Imagine a television show that’s been on the air for 38 years. It’s broadcast “live,” yet it’s not a news program or a sporting event. It has cutting edge skits, irreverent political humor, keeps us up on the hottest bands, has timely guest hosts, and never seems to get stale. If you guessed “Saturday Night Live” you’re absolutely correct.
“Saturday Night Live”—or “SNL”—is widely popular and has been the highest rated late-night show in America since 1977. The show has also been critically acclaimed; winning 36 Emmy Awards and now holds the title for the most nominated television show in Emmy history with 156 nominations. SNL has been a successful show for almost 40 years despite the nearly complete cast change it goes through every five years or so. So how did this remarkable show get its start? Let’s find out.
In the late 1960’s, when Johnny Carson’s “The Tonight Show” was becoming popular on late-night television, NBC decided to fill the late-night weekend gap by running reruns of that show. This worked fine for a few years and gave NBC a leg-up in the late-night weekend time slots, until 1974, when Carson announced that he wanted to save the reruns for those weeknights when he wanted time off. So, NBC president Herbert Schlosser asked Dick Ebersol, the vice president of late night programming, to create a show to fill the Saturday late-night time slot.
Ebersol got together with Lorne Michaels, a writer/producer for NBC, and in a month they developed the idea for a variety show featuring high-concept comedy skits, political satire, and music performances. They assembled a talented cast, including Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris, Laraine Newman, and Gilda Radner and premiered the show on NBC on October 11, 1975, under the original title “NBC’s Saturday Night.” The show, which was performed “live” in front of a studio audience, was an instant hit. It caught many people off-guard with its irreverent humor and quickly established a reputation for being cutting edge and unpredictable. Word soon spread, and within weeks the show was attracting a new demographic to late-night television: young adults.
While the cast members and featured players have changed over the years, the main elements remain the same: a celebrity host, musical guest, sketches, commercial parodies, and a fake news segment. The show format has been developed and recreated in several countries including Spain, Italy, Brazil, Japan, and South Korea. The show’s comedy sketches, which parody contemporary culture and politics, have become a staple of our national dialogue. As Michaels himself said,
“When you leave NYC and LA and you realize how important the show is, [for] people who are not on the grid and can just check in on it…You’re always aware you’re doing it for the country. Unless you reach the middle of the country you haven’t really succeeded.”
Beyond politics, the show’s cast of recurring characters and take on pop culture targets remain spot-on, and sketches from the show often become coffee-break discussions on Monday mornings. The addition of the show’s Emmy Award-winning SNL Digital Shorts dominate YouTube viewings and continue to keep the show as current today as it was when it debuted. So, with all of the wonderful comedy and thought-provoking ideas the show has generated over the years, we hope we’ll always hear those wonderful words at 11:30 every weekend, “Live from New York, It’s Saturday Night.”