Monday, February 16, 2015

Saturday Night Live: Premiere Episode (NBC-TV, October 11, 1975)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran a show I’d recorded off NBC the night before: a rebroadcast of the very first episode of Saturday Night Live, aired on NBC October 11, 1975. There’s been a big to-do about the 40th anniversary of this long-running program — it’s become a weird sort of national institution even though I’ve believed it should long since have been put out of its misery — and before re-running the first episode NBC did a 2 ½-hour commemorative special that I turned on briefly, saw a bit of a lame parody of record ads on late-night TV (a homely singing duo hawking their “romantic” album and singing excerpts of the songs, all of which had incredibly lame sexual references — one of the annoying things about the current Saturday Night Live is how many sketches they do in which they take a dirty joke that isn’t particularly funny to begin with and run it into the ground until it becomes really offensive), then turned it off in disgust. I was curious about the first episode because I didn’t watch it when it was new — I watched a bit of it, but for some reason I’d been under the impression that it was going to be a music show with a few comedy sketches in between the musical acts, when in fact it was the other way around. I was interested because one of the musical guests was Janis Ian, then riding high on her big hit “At 17,” and the same night PBS had shown a special pairing Ian with the pioneering jazz-rock band Blood, Sweat and Tears. I liked the idea of being able to see Janis Ian twice on different networks on the same night, but that’s not how things turned out; when I switched from PBS to NBC all I saw were a bunch of people I’d never heard of doing comedy, and whether it was any good or not I didn’t care because I wanted to hear more Janis Ian!

As things turned out, the host of the first Saturday Night Live was George Carlin — then the show was simply called Saturday Night to avoid confusion with the much-ballyhooed ABC series Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell, which featured a troupe of sketch comedians called the “Prime Time Players” — a name the Saturday Night people, mainly producer Lorne Michaels, decided to parody by calling his comedians the “Not Ready for Prime Time Players.” That’s the name that’s stuck, though in the opening of the first episode announcer Don Pardo garbled it as “The Not For Ready Prime Time Players” and at the end they were called the “Not Really Ready for Prime Time Players.” This first Saturday Night Live was aired just under a decade after the death of Lenny Bruce, and it was clear from the choice of George Carlin as the first host that initially Lorne Michaels and his writers (many of them veterans of the Harvard Lampoon and others who also acted on the show) were going for the quirky mix of situational humor, raunchy but still tasteful farce, and both political and cultural comment that Bruce had pioneered in the stand-up world and of which Carlin had been his principal heir. The differences in format between this and later Saturday Night Live shows include the heavy featuring of the MC — Carlin has virtually half the screen time and his routines include some of his greatest hits (baseball vs. football, the oxymoronic nature of  “jumbo shrimp,” his reflections on the non-perfect nature of God — “Just look at his creation” — and some stream-of-consciousness ramblings ending with the rhetorical question, “Have I told these jokes already?”) — as well as the appearance of two musical acts, Janis Ian and Billy Preston, doing two songs each.

Ian does “At 17” midway through the program and an even more reflective song, “In the Winter” (playing piano instead of guitar), at the end. At the time Ian was in the middle of a comeback after a flash-in-the-pan success, “Society’s Child” (in which she portrayed a woman being dumped on for dating a Black guy), in 1966; she’d been signed by Columbia and “At 17” became an enormous hit despite — or maybe because of — its sometimes cryptic lyrics. She’d make a few more albums for Columbia but never again reach that kind of chart success, and eventually they’d drop her, she’d continue making occasional records on her own and playing whatever gigs she could get, and finally in 1993 she came out as a Lesbian on the release of her first independent album, Breaking Silence, and married her longtime partner Pearl Snyder in 2003 in Canada. (That certainly put a new spin on the tag line of her famous song, “At 17 I learned the truth.”) Billy Preston was at, or possibly slightly on the downgrade from, the career peak that had begun with his signing to Apple Records in 1969, his guest appearance on keyboards on the Beatles’ “Get Back”/“Don’t Let Me Down” single, and his own mega-hit “That’s the Way God Planned It.” On this show he did what was probably his second most famous song, “Nothing from Nothing” — which, as Charles noted, was also basically a gospel song presented in a secular context (as Ray Charles had done before Preston and Sister Rosetta Tharpe had done before either of them!) — and a new song called “Fancy Pants” that also sneaked in a God reference or two. What was really amazing from the Zeitgeist point of view was that in a line from “Nothing from Nothing” Preston proudly proclaims, “I’m a soldier in the War on Poverty” — the very idea of a war on poverty is so dated these days, when all Republicans care about is the rich and all Democrats care about, even rhetorically, is preserving what’s left of “the middle class”; neither big party gives a damn about the people below that! Afterwards Preston had some of the usual music-star troubles — alcohol, drugs, health problems therefrom and legal charges, including one that he sexually assaulted a teenage Mexican boy (so both the musical guests on the first Saturday Night Live had same-sex attractions!) — and he was in and out of rehab, had a kidney transplant and finally died in 2006. As heard here, Preston’s music is essentially the last gasp of funky soul before, as I put it in connection with Willie Hutch’s soundtrack to the 1974 Blaxploitation film Foxy Brown, Black music “sank first into the swamp of disco and then into the cesspool of rap.”

The sketches on this first Saturday Night Live also raise Zeitgeist issues; one in which Chevy Chase introduces an obviously male cast member (complete with neatly trimmed beard) as his “wife” and tells us how committed he is to “her” is still funny but plays very differently in the age of marriage equality! (In 1975 I still hadn’t come to grips with being Gay — that would come two years later when a man made a pass at me in the hallway to the San Francisco State student bookstore and I took his number, spent a sleepless night and realized at about 1 a.m. that I was going to call him — and had I watched this show when it was new I would have been astounded at the idea that it would ever be legal in the U.S. for a man to marry another man, and even more astounded that I would end up marrying a man myself.) So does George Carlin’s rant about the intrusiveness of airport security; you want to take him aside in this post-9/11 age and say, “You think it’s bad now? You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!” Some of the sketches and routines (two guest comedians, the legendary Andy Kaufman and the virtually forgotten Valri Bromfield — that’s a woman, and “Valri” is obviously short for “Valerie” — appear, Kaufman lip-synching to the Mighty Mouse theme song and Bromfield doing a not particularly funny domestic routine hundreds of other more recent female comedians, from Elayne Boozler to Tammy Pescatelli, have done better since) seem badly dated and groan-inducing, but there are also some surprisingly subtle bits (like a courtroom scene — featuring later Law and Order: Special Victims Unit star Richard Belzer as one of the jurors — in which a woman testifying against her alleged rapist is so embarrassed at what he said to her that she gets permission to write it down instead of having to repeat it verbally in open court; one would welcome a bit more of that reticence from the SNL writers today!) and pieces that hold up today as well as pieces that don’t.

One of the latter is a really unfunny barbarian bit by Jim Henson’s Muppets (there’s such a legend around Henson these days it’s hard to believe he ever did anything as lame as this!); one of the former is a short film called The Impossible Truth, written and directed by Albert Brooks (yet another SNL vet who went far in mainstream showbiz!) and screamingly funny in a deliberately retro (even then!) way, particularly when a spinning newspaper headline announces that Oregon has just lowered the age of sexual consent to seven and the next thing we see is Chevy Chase chatting up a little girl in a bar. (That, too, is one routine that because of Zeitgeist changes plays a lot differently now than it did then.) The first night Saturday Night Live wasn’t quite yet the well-oiled laugh machine it became at its height in the late 1970’s, before it became so dull (when it wasn’t going out of its way to be offensive) that I remember joking for years, “Nostalgia is being able to remember when Saturday Night Live was still funny and when Michael Jackson was still Black.”