Lorne Michaels just referred to it as “The Show,” even before it was a show.
“Saturday Night Live” was Michaels’ baby from its birth in 1975. And now, with his child marking its 30th birthday, NBC is airing a two-hour documentary about the show’s first five classic years, the era when its cast was “the Beatles of comedy,” as Dana Carvey says near the documentary’s start.
“Live from New York: The First 5 Years of Saturday Night Live,” which airs 9 p.m. EST Sunday, is no cut-and-paste collection of clips.
Instead, writer-director-producer Kenneth Bowser delivers a documentary that mixes classic bits with extensive interviews, peering into the madness behind those 90 minutes of magic that started Saturdays at 11:30 p.m.
It’s not altogether new territory. “SNL” was already the subject of several books, including the acclaimed oral history done in 2002 by The Washington Post’s Tom Shales and co-author James Andrew Miller.
But there’s still plenty worthwhile, from long-unseen musical clips to stories from guest hosts such as Steve Martin to tales of Dan Aykroyd entering a pitch meeting with a chain saw — and then cranking it up. There are new interviews, offering brutal honesty.
Michaels recalls his first meeting with John Belushi: “He told me he didn’t do television. We didn’t hit it off.” Eric Idle remembers the comedy team of Al Franken and Tom Davis: “They were always whacked out of their skulls.” Garrett Morris, the lone black cast member, poignantly recounts his outsider status: “Fifty percent was my fault.”
The documentary places the show in the context of the times: Vietnam, Nixon, drugs. And it illustrates the groundbreaking attitude brought by its original cast, “The Not Ready for Prime Time Players.”
“We had a chance,” explains Chevy Chase, “to parody and take down television.”
Though they didn’t entirely succeed, they had plenty of successes — and a few funny failures. On opening night, announcer Don Pardo botched the cast’s introduction. “The ‘Not for Ready Prime Time Players,”’ the familiar voice intoned.
The show’s lair on the 17th floor of NBC’s Rockefeller Center headquarters was more dorm room than office, with cast members and writers moving in. “A huge playpen,” says Monty Python’s Idle, a host from the early years.
Live, from New YorkThe skits that made the show a phenomenon are included: Chase’s racially charged job interview with guest host Richard Pryor, Aykroyd’s memorable “Jane, you ignorant slut,” Belushi in various modes of Samurai.
And there are some long-forgotten, edgy skits. Burt Reynolds, as a Roman centurion on the make, approaches Laraine Newman with this come-on: “I couldn’t help not notice that you’re very svelte. What’s your name?”
“Anorexia,” she shoots back.
The documentary touches on drug abuse and the pitfalls of celebrity. Cocaine, Aykroyd says, was “affecting the work, the performances and the quality of the scripts.”
There’s a rare clip from Bill Murray’s 1975 screen test, when he failed to make the cut for season one. After he replaced Chase, the show’s first break-out star, Murray began receiving hate mail. He quickly proved a more than able replacement.
The musical clips evidence the days before the Ashlee Simpsons of the world took the “SNL” stage, with performances by Patti Smith, the Band, Randy Newman, Ray Charles and others included.
Quibbles? Murray and Jane Curtain don’t participate. Both are missed. There must be guest hosts with better tales to tell than Penny Marshall. And the segment on “SNL” romances could have been replaced by something on Andy Kaufman, one of the show’s early guests and great innovators.
In the end, as the documentary makes clear, fame and money took everything apart. Cast members traveled with entourages, hired limousines, worked behind closed doors. When the Rolling Stones showed up to play in season four, it was more a signal of trouble than success.
But even the end of this era was greeted with a sly grin by some on the staff. “I remember seeing the girl I was with getting hit on by Keith Richards, and that’s when I knew,” recalls Jim Signorelli, who did many of the show’s early parodies of commercials.