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.