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The Comedy of Politics

Since Chevy Chase’s acerbic satire of President Gerald Ford in 1976, “Saturday Night Live’s” comics have played a defining role in the political life of America
Marshall Fine
From the Print Edition:
Saturday Night Live: How it Shapes Our Politics & Culture, September/October 2011

(continued from page 2)

Which, if it were true, would be further indication of just how far “Saturday Night Live” has come since it went on the air more than three decades ago.

When it started, “Saturday Night Live” was, for all practical purposes, an experiment: an off-the-radar show airing late on a weekend night in a slot which the network had previously devoted to reruns of “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. Carson’s show was a cash-cow for the network, so when Carson expressed displeasure at the use of repeats (which he felt devalued both the live show and the eventual resale value of reruns), the network turned to a young executive named Dick Ebersol, a former protégé of Roone Arledge.

Ebersol, in turn, hired an unknown Canadian comedy writer-performer named Lorne Michaels, who had written for “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” and for Lily Tomlin’s network comedy specials. Their mandate: to create a new comedy show and perhaps shake up the late-night time slot on weekends.

“Lorne told me he had been approached to do a weekend replacement show for ‘The Tonight Show’ and it would be a cross between ‘Monty Python’ and ‘60 Minutes,’ ” Laraine Newman, a member of the original cast, told Shales in his book, Live From New York. “And I thought, I’d watch that.”

Filmmaker-comedian Albert Brooks recalls being approached by Ebersol and Michaels in the early stages of development about the possibility of being the show’s permanent host.

“They didn’t know what to do and, at one point, they talked about it being ‘The Albert Brooks Show,’ ” Brooks says. “But I didn’t want to move to New York and do a live show.”

Comedian Robert Klein, who hosted the fifth episode of the first season, encountered Michaels in the office of the agents they shared and heard early on about his idea for a live comedy sketch show.

“I remember having a talk with Lorne and saying that he’d be better off taping it,” Klein says with a laugh. “He said, no, there was a spontaneity and excitement to doing it live. He turned out to be right.

“Look at it this way,” Klein continues, “the network hadn’t done a live show like this since ‘Howdy Doody’ in 1953. Everyone was on tape. Live was for ballgames.”

There is an ocean of difference between how “Saturday Night Live” is seen today and how it was perceived when it first went on the air in 1975 (called simply “Saturday Night,” because the late Howard Cosell was hosting a primetime variety show on ABC called “Saturday Night Live”).

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