Forty years ago, Saturday late-night television was a wasteland, the realm of bad movies and sports highlights and Johnny Carson re-runs. If you were home watching TV late on a Saturday night, it was because you had no life and literally nothing better to do.
That changed on October 17, 1975, when shortly after 11:30 p.m., an unknown comedian named Chevy Chase looked into a camera in Studio 8H in Rockefeller Plaza and exclaimed, “Live, from New York, it’s Saturday Night!”
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On Sunday, February 15, a battalion of SNL regulars, guest hosts, and musical guests including Eddie Murphy, Robert DiNiro, Alec Baldwin, Dan Ackroyd, Betty White, Jimmy Fallon, Justin Timberlake, Emma Stone, Paul McCartney, Melissa McCarthy, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler will gather in Studio 8H to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the show with a live broadcast that promises to out-SNL any SNL presentation that’s come before.
Meanwhile, anyone who’s ever loved the show can celebrate at home with Saturday Night Live: The Book (Taschen, 2015), a massive tome that not only gives readers a behind-the scenes look at how the show is produced, but provides an exhaustive compendium covering the series’ 40 years on the air.
To say that television history was made that October night in 1975 would be an understatement. The show’s premiere was not only a television milestone, but a cultural one as well. Since its debut, Saturday Night Live has to a large degree shaped how we as a nation look at comedy, satire and entertainment. During its most successful seasons, it became the reason we stayed home on Saturday night, and the topic of discussion around the office water cooler on Monday morning.
Each episode of SNL is created in just six days. On Monday, the guest host meets with the cast and writers to discuss what might go into that week’s show. Sketches are created in a flurry of writing and submitted by Wednesday for the read-through. Rehearsals begin on Thursday, while short films and commercial parodies are shot and edited Friday. On Saturday, re-writes, cuts, and changes are made as the show finally takes shape. Just before the broadcast, there’s a 90-minute dress rehearsal, during which major alterations to the show are still being made. And all through this process, sets are built, props are selected, costumes are sewn and stage blocking is completed.
Finally, the moment arrives. “We don’t go on because we’re ready,” Lorne Michaels tells the book’s editor and author Alison Castle. “We go on because it’s 11:30.”
Over 40 years, this wild frenzy of creative chaos has shone a spotlight on some of the great comics of their time: John Belushi, Akroyd, Gilda Radner, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Al Franken, Murphy, Martin Short, Billy Crystal, Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman, Chris Farley, Mike Meyers, Adam Sandler, Conan O’Brien, Chris Rock, Will Ferrell, Tracy Morgan, Fallon, Fey, Poehler, Kristin Wiig, Seth Meyers, Fred Armisen, Bill Hader and many, many more. Saturday Night Live: The Book features more than 2,300 images of the SNL cast members and hosts who helped make the show mandatory viewing for generations of fans. The book also contains a reference guide complete with lists of casts, hosts and musical guests for the show’s first 40 years.
“Every time you see a performer break character, look right at you, and say, ‘Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night,’ you’re witnessing a minor miracle in the making,” Castle writes in the book’s introduction. This book not only shows how the miracle happens, but it allows readers to re-live 40 years of miracles gone by, from the Blues Brothers to Toonces the driving cat, from Coneheads to Ed Grimley, from the Samurai Deli to Buckwheat’s Greatest Hits, from “Wayne’s World” to “What Up with That?” to four decades of Weekend Update.
As the Church Lady might say: “Isn’t that special?” Indeed it is.