Saturday Night is the intimate history of the original Saturday Night Live, from its beginnings as an outlaw program produced by an unruly band of renegades from the comedy underground to a TV institution that made stars of John Belushi, Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, Gilda Radner, Jane Curtin, Laraine Newman, Garrett Morris, Joe Piscopo and Eddie Murphy.
This is the book that revealed to the world what really happened behind the scenes during the first ten years of this groundbreaking program, from the battles SNL fought with NBC to the battles fought within the show itself. It's all here: The love affairs, betrayals, rivalries, drug problems, overnight successes, and bitter failures, mixed with the creation of some of the most outrageous and original comedy ever. "It reads like a thriller," said the Associated Press, "and may be the best book ever written about television."
This is the first time this book has been released in ebook format, and this edition contains nearly fifty photographs of cast, crew and sketches.
It wouldn’t be the first time Dick Ebersol had pitched the new program called Saturday Night without having more than the vaguest idea of what that program would be.
This time his audience was management: executives from most of NBC’s 219 local affiliated stations around the country who had gathered at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles for their May 1975 convention. NBC’s affiliate conventions in those days were typically described as “love feasts,” more occasions for golf, gourmet dinners, and celebratory toasts of champagne than for arguments about the way the network was handling its business.
True, NBC had trailed CBS in the prime-time ratings for more than twenty years. But the profits in second place were enormous, and in 1975, CBS seemed more within reach than it had for many seasons. Advertising revenues, and profits, were rising to unimagined new heights. Let ABC suffer, as it always had, the humiliation of being a distant third. Television’s longstanding status quo was, for those at NBC, very comfortable indeed. There was as yet no inkling that within the year the status quo would be overturned and NBC would find itself, for the first time in its history, in third place.
Dick Ebersol was counting on the affiliates’ cheerful mood to discourage any bothersome questions about the new program he was about to describe. Ebersol, who had joined NBC just nine months before as director of weekend late-night programming, cut a somewhat strange figure on the podium. At twenty-seven he was shockingly young for a network executive. He was tall and pug-nosed. His hair hung down to his shoulders in a Prince Valiant cut that framed his head like a helmet. The lenses of his glasses were so thick they looked like miniature TV sets. Usually he wore bizarre patchwork sports jackets of brightly colored madras more suggestive of the Brothers Ringling than the Brothers Brooks, but, in deference to the affiliates, that day he chose a muted dark suit. At a time when businessmen still worried about radicals running wild in the streets, Ebersol, his long hair evenly trimmed and well washed, his tailored suit neatly pressed, came across as less dangerous than curious, an odd combination of rebellious youth and white-collar convention.
Despite his youth, Ebersol was no newcomer to speaking at network affairs. He had come to NBC after spending seven years as an aide and surrogate son to the legendary Roone Arledge, president of ABC Sports. Ebersol had produced a number of sporting events on weekends for ABC, but his main job had been representing Arledge at the dozens of meetings and conferences each year that Arledge habitually avoided. Ebersol knew enough, then, to come to his first appearance before NBC’s affiliates with several jokes written out on index cards to help fill the empty spots—of which there were quite a few—in his speech.
The affiliates had heard a little about Saturday Night from a press release NBC had issued a couple of weeks before. The release had been hurried through in anticipation of the affiliates’ convention; whatever chance Saturday Night had for success would depend on the affiliates agreeing to carry it on their stations. But the network’s public relations experts had been unable to mask how little they’d had to go on when they wrote it.
The show was described as “a new concept in late-evening programming—a live, 90-minute comedy-variety series titled Saturday Night.” It was to originate from studio 8H in NBC’s 30 Rockefeller Plaza headquarters in New York beginning October 11. The producer, the release said, would be Lorne Michaels, who had won an Emmy award a year before for his writing on a Lily Tomlin special.
The release went on to list some of Michaels’s other credits: producer of a Flip Wilson special, a writer for Laugh-In, co-host and producer of The Hart and Lorne Show on Canadian television, and a writer for British television’s Monty Python. All but the last credit were true. Ebersol was quoted as saying that Michaels was “the best young producer in the comedy-variety field” (he was actually two years older than Ebersol), but it’s likely that none of the affiliates had ever heard of him. And if they had, they might have reflected that there were very few young producers in the comedy-variety field in 1975, mainly because comedy-variety was then considered a dying form.
That was about as specific as the release had gotten. Further quotations from Ebersol stated that Saturday Night would feature “a mixture of new and established talent,” but there was no mention of who that talent might be. The show would “introduce new forms of comedy-variety,” but there was no explanation of what new forms Ebersol had in mind. The release was filled out with a few paragraphs extolling NBC’s long tradition of innovative late-night programming, the grand history of studio 8H, where Arturo Toscanini had held forth in the days when NBC had its own symphony orchestra, and the network’s dedication to bringing television production back to New York City. It concluded by promising that “within the next four to six weeks a program format and names of performers who will appear in the show will be announced.”
But as Ebersol stood before the affiliates he had little of substance to add. He told them he’d signed Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets, to provide a series of new characters for the show. In 1975, however, Henson was known mainly for his work on public television’s kids’ show Sesame Street, so his agreement to contribute to a late-night comedy show for adults could hardly be considered a coup. More impressive was Ebersol’s announcement that comedian Albert Brooks would provide Saturday Night with a short film each week. Brooks at the time was one of the hotter young comics in the business, almost a regular on the Tonight Show. But since Henson’s and Brooks’s segments on Saturday Night were to total about five minutes apiece, that still left something like 80 percent of the program’s content unaccounted for.
Ebersol went into what he called his “dance.” He promised that the show would have weekly guest stars “such as” Lily Tomlin, Richard Pryor, and George Carlin (none of them had been signed); a “repertory group of young comedians from the comedy clubs of New York and other cities” (none of them had been auditioned); and regular music acts “such as” the Rolling Stones and Stevie Wonder (none of their agents had been approached). He alluded to such earlier TV comedy breakthroughs as Laugh-In and Your Show of Shows, tacked on a concluding joke or two, and left the stage.
Ebersol felt the affiliates’ reaction to his smoke-and-mirror show had been “mild”—meaning noncommittal. They could afford to be. The affiliates knew that NBC had put virtually no effort into its late-night time slot on weekends for years, filling it on both Saturdays and Sundays with reruns of Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. The affiliates had their choice of airing the reruns either night, but less than half had run them at all, choosing instead to fill the time with their own programs, usually old movies. As a result, Carson’s weekend ratings were so negligible that the network’s sales department often gave away advertising spots in the show as a free bonus in other deals.
If NBC now wanted to risk a little money producing a new show for that moribund time period, the affiliates figured, why not? Fresh programming was always welcome. Ebersol and everybody else at NBC had also talked about what a “youth” show Saturday Night was going to be, and the affiliates didn’t need to be told that NBC’s ratings in the eighteen-to-thirty-four-year-old age group were dismal, as were those of the other networks. There was, the affiliates knew, a whole blooming, unpredictable but overflowing youth market out there that wasn’t, for the most part, watching TV. Millions of consumers were going to waste, and advertisers were aching to get at them.
Ebersol just might be the guy to do something about that—he was obviously of an age to have a clue to what the kids would buy. But Saturday Night was NBC’s gamble, not the affiliates’. If it bombed, they always had the option of bumping it, returning to their own programming, and being no worse off than they’d been before. Which wasn’t bad at all, youth gap or no.