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DVD Review: Saturday Night Live – The Complete First Season

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After Johnny Carson's request that NBC stop airing Best of Carson on the weekends, the network wanted to fill the gap with a 90-minute variety show. Former Laugh-In writer Lorne Michaels was hired to run the show, and the rest is television history, but how many people actually know the entire history? The Not Ready for Prime Time Players, "I'm Chevy Chase. And you're not," and The Bees have made their way into the pop culture collective consciousness, but how many fans remember The Mighty Favog, Jamitol, and cast member George Coe?

After finally securing music clearances, although it could just easily have been held up by some of the performers not wanting their former hairstyles revealed, The Complete First Season of Saturday Night Live is coming to home video, even though that wasn't the name of the show. ABC aired Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell a month earlier, so the show was called NBC's Saturday Night. After Cosell's show was canceled, Michaels took the program's name and its cast member Bill Murray.

still from SNL: Season One | hosted by TinyPic.comViewers get to see how the show progressed into its traditional format. During the first couple of episodes, the focus was more on variety than the sketch comedy it would be known for. George Carlin hosted the first jam-packed episode. He delivered routines, like "Baseball and Football," and introduced the acts, ranging from the first of six Albert Brooks' short films, comedians Valri Bromfield and Andy Kaufman, who performed his brilliant "Mighty Mouse," and Jim Henson's Muppets, who were very different from the ones your children watched on Sesame Street.

Music has always been a mainstay, but never so much as this season. The premiere episode had Billy Preston and Janis Ian each perform two songs. The following week offered 11 musical numbers, which was a natural fit for host Paul Simon, including the second time Simon and Garfunkel performed together publicly after their split in 1970. They sound absolutely fantastic on "The Boxer" with only Simon on guitar for accompaniment. The musical numbers appeared at different times throughout the show and offered a wide range of artists, such as Gil Scott-Heron, Anne Murray, Neil Sedaka, Jimmy Cliff, Desi Arnaz, Patti Smith, Leon Redbone, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, ABBA, who lip-synched, and a pre-recorded Carly Simon, who was reportedly too nervous to perform in front of a live audience.

Simon expanded the role of the host by appearing in a taped bit about playing one-on-one against Connie Hawkins and informing the cast that The Bee sketch had been cut. During the third show, host Rob Reiner performed in sketches with them. As their comedic talents became evident, they rose to the forefront and the other acts took a backseat. It must have been a great working experience as Candice Bergen, Buck Henry, and Elliot Gould all returned as hosts this season.

The humor had different sensibilities, topical and timeless, silly and dark. A lot of the Weekend Update jokes dealt with President Ford and world events that may not hold up without knowing the particulars of the era. The movie parodies of The Exorcist with Richard Pryor and Jaws with the Land Shark still remain funny with every viewing.

There is also a lot of metahumor in the show. Chase discussed his pratfalls and opening the show. Michaels offered The Beatles $3,000, to split as they wished, even if they wanted to give Ringo less, to re-form on the show and play three songs. There's even material that crossed over. The Bees and The Muppets appeared within self-contained sketches, but also sketches that dealt with their role in the show. The Muppets were particularly at their funniest when they interacted with the cast.

still from SNL: Season One | hosted by TinyPic.comJohn Belushi's Samurai and Gilda Radner's Emily Litella, who debuted in a sketch as a children's book author and didn't suffer from her well-known malapropism, are the show's first recurring characters. An early version of The Blues Brothers can be seen as Belushi sings Slim Harpo's "I'm a King Bee" with Howard Shore and his All-Bee Band. There are also first appearances of Dan Aykroyd's Tom Snyder, Radner's Barbara Walters, and Mr. Bill from a viewer's home movie.

While it became a launching pad for most of the cast, there were many other talented people behind the scenes. Michael O'Donoghue went from cast member to head writer and continued as a featured player with bizarre bits, such as his imitations of famous people having steel needles plunged into their eyes. Director Penelope Spheeris was a film segment producer. Band leader Shore went on to become an Oscar-winning composer.  Band members Paul Shaffer and the horn section would go onto to play with The Blues Brothers.

The show was a well-oiled machine evidenced by the few mistakes that happened. Don Pardo calls the cast "The Not For Ready Prime Time Players" on the first episode. John Sebastian gets a lot of feedback and laughs through the opening of "Welcome Back." Rather than do a jig, he restarted the song. Chase was supposed to be hit in the face with a pie during an opening, so they repeated the gag at the close of the show.

Of course, with the passage of time and the cuts needed for syndication, the lesser bits have probably been forgotten by most, but they had their weak, end-of-the-show sketches that didn't work just like every other cast. There was some sort of running promotion with Polaroid camera, which must have been a sponsor. Throughout the season, they repeated a lot of filmed sketches and even a live sketch. However, the season had many more positives than negatives.

The video looks goods, except for the rare occasions spots when the lights overpowered the cameras and caused minor disruptions in the picture. The audio is Dolby Digital 2.0 and is available only in English. For viewers who are hard of hearing, there is closed captioning instead of Garrett Morris shouting throughout all 24 episodes.

Special Features include original screen tests and a 1975 interview with Michaels and the cast on The Tomorrow Show two weeks before the show aired. Unfortunately, what's lacking is insight or background on the show from its participants. While there's plenty of books and a documentary about the show's early days, it would have been nice if there had been a commentary track or brief documentary include with the set. However, it doesn't detract from this amazing set and what is sure to be a hot seller.

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About Gordon S. Miller

Gordon S. Miller is the artist formerly known as El Bicho, the nom de plume he used when he first began reviewing movies online for The Masked Movie Snobs in 2003. Before the year was out, he became that site's publisher. Over the years, he has also contributed to a number of other sites as a writer and editor, such as FilmRadar, Film School Rejects, High Def Digest, and Blogcritics. He is the Publisher of Cinema Sentries. Some of his random thoughts can be found at twitter.com/ElBicho_CS
  • http://journals.aol.com/vicl04/THESAVAGEQUIETSEPTEMBERSUN/ Victor Lana

    As I suffer through this tepid season of SNL, it’s nice to know I can go back and revisit the experience on DVD. I was there from the very first episode, a young kid watching on a small B&W TV in my room. I was hooked from the start.

    It’s sometimes fortunate to be in on something like SNL from the very beginning (I feel the same about “24” which I watched from the first season- first episode). People who start watching later on become fascinated, but they never have that fresh experience and the feeling of being in on something that’s going to get much bigger.

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    I agree, Victor. It’s always tough to go back view influential things and realize how groundbreaking they were for the time.

    Although I couldn’t make it through 24’s first season. It got a tad too ridiculous for a drama.