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Celebrating the birth of ‘Saturday Night Live’

“First 5 Years” gives a behind-the-scenes look at NBC's long-running comedy show and its ensemble cast.
/ Source: TODAY

"Saturday Night Live" will celebrate its 30th anniversary this year, making it one of the longest-running shows on television. On Sunday, Feb. 20, NBC airs a documentary on the first five years of this groundbreaking TV show. “Today” host Matt Lauer has a behind-the-scenes look at the birth of "Saturday Night Live."

“We went in with no aspirations, no sense that this would go anywhere,” says Chevy Chase, a "Saturday Night Live" cast member from 1975 to 1977.

“Could you imagine if you were watching this in 1975 and you had not seen anything like it?” says Tina Fey, a current cast member who is also the show’s head writer.

“They were funnier than anybody we’d ever seen. They were darker. They were smarter,” recalls Darrell Hammond, another current SNL star.

SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels's innovative concept: take seven unknowns, add a different groundbreaking host and a different groundbreaking band every week.

“For me, it was an incredibly exciting time,” says Michaels. “I was probably fearful of going on air. I had never done a live television show. Like I had said endlessly, we don't go on because it's ready, we go on because it's 11:30 — that tends to be very clarifying.”

When the show debuted, it was panned.

“All the reviews were bad. I mean it was just like, this show is sophomoric,” says Neil Levy, an  original writer from the show.

But soon the seven comedic misfits — billed as the Not Ready For Prime Time Players — became among the biggest names on TV.

“I remember seeing Dan Aykroyd playing Richard Nixon and showing all of Nixon’s colors, and I remember thinking to myself, 'That’s what I want to do, that’s who I want to be,' ” recalls Hammond.

Garret Morris was originally hired as a writer, but soon became an on-air cast member.

“I remember being onstage and going, 'Holy mackerel, he's good,' you know? I'd been working with this guy for four and a half years and I didn't really appreciate him,” says Al Franken, another former alumni who worked with Morris during the show’s early years.

Gilda Radner “was really able to hold her own on a stage with three big heavy macho [actors],” says SNL writer Rosie Schuster.

Laraine Newman was often called the sexy one. “Laraine had her approach to character, and when you capture an essence that no one else has noticed or somehow just has not apprehended yet — when you do, it's a stunning, wonderful thing,” says comedian Lilly Tomlin.

Jane Curtin was the straight one. “I think she was very much, 'Let's know our lines, let's do it properly and go.' She didn't like any of the fame rubbish and the drug rubbish. She was very sensible and very focused,” recalls comedian Eric Idle, a founding member of Monty Python's Flying Circus.

And Chevy Chase was the star. “He wrote for the other cast members. He was very generous that way and he exploded very fast to superstardom status,” says Dan Aykroyd.

After just one season on "Saturday Night Live," Chase made the jump to Hollywood. He was replaced by unknown comic Bill Murray. Murray had a tough time. Eventually, he said so on the show.

“From that one moment, Bill Murray went from being a player on 'Saturday Night Live' to being a star on 'Saturday Night Live,' ” says former producer Dick Ebersol. 

Revolutionary TV in a revolutionary time. Nothing was off limits — sex, drugs, or rock 'n' roll. Two of the original members are now dead, but you can see their impact every Saturday night.

“Those people started what I think is, and continues to be, a kind of magical, hard-to-pin-down experience,” says current cast member Amy Poehler.

“To be a part of the show now, with so much history behind it, you almost have to not think about it or you will just be paralyzed,” says Fey.

“Saturday Night Live: The First 5 Years” airs Sunday, Feb. 20, at 9 p.m. ET on your local NBC station.