taken Big Bird, a stuffed toy of Big Bird, and the cord from the venetian blinds, and he wrapped the cord around Big Bird's neck. He was lynching Big Bird. And that's how we all felt about the Muppets. Franken and Davis and I were the rookie writers, and the others always rigged it so we were the ones who wrote the Muppet sketches.
So I went over to Jim Henson's townhouse on like Sixty-eighth Street with a sketch I had written. There was one character named Skred, and I remember we're reading the sketch, Jim Henson's reading the pages, and he gets to a line and he says, "Oh, Skred wouldn't say this." And I look, and on a table over there is this cloth thing that is folded over like laundry, and it's Skred. "Oh, but he wouldn't say this." Oh, sorry. It's like when I was doing Garry Shandling's first series, we wanted to have Shari Lewis and Lamb Chop on. I said, "Of course we'll fly you out," and she said, "Well, what about Lamb Chop?" What about Lamb Chop?!? She says that Lamb Chop gets a seat. I swear to God, I almost threw my back out giving her the bene- fit of the doubt that she wasn't insane. I laughed and she said, "Lamb Chop doesn't sit in the back." I said, "If I'm not mistaken, are we talking about the same Lamb Chop? Because, you know, it's a sock! It's a sock with a button, okay?!?" And it ended up we didn't use her because it was too insane.
BERNIE BRILLSTEIN: O'Donoghue had the best line about the Muppets. He used to say, "I won't write for felt."
CRAIG KELLEM: There was this shit-or-get-off-the-pot moment when Lorne turned and looked at me and he said, "How do you fire the Muppets?"
HERBERT SCHLOSSER: I remember being at one of the tapings of the show live on more than one occasion when the Muppets were on. Some of the pieces were very good, but the cast was so good you wanted to see Belushi, and Gilda, and Garrett Morris doing news for the hard of hearing. As a matter of fact, we had to take that off because we got protests from organizations that felt this was not fair to the handicapped. And then after we took it off, we started to get letters from people who were hard of hearing saying they loved it, why were we doing that, why didn't we have the guts to keep that on?!
GARRETT MORRIS: A lot of people are very patronizing toward so-called handicapped people. They can take care of themselves. One thing about the kind of comedy we do is that it's a deeper realization of the fact that with all comedy, with all jokes, somebody's on the bottom.
ALBERT BROOKS: I think Lorne resented the fact that I was in Los Angeles. But the very reason that I set it up that way was so I could function and do what I knew I could do, and I didn't want to participate in the New York thing. And once the cast made it, then these little helper things like my films became, in Lorne's mind, less important, and the reasons for getting me were pretty much over. Because what function did I provide for him? I made him something that got him great attention and great reviews. And, more importantly, I did the publicity for them. After those six films, that was it. Because I don't think Lorne Michaels would ever, ever again, do anything outside of New York. I think that really was something that he never wanted. He didn't like not having control over all of the product.
DAN AYKROYD: At first I stayed at Belushi's house - living with him and his wife, sleeping at the foot of their bed, having their cats attack me. I lived there for two months. Finally -finally - I said, "I gotta get out of here." John loved having me there, and Judy was very sweet. But I met a guy who worked in the graphics department at NBC, and we had a loft downtown for a while. Had some great parties there.
JUDITH BELUSHI: John and Danny had met much earlier and they liked each other instantly. Danny had come in at one point and stayed at our house for a couple nights. I know he says he slept at the foot of the bed. It wasn't literally the foot of the bed. Actually, it was another room. He remembers it that way, though. It seemed like the foot of the bed to him.
HOWARD SHORE: Our apartments were dismal, horrible sorts of sublets. And Rockefeller Center was really much nicer than where we were living, and we were spending seventeen, eighteen hours a day with our friends there, working. So for the few hours that we would crawl back to our dingy apartments, it was always so depressing, sometimes we'd just stay at the office. We were kids and the party was sort of going on all the time. Dan had bunk beds because we had no money, we were paid so relatively little money, really, by NBC. I think they were paying me $500 per show, not per week. I think the first year I made $10,000 when we actually created the show. So we had no real lives.
PAUL SHAFFER: We were young, and nobody had much else to do. We used to be there all night writing. Lorne was a night owl and he encouraged this; those were the kind of hours he wanted to keep. So that was his schedule, that Monday night would be the first meeting pitching ideas, Tuesday he'd start after dinner and just stay up until you had some stuff written, and then you'd drag yourself out of bed Wednesday and come in for the first read-through of the material, which used to start, theoretically, at one. Not only was it weird hours, but it was long hours. People were really devoted to the show. There was not necessarily much social life. Our whole life was the show.
LORNE MICHAELS: The thing I was worried about the most in those days was the dry cleaners, and getting my clothes back. I probably only owned two or three pairs of jeans and four or five shirts, so you could get in a jam where there were no clean clothes. I lived above a Chock Full of Nuts at Fifty-seventh and Seventh, so I could always go down in the morning and have coffee and a whole wheat sugar doughnut. When Buck Henry came to the show he carried the New York Times around with him the whole day, and he would read it A-1, A-2, A-3 - all in sequence. He didn't consider himself done until he'd read the whole paper. And I went, "Wow." I certainly didn't think of myself as unsophisticated, but you could make up a whole world out of what I didn't know back then. But there was no time for anything but the show. Around the offices, I think early on I realized that if I looked like Henny-Penny, then pretty much that would be infectious. So when I was really frightened - when I was young, thirty, when I began - I would hold a glass of wine and people would go, "Well, he seems pretty cool and relaxed."
BUCK HENRY: One problem was, Lorne couldn't fire anybody. He was constitutionally unable to do it, at least early on. Once hired, it was sinecure. I think Lorne felt it was an admission of failure if you have to fire somebody you've hired.
ALAN ZWEIBEL: You know, Lorne did a thing which was really, really, really brilliant, and I don't know how long it lasted, it might have just been the first year. He wanted the public to know the cast as people beyond the roles that they played, so he would have a cast member just say, "Hi, I'm Dan Aykroyd, dah dah dah dah dah," just a little personality thing. With Gilda, she would sit on the edge of the stage, and she only did it twice maybe, and it was called "What Gilda Ate," and she would tell what she ate during the week. There weren't jokes in it, it was mostly personality things.
ROSIE SHUSTER: Beatts and I were sort of thrown together to write, and we were the first two females there. Marilyn Suzanne Miller wasn't there at the very, very beginning. We sort of circled each other suspiciously for a short amount of time. I was always romantic about the idea of feminism, but the first time she saw me she exclaimed really loud, "Jesus, look at those tits!" So it got a laugh in the room and that was sort of unsettling, you know. But we were thrown together and then we definitely bonded, because there was a lot of testosterone around there. There was a lot of energy and it was combustible and it was exciting.
It was hard to be female; it always was, you know. Gilda had a good coping device for that somehow, because she could just be charming and darling. When you're actually pushing your own material, when you're in the trenches with the guys, it's a little harder. We were in the front lines, like Vietnam nurses. It was intense. It was very, very intense.
LORNE MICHAELS: In the beginning, there were two things John didn't do: He wouldn't do drag, because it didn't fit his description of what he should be doing. And he didn't do pieces that Anne or Rosie wrote. So somebody would have to say that a guy had written it. Yet he was very attached to Gilda and to Laraine.
DAN AYKROYD: There was a correspondents dinner that we went to in Washington. John and I played Secret Service agents to Chevy's Gerald Ford. Chevy invited us to come. It was at his behest. He was supposed to do Ford and he said, "I want to bring John and Dan down with me." That John even went on that trip was interesting, because he had his problems with Chevy. Just - who's the bigger star, who's doing more important work, that type of thing. Of course, they had a history because they'd worked in the Lampoon Show together. So I think there was time for issues to foment there.
LORNE MICHAELS: That was a magical day in Washington, but we couldn't get over the fact that Belushi went to the White House without an ID. We get to the White House, the car's pulling up, we give our names at the gate, and they ask for ID. And John says, "I didn't bring any." All of us: "John, how can you not?! How can you not bring ID?!?" But we vouched for him and they let us through.
JUDITH BELUSHI: He had no ID with him when we got married. We eloped and went to get married in Aspen on New Year's Eve - and he has no ID.
And when he's asked for any kind of identification, it's like he doesn't have any. And John says, "Have you ever seen a show called Saturday Night Live?" The woman says, "No." Then he pulls out this review of the show that he carried around and says, "See, here, this is me, John Belushi." And she's looking at him like, "You must be crazy." And I said, "You're telling me no one has ever gotten married without an ID, no one, ever? There must be someone who lost all their stuff. What did they do?" She said, "Oh, well, if he had a letter from a judge." We said, "Okay," and went to the phone and called a judge. And John said into the phone, "Hello, Judge, I'm sorry to bother you at home, but have you ever heard of a show called Saturday Night Live?" And the judge says yes. And John says, "Oh good, I have this problem, I'm here with my girlfriend and we're trying to get married." And the judge came down, and he did an affidavit and okayed it. John showed up everywhere with no ID. He had trouble holding on to his wallet.
AL FRANKEN: I went up to New Hampshire with my brother, who is a press photographer, to follow the campaign in '76. And I ran into Ron Nessen, who was the White House press secretary. I told him I was the writer of this show. And I was surprised that he had seen it - and that he liked it. I said, "Well, you should be on the show," and I went back to the office a few days later and I told Lorne. He kind of had to remind me that he was the producer of the show, and that I had only been in show business for about ten minutes. I was a writer. But anyway, Nessen ended up coming on.
LORNE MICHAELS: I had to shoot Ford saying "Live from New York" and "I'm Gerald Ford and you're not" for the show. And I suddenly find myself in the Oval Office, and it's just me, the president, and this little crew. There's security too, I'm sure. And Ford does it, but the line reading is wrong, and I realized that it's just the same as working with anybody else and getting them to relax and do the line properly to camera. We'd done two or three takes, and to relax him, I said to him - my sense of humor at the time - "Mr. President, if this works out, who knows where it will lead?" Which was completely lost on him.
CANDICE BERGEN: I had one sketch with Gilda and Chevy, I think it was "Land Shark," and I messed it up. I dropped a line. And Gilda, of course, handled it beautifully. I just started laughing and threw the sketch to the wind.
ALAN ZWEIBEL: I was nuts about Gilda. I was crazy about her. I had first seen her in the Lampoon Show with Belushi. There was one sketch where she was dressed like Jackie Kennedy in Dallas, with the pillbox hat and everything, right? And every time there was what sounded like a gunshot in the sketch, she would start crawling backwards in the opposite direction. And just the way she did that, I swear to God, she didn't say anything, but I couldn't believe how much I was laughing. It made me nuts. And then the first day in Lorne's office, and it's God's honest truth, I was really intimidated by what was going on in this room. There was Danny, O'Donoghue, and Belushi and stuff like that, and in the corner of Lorne's office was this potted plant, and I hid behind it. I actually squatted down because Lorne was now going around asking people their ideas and I couldn't compete with this. So I'm there and I'm hiding when all of a sudden through the leaves I hear someone say, "Can you help me be a parakeet?"
So I parted the leaves and it was Gilda. I go, "What?!" She said. "I have this idea where I get dressed up like a parakeet, and I'm on a perch. But I need a writer to help me figure out what the parakeet should say. Can you help me?" I had no idea what she was talking about, but she was a human being calling me a writer so I go, "Oh yeah, I'm great at parakeet stuff." And she said, "Why are you behind there? You're scared, aren't you? Just look at this room, it's pretty intimidating, all this talent that's here. And so that's why you're here, because you're scared." I said, "Yeah." She said, "I am too. Can I come back?" And she came behind the plant with me. So now we're both behind this plant and we get to talking and all of a sudden she says, "Uh-oh, he's calling on you" - this is about five minutes later - and I get tongue-tied, you know, one of those things. Lorne's going, "Alan? Is Alan around here?" She says, "I'll take care of it." She gets up, goes around the plant to the front of the room, and she says, "Zweibel's got this great idea where I play this parakeet and I sit on a perch." So she attributed her idea to me. And I went, "Wow." I got up enough nerve to come out from behind the plant and Gilda said, "Wait a second. He's also got this funny, funny idea where I also play Howdy Doody's wife, Debbie Doody, and we're going to write this and all sorts of stuff," she said, "like a team." That's how I found out that I was going to be teamed up with Gilda. She just took pity on this puppy behind the plant.
CANDICE BERGEN: Gilda was so great. She was such an angel. And so gifted, so sweet. Everybody bonded with Gilda, because she was irresistible.
DAN AYKROYD: I was involved with Gilda, yeah. I was in love with her. But that was in the early days of Second City in Canada. Our romance was finished by the time Saturday Night Live happened. We were friends, lovers, then friends again. By the time we came to New York, we weren't involved by any means.
LARAINE NEWMAN: I had a thing with Danny for a while. He was just adorable and irresistible and we had a lot of fun. And I always knew, you know, exactly what I could expect from Danny, so I never really got hurt.
PAULA DAVIS, Assistant: I started hanging out at SNL when I was a kid. I was thirteen or fourteen when the show started, and I watched the show with my friend Toby. We just loved it, and we decided to sneak in, because I think at that point my mom was working in the building on game shows. So we were confident we could sneak our way around the SNL studios, which we did. And we got in and we hung around, kind of like stage-door Johnnies, for probably a year. Everybody was very, very friendly to us. Chevy was very friendly to us. Belushi and Aykroyd talked to us a lot. Even Michael O'Donoghue was nice. So we did a lot of hanging around. I remember one day when I was in high school, Rosie Shuster asked me to help her out. It was one of those things like come over, pick up my dry cleaning, pick up my lamp from the lamp repair place - because they had no free time. When I got there, I remember Aykroyd getting out of her bed, and I was totally surprised. Because last I knew, Aykroyd was with Laraine at that point.
PAUL SHAFFER: I was a little naive. I didn't get involved with anyone. I was friends with everybody, but I wasn't lucky enough to score with anybody.
DAN AYKROYD: I don't know what goes on backstage there now, but I remember the dressing rooms were put to some good sexual purposes back when we were there. But those were just fleeting. They weren't really serious relationships. It was more clinging to someone, attaching to someone in the face of all we were going through.
CHEVY CHASE: The "sex appeal" thing, I don't know where that came from. I know that I had sex appeal because I know how much sex I had. You know what made me good was simply not giving a flying fuck. I had nothing invested there emotionally. I made sure that I had a contract that read that I had the option to leave after a year - the only one there. And I'd never had a job for more than a year before that with anybody.
ANNE BEATTS: The only entrée to that boys club was basically by fucking somebody in the club. Which wasn't the reason you were fucking them necessarily. I mean, you didn't go, "Oh, I want to get into this, I think I'll have to have sex with this person." It was just that if you were drawn to funny people who were doing interesting things, then the only real way to get to do those things yourself was to make that connection. Either you had to be somebody's girlfriend or, sadly and frequently, then you'd be somebody's ex-girlfriend. And then someone else's girlfriend, as I ended up being, and Rosie did too.
MARILYN SUZANNE MILLER: Did I date anybody on the show? I don't know that I'd use the word "date." I had intimate encounters. We were young, and the guys were single and the women were single and we were together twentyfour hours a day - you do the biology. We slept around then. And it wasn't weird. Yes, you could have sex with someone at night and write a sketch for them, or with them, the next day. Totally. It happened a lot. Certainly to me it happened. That's the way life was then. You could sleep with a guy who worked on the show and just know it was de rigueur not to make a big thing out of it and just go to work with him.
ALAN ZWEIBEL: I guess Gilda and my secret was that we weren't sleeping with each other. Our relationship was platonic. It had, with the exception of the sex part, everything else that a boy-girl relationship has. Emotions, the ups, the downs, the yelling, the screaming, the highs, I mean everything. She had said something very early on, when it was close to not being platonic, she had said something along the lines of, "Look, every relationship you've had and I've had with the opposite sex has pretty much ended in disaster or crashed and burned. And we have a good thing going here creatively; let's try not to be boy-girl." That made sense, you know. Years later, now, I think she just wasn't attracted to me. The first generation of Saturday Night Live is remembered for more than its comedy or its cleverness or its revolutionary contributions to television. Most of the cast members and writers had come of age in the sixties and hewed to that era's values - turn on and tune in, if not quite drop out. These were heady days, some of the headiest ever at NBC. Open an office door in the SNL suite on the seventeenth floor and you might well be enswirled in marijuana smoke. Harder drugs were used as well - at least one cast member freebased cocaine, others dropped acid - right there in the haute-deco halls of the RCA Building.
CHEVY CHASE: Fame is a huge thing that is in your life, and we know now that taking drugs is self-medicating. What are we medicating? Something that is hurting us. Usually it's a depression of some kind or some sort of sadness or something stressful, right? That's what we're selfmedicating. Fame is extremely stressful. That's why so many people who become famous so fast self-medicate. And what is there to selfmedicate with? A hundred-dollar bill and, if it's 1975, some cocaine, or some pot or something. The point is that it all follows, it's as natural as a guy going home and having a drink at the end of a stressful day. But this kind of stress, this fame thing I was talking about, is huge. I was already thirty-two, I had already been through many, many years of writing and working and being around this business, so in my own mind, I should have been able to not lose any perspective. And, of course, in retrospect, I had lost all perspective. I think if there is one perception that the public feels about people who become famous, it's that it is a great, wonderful, marvelous, magical thing. And that's true up to a point. But in fact it's also a very, very frightening thing, because it's one of the most stressful things. There's a certain amount of post-traumatic stress involved in being a regular guy and then suddenly an extremely famous one. By and large, people who are performers are looking for some sort of immediate gratification to begin with, some validation of what their identity is, who they are, some acceptability. They're not novelists who are waiting after ten years to see how they did. They want it right away. They're children, basically. And in all children there's this reservoir of self-doubt and guilt and sense of low self-esteem, I think. And so one lives with this kind of dualism, this disparity between the marvelous magic of becoming accepted by so many so fast and, at the same time, a lingering sense that one doesn't deserve it and sooner or later will be found out.
Lorne used to say that coke was God's way of telling you that you have too much money. He used to say, "Don't stay on one thing. If you're going to take anything, rotate them." This was a long time ago.
DICK EBERSOL: There were drugs, but I was not nor have I ever been a drug user. I'd been around them in college. I just made different choices. I fell in love with business.
LORNE MICHAELS: The widow Belushi was quoted in a book about a time when she found coke on John in the first season of the show and she said, "Where did you get it?" and he told her that Chevy and I gave it to him. But he had been doing coke for years.
CHEVY CHASE: Everybody was supplying him, supposedly. No, I was supplying Lorne, who was supplying John, it was a middleman kind of thing.
CRAIG KELLEM: John Belushi and I have the same birthday, January 24th. In 1976 they had a party for John but kind of included me. And the cake that they gave him was a facsimile of a quaalude. My cake was a facsimile of a Valium.
HOWARD SHORE: I went on the road for four years with a rock group, and this was '69 through '72, the years before the show, and we opened for acts like the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin. Those four years of touring for me - you talk about partying. Those were the great amazing rock-and-roll years. So by the time I came off the road in '72, I did a few years of performing on my own, and writing film documentaries. So by '75, when I went to NBC to start to do the show, I'd already had years of rock and roll. And partying. And quite hard partying at that. So now the midseventies were actually the comedy generation, a new generation; these were like the rock stars of that period - Belushi and Aykroyd and Chevy. It was a new generational thing. Those groups were now just experiencing the kind of era that I had been through already, officially on the road for all those years, so whatever they were up to never seemed as monumental as the craziness I'd already seen on the road.
TOM SCHILLER: Belushi was the first person to show me how to roll a joint. It was very exciting. You would come to the seventeenth floor, and as you walked down the hall, the stench of marijuana would greet you like about a hundred feet away from the offices. They kind of turned a blind eye to all that. It was like suddenly it was okay to do that. These "kids" were doing a show and it was all right. I remember Lorne at one of the earliest meetings, when we were sitting in his office, the first thing he did was light up a joint and pass it around. It was like saying, "It's okay to smoke up here." Maybe Jane Curtin didn't smoke and maybe Marilyn Miller didn't, but that was about it. That was our drug of choice. Then it turned to coke. I didn't like coke. I tried it for one week and I just got diarrhea.
DICK EBERSOL: My office was on the fourth floor. The writers basically never got there before one o'clock in the afternoon - ever. We had so little space. Herb Sargent was back in a corner. In the hallway to Herb's office were like Franken and Davis and Alan Zweibel, the three apprentice writers. Al and Tom had bought their first-ever cocaine, and they had it all out on the desk. First time they were ever able to buy any. As apprentice writers, their pay was, I think, $325 a week. So they have the cocaine on the desk, they're like literally staring at it. I'm off in the distance. I'm in a tough place because I'm supposedly the executive, but I decided it wasn't my job to play the policeman. Suddenly this figure comes roaring through the room. Unbeknownst to us at the time, he had a straw in his hand. He gets to the table, and he has half of that stuff up his nose by the time they knew who it was: Belushi. They didn't know whether to be thrilled that Belushi had just done this to their coke or be absolutely decimated, because that represented about half the money they had in the world at that time. The drugs didn't bother me, yet I knew they could be the end of the world for the show. And when I found out there was a partially available space on the seventeenth floor I said to Lorne that's where we're going. It's the best place because of the elevators. One elevator bank says fourteen and up, the other elevator bank one through sixteen in the old NBC. That's where everybody was, every executive was on that side, from the head of the network to the chief lawyers, between the first and the sixteenth floor. You could go up either elevator bank to the sixteenth floor, but if you got on the other elevator bank you only had three floors in common. Fourteen and fifteen were sports and press, sixteen was personnel and I figured, "Fuck them." But if they were on the other elevator, they'd be on the same elevator with Schlosser. And so we were somewhat insulated, but initially in an area that was too small.
EUGENE LEE: That was a mistake, choosing the seventeenth floor, because we never thought that we'd have to wait for elevators. The elevator door used to be full of big dents where people had kicked it. They couldn't bear waiting.
EDIE BASKIN: Drugs were definitely part of the times, but I just think if you wanted to do it, you did it, and if you didn't want to do it, you didn't do it. It didn't have anything to do with pressure. I didn't think anybody was cool because they did drugs, and I didn't think anybody was cool because they didn't. People just made their own choices.
NEIL LEVY: Franken and Davis I think shared an apartment, and they threw a party so we could get together to watch Howard Cosell's Saturday Night Live. It came on before us, which is why we weren't allowed to call our show Saturday Night Live at first. We wanted to see this other Saturday Night. All the writers showed up, Michael O'Donoghue, Dan Aykroyd. They were passing around these joints. I had never smoked before, or not really gotten stoned, and I didn't want to seem like "the kid," so I started smoking. This pot was from Africa or something. You didn't even have to smoke it; you just looked at the joint and you were unconscious. It kept coming around and around to me, and then I just got so incredibly paranoid. Never in my life had I been that bad before. I locked myself in their only bathroom, and I was terrified, and I kept praying to God that it would stop. Every once in a while someone would come to use the bathroom and I'd flush the toilet and go, "I'll be out in a minute!" And I just got worse and worse, because people had to know I was in the bathroom and something was going wrong. Finally Dan Aykroyd knocked on the door and he said, "Neil, this is Dan. You probably smoked some of that weed, you're probably paranoid, and you probably think you're the only one. Let me tell you, my friend, you're not the only one. We're all paranoid, we're all stoned." And he talked me out of the bathroom into the bedroom. And he started making me laugh. One of the things he did was he pulled his pants a little of the way down and pretended he was fixing the radiator as a radiator repairman. And later I remember he used that as a refrigerator repairman in a Nerds sketch. I think I saw it first.
MARILYN SUZANNE MILLER: Alan and I were so young when we did that show, and we had so much extra fuel that after being up all night writing, we still had to think of other stuff to do. So one night we went into Franken and Davis's office and took out all the furniture - all the desks, ripped the phones out of the wall, took the chairs, took the file cases, took everything in the middle of the night and shoved it into Herb Sargent's office where it couldn't be seen. And then all we did was take a piece of paper and leave it on the floor that said, "See me. Lorne." This is like the first season, when they were apprentice writers! Alan and I thought this was hilarious. Needless to say, Franken wasn't too happy. But we did stuff like this all the time.
GARRETT MORRIS: People suppose that if you are in a cast, that means you automatically go everywhere together twenty-four hours a day and you can tell what every other member is doing and that in fact you think that's good. I have always been an asshole with any cast I've been with. I was gone as soon as I could be. The fact that I didn't hang out with the gang at Saturday Night Live is no reflection upon anybody but me. At that time, I was in my Carlos Castaneda thing, and so I was doing a whole lot of mysticism and stuff. I was a loner. And that actually cost me. Because with Saturday Night Live, I learned that the social life is just as important as your own talent. Particularly with writers, they have to hear you talk and get to know you. I'm not saying anybody was racist, but there are stereotypical things people draw from action that is devoid of me sitting down, talking, and getting into people's minds about what they think, et cetera, et cetera. For example, one time I said something about a particular duo of intellectual Jews at Saturday Night Live which was then spread all over the whole Jewish world and for like a year I had the reputation of being anti-Jewish because I told these particular Jews that they were for shit. The point is, no, I didn't hang out, but later I realized it was something I should have done.
ALAN ZWEIBEL: We loved television, quite frankly, and we had our own sensibility and we were given the opportunity to do it. But I think it was because of the love for television that anyone who ordinarily didn't do television did this show. So Belushi could say, "I hate television." I think what that really meant was, "I hate what they've done to television," or "I hate what television is right now." I don't think that was anything against Newton Minow or the medium itself. The one rule that we had, if there was a rule, was if we make each other laugh we'll put it on television and hopefully other people will find it funny and tell their friends. So there was a purity about the intent. There was a nobility to me and Gilda taking a subway ride, saying something to make us laugh, and then we would go back to the office afterwards and write it up and it's on television a day later. There was an immediacy to it; it was just like, "This is the way the world works."
HERBERT SCHLOSSER: The word of mouth was starting to get around. It was either in our November or December board of directors meeting at NBC. Boards of directors, then as now, had old guys with ties and gray hair. And we did get flak about the show- bad taste and this and that. But one of the directors pulled me over and asked me if he could get tickets for one of his kids who was coming home from college.
CRAIG KELLEM: We were beginning to get some action out there in that first year, but people were not making a lot of money. Then some guy came along - I cannot remember his name - who was doing commercials for the United States military, and the Saturday Night Live gang were hired to appear in these commercials. And Lorne, being a kind of a born snob, wanted no part of dealing with these people, but it was a good way for everybody to earn money. So I became the guy who was the link to the commercial guy and did all the coordinating and producing, as it were. And we actually made a series of commercials for the military. I never saw them. I've never even heard about them since. But it's a fact. This guy spent thousands of dollars on this thing. Belushi did them because he wanted that money, and fast. They all made money, including Lorne, but Lorne kept a very pronounced arm's length from the whole venture.
BERNIE BRILLSTEIN: I knew Belushi was going to be a hit when Paul McCartney called and offered me $6,000 for Belushi to perform his Joe Cocker impression at his birthday party. John was making $800 or $1,000 a show. Six thousand dollars to sing like Joe Cocker? Oh my God, oh my God, he was so happy - not the money, just singing for McCartney. Oh my God.
LORNE MICHAELS: I remember exactly how much money I made in 1975. I made $115,000, and it was more money than I'd ever imagined. I'd been offered the season before four Flip Wilson shows, four specials, for a little over a hundred thousand dollars and I said I would do one. The experience wasn't a special one for me. It wasn't a show I was terribly proud of, but it did a 46 share, and what I remember learning from that was if you did a show you really cared about, it didn't matter if anybody watched it. But if you did a show that wasn't any good, it was much better if everyone saw it. If it was highly rated, you knew you'd be able to work again.
JEAN DOUMANIAN, Associate Producer: I didn't start working for Saturday Night Live until the eleventh show in 1975, because I had been working on the first show called Saturday Night Live, with Howard Cosell on ABC. We were canceled after the seventeenth show, and Lorne called and asked if he could use the title of the show.
CRAIG KELLEM: That was a signature issue as far as Lorne was concerned: he wanted to call his show Saturday Night Live. It totally pissed him off that the title was taken by Howard Cosell. And when the other show went off the air and he got the title back, I kind of chuckled inside, thinking how Lorne had decided that he wanted that title and he was going to get that title. And you know what? He ended up with that title. That's Lorne Michaels to a T.
JEAN DOUMANIAN: Lorne had one corner office. And I had the other corner office. I liked Lorne a lot, we got along very well. But I was never intimidated by him. And I was never part of the family. I didn't do drugs, and I had a life outside the show.
LORNE MICHAELS: The Desi Arnaz show in February was a great show. He wouldn't stay at our normal hotel; he had to stay at the Waldorf. The great moment was when he was doing "Babalu" live on the air with Desi Jr. I was in the control room watching and we were trying to figure out when to cut away. He throws himself into it so much, I'm like seeing his lips turn blue. He's going into it totally, like he's thirty. And I'm thinking, "Oh my God, he's going to have a coronary. What happens if he dies on live TV?" And so we finally cut away to commercial.
JANE CURTIN: There were huge highs and huge lows. I think that because of the talent, and because of the people's temperaments, you could have these incredible moments of sheer exhilaration and excitement, and then moments where you just feel like you're a pill, you're a tiny little piece of lint. You feel as though you don't deserve air. So the highs and lows were huge, but there was a middle ground, because the show had to go on. At eleven-thirty, you had to put all of that stuff aside and hit the ground running and do what you were trained to do- and, hopefully, have a good time. More often than not, you did.
LILY TOMLIN: Never, never, never, never would it occur to me that I could teach them something about comedy. Comedy is so personal and so individual, and no, I would never have the attitude that I was there to teach or something. Oh my God, no. Some of that has been written at different times - not about them specifically, but my part in comedy, let's say - but it would be like me telling someone how to perform or something. It would never occur to me. Laraine was always good. And of course Gilda was a very adorable person. I don't know Chevy really well, but I've always liked Chevy. And Jane Curtin - I was never close to her and I don't know that anyone was, but while the other girls were just kind of spinning around her, Jane was always just kind of centered, and ironically she's the one that's had the biggest career. She was always very anchored. I was always impressed with Jane.
The original, still-most-famous cast in the history of Saturday Night Live actually remained intact for only one season. Chevy Chase, the only performer who regularly identified himself by name on the show and who was the player most featured in magazine and newspaper stories - even as possible successor to Johnny Carson as host of The Tonight Show - left at the end of the first season, returning in later years only for cameos and guest-hostings. Because he had signed a contract with NBC as a writer and not a performer, and stipulated a oneyear term instead of five, he was free to go. In August 1976, when the parting was announced, Chase radiated self-effacing graciousness, saying he had "a very strong love affair with the show" but that "my leaving won't affect it. It has its own momentum. There's more talent in Danny Aykroyd's right hand than in my entire body." Twenty-three years later, at the unveiling of a Lorne Michaels star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Los Angeles, Chase would tell a crowd assembled for the event that leaving the show when he did was a mistake-and that he still regretted it.
BUCK HENRY: I thought Chevy shouldn't have left. I thought it was really stupid to leave that early in the run, because he was so great on it. The show made him. He should have gone and done his movies later. Maybe Belushi wouldn't have blossomed so much, though, if Chevy had stayed. Because John was so happy to see him go.
JUDITH BELUSHI: John and Chevy were always antagonistic and friends. It was a love-hate kind of thing. They worked together well when they were trying to. A funny thing they used to do on the side- underwear ad posing. They would just strike a pose together, like Chevy's arm on John's shoulder, one knee up on a chair, like the underwear poses in the Sears catalog.
I'd say John had mixed feelings about Chevy leaving. The whole thing around Saturday Night Live was, if you were in the circle with Lorne, you could get a lot more of what you wanted. Chevy was part of that circle, and Paul Simon and whoever, I forget. And Chevy was getting a lot of airtime and John felt he should get more, and that Chevy was sometimes cast for things that John thought he could do better.
JOHN LANDIS: The part of Otter in Animal House was originally written for Chevy Chase. Ned Tannen at Universal said to me, "Here's this script, Animal House. If you can get me Chevy Chase and John Belushi and a movie star, I'll make it." So Ivan Reitman was desperate to get Chevy. Chevy was the first star out of SNL for a very simple reason, which is that if you look at SNL, he's the only one who said, "I'm Chevy Chase, and you're not," and he became a celebrity. His face was up front. He was also damn funny. But I was adamantly opposed to casting him. I had nothing against Chevy, I just believed that he wouldn't feel honored, and that he was too old. So I had this wonderful, famous lunch that Ivan Reitman will remember differently but where Ivan and Thom Mount desperately blow smoke up Chevy's ass, trying to convince him to take Animal House even though he's been offered Foul Play as well. Chevy was smoking a huge cigar; this was the first time I ever met him. A goodlooking guy in good shape, and I was doing everything I could to sell it to him. And finally I had a masterstroke. I said, "Chevy, if you take Foul Play, you're then like Cary Grant; you're opposite Goldie Hawn, a major sex star, you're like Cary Grant. But if you take Animal House, you're a top banana in an ensemble, like SNL." And under the table Ivan gave me I think the most vicious kick I've ever had. He was furious, but it worked: Chevy took the other movie.
CHEVY CHASE: For me at the time, the question was, could I actually be in a movie with somebody who's talented - Goldie - and actually be in something I'd never done before and actually try to act? You know, what would that be like? It wasn't a question of could I do something that was marginally subversive for movies, when I'd already done five years of underground television on Channel 1 and had written for Mad magazine, the National Lampoon, et cetera. Animal House is an ensemble piece any way you look at it.
DAN AYKROYD: It's fair to say that John's mood, on a read-through day or whatever, was infectious to the point where he could dominate - like if he was in a jovial mood, it became a jovial table reading, or if he was down, it didn't. I think when you have great people that have charisma like that, that's probably a truism. Yeah, for sure, it was him and Chevy, him and Chevy were the ones primarily that could make the room, bring the room up or bring the room down. O'Donoghue to a certain extent too. You know, the giant talents like that.
BERNIE BRILLSTEIN: Bullshit. Chevy was my client, and he said in my office, "The reason I'm leaving is I am a producer and a writer, and Lorne's a producer and a writer, and that's a conflict." The real reason was he got a fucking car and more money. William Morris was blowing smoke in Chevy's ears as well as his wife at the time, that he should leave the show. They weren't getting big commissions from the show, I think eighty bucks a week or something. I thought he should stay on the show for at least two or three years, for no other reason than that the exposure he was getting was great. But William Morris went to NBC, and NBC was so unsure about SNL, they just wanted to make sure they kept Chevy, because he was a good-looking guy and he was like a television star. They gave him two specials. William Morris got a package commission for the specials, and NBC gave Chevy a car. I think it was a Porsche. So NBC attacked its own show. Chevy was very gentlemanly. He came to me and paid all the money he owed me and he said, "Look, I want to do it on my own. I'm competitive with Lorne, I want to produce too." He went and did the movies, you know, and for a while he was fine, but he destroyed himself.
DICK EBERSOL: Lorne just felt totally betrayed when Chevy left, not because he was losing his biggest star, but because this was his biggest partner on the show.
LORNE MICHAELS: I'm sure I was devastated by it, but I knew there would have been a struggle: was the show going to become the Chevy Chase show or was it going to stay an ensemble show? I think he'd become too big a star.
ANNE BEATTS: I don't know exactly when Michael and Chevy's relationship went sour. I know that Chevy said - I'm sure you've heard this - that Michael told him once in a taxi, "One day you'll be a B-movie star." I know that Chevy has really taken that remark to heart. And so I think that perhaps the Michael-Chevy going sour thing was part of Michael calling it as he saw it, which he unstintingly did even when it was detrimental to his best interests.
CHEVY CHASE: You have no idea what my life was like as a kid, you have no sense of that at all. You're probably looking into books and saying, "Hey, he went to a private school," as if that somehow is an explanation for my personality. You have no sense at all - nor would I share with you what my childhood was like.
ANNE BEATTS: Chevy was the Waspy golden boy that neither Michael nor Lorne would ever be.
ALAN ZWEIBEL: It was emotional. We were a colony. I don't mean this in a bad way, but we were Guyana on the seventeenth floor. We didn't go out. We stayed there. It was a stalag of some sort.
LORNE MICHAELS: No one thought we'd have a summer holiday, because nobody at the network thought they could rerun these shows. I said, "No, we're going to put on reruns." And when we put on the Richard Pryor show, it rated higher than it had originally. And I won the case. Some of us spent the summer together. We went to Joshua Tree in California. I'd been there many times before. It was a spiritual place for me, and so I was showing them this place that had a lot of meaning for me. We stayed at the Joshua Tree Inn, a motel with a pool in the center. John and Danny were in the room next to mine. One night we had a barbecue. Chevy, who came with his girlfriend, cooked. I remember it was a very beautiful night, and we were all sort of grateful for each other and just beginning to soak up whatever that first season was. This was late June or early July, and we were just beginning to understand what being on a hit show was like, the full throttle of that.
We drank a lot and stayed up really late. Then at about five o'clock in the morning, the sun was way too bright and woke me up. There was some sort of noise outside, so I staggered to the door. When I opened it, I saw Danny standing in the archway just a few feet away, and he's in the same shape I'm in, and we look out and there's John, on the diving board, doing these cannonballs. He goes straight up, hits the board, comes down, and then flips over into the pool. This was just for our benefit, Danny's and mine, because there was nobody else awake or watching it. And we were like completely wrecked, the two of us, and just barely conscious, and Danny looked at me and he said, "Albanian oak."
Excerpted from Live From New York by Thomas W. Shales and James Andrew Miller Copyright © 2002 Little, Brown & Company.