Sunday, June 29, 2008

A Blast From TV's Past

Inspired by the passing of George Carlin last weekend, NBC aired the original episode of Saturday Night Live last night--the one from October 11, 1975, featuring Carlin as the inaugural host.

I'm pretty sure I'd seen this one before, but it was fascinating to look at a show this old (that's still on the air) and compare and contrast with modern editions. Here are some of my observations:
  • It was odd to see the show aired under its original name, NBC's Saturday NIght. The reason for this was that rival ABC had a show on at the time called Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell, if you can imagine him doing a variety show. According to Wikipedia, NBC bought the rights to the name in 1976 after Cosell's show tanked, and they started using it a year later.

  • It was funny to hear the venerable announcer Don Pardo mess up the intro; he referred to the cast as the "Not For Ready Prime Time Players." (And Pardo is still doing the gig at age 90, flying in from his retirement home in Tuscon each week; he did the voice-over at the beginning of the show explaining how this rerun was a tribute to Carlin.)

  • There were actually two musical guests on this first night: so-called "Fifth Beatle" Billy Preston and one-hit wonder Janis Ian. It's rare to have more than one on any given show, but they both got two segments apiece.

  • While Preston's first song, "Nothing From Nothing," can still be heard today, his second song, "Fancy Lady" (which Pardo called his "new hit"), may not have been heard since; Wikipedia says it made it only to #71 on the Billboard chart. (The other song that Ian played besides her signature "At Seventeen" was also something with which I was unfamiliar, but that didn't surprise me, since she's pretty much associated with that one song.)

  • I was also squinting at the screen to see what kind of keyboard Preston was playing. Turns out it was a Hohner--that's right, the harmonica company. (Evidently, they haven't made keyboards for quite some time now, but I had no idea that they were the ones who made the Clavinet.)

  • Carlin himself got a lot more time in front of the audience than is usual for the host, doing three separate monologues throughout the show. It was funny to see him with long hair and wearing a vested leisure suit over his usual long-sleeved henley shirt. (Last week's Reuters article on Carlin notes that he was high on cocaine while doing the show.)

  • Just like in nearly every episode of SNL that has followed this one, there were some sketches that were funny and some that left the viewer going "Huh?" at the end. (You would swear that some of the sketches just stopped randomly because they ran out of time or something.)

  • In light of the Supreme Court's Heller decision of a few days ago, it was interesting to watch the short sketch where a truck full of people drove around and invited passersby to "Show Us Your Guns."

  • It was really funny to see one of their gag commercials touting a three-blade razor--a strange idea back then, but a part of reality nowadays (there's one on my bathroom counter, as a matter of fact).

  • I taped the show last night and watched it this evening (something that few people could have done in 1975). Normally, that would mean that I would fast-forward through all the commercials, but I let some of them roll, just to experience the juxtaposition of modern ads with a 33-year-old show. A person from 1975 would indeed be amazed and confused to see those commercials; they'd probably pass out upon seeing the list prices for cars and trucks, and they'd surely wonder what this "dot com" thing was all about.
I'll admit that it's been quite a few years since I'd watched SNL; looking at the current cast, I only recognized two names (Darrell Hammond and Amy Poehler). I'm sure I'll check it out at some point again (if I'm actually home on a Saturday night and remember to get off the Internet for a bit), but it's seemed to be not quite as good recently.

SNL seems to have had a "jumped the shark" point for a lot of people, just as rock fans can often tell you after what album Rush or Metallica started to not rock anymore. If you're also one who used to watch SNL in the past but don't do so regularly anymore, answer me this: When did it stop being good (or at least when did you stop being a regular viewer)? For me, it started to fall off around the mid-'90s, I think, and I stopped watching regularly sometime around the turn of the millennium. (Still, my proverbial hat's off to a show that's still going after such a long time.) Feel free to leave your own answers in the comments below.

Time-Wasting 101; This post took several hours to actually go up, as I got sucked into reading the entire history of the show on Wikipedia. Good thing it's summer...


Mark Daniels said...

I can think of at least two hits that Janis Ian had: "Can't See You Any More" and "I Learned the Truth at Seventeen."

I remember watching the initial offering of Saturday Night when it aired. I was twenty-one at the time and married. In fact, we toured 30 Rock at Christmastime that year--1975--with several junior high youth from our Columbus church. (My wife and I were the junior high youth group leaders at the time.) We were on the Saturday Night set and at that point, I was the only person in our group of fifteen people who had heard of the show, let alone seen it.

Mark Daniels

Kev said...

Yeah, "At Seventeen" is the one she did on SNL, but the other title doesn't ring a bell.

We lived in the NYC area twice when I was really little, so it's possible that I've been to Rockefeller Center, but I have no recollection. I did get back up there a year and a half ago for a jazz convention, but didn't have time to do a lot of the tourist-y stuff. Times Square was fun, though...