SNL: Season One review, SNL: Season 1 DVD review

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Buy your copy from Saturday Night Live: The Complete First Season (1975) starstarstarstarstar Starring: Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris, Laraine Newman, Gilda Radner
Director: Dave Wilson
Category: Comedy
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As soon as word got out that Universal was going to be releasing “Saturday Night Live: The Complete First Season,” most people immediately wondered why it hadn’t happened before now. Hey, you try wrangling the rights for every single musical guest; see how long it takes you.

Thirty-plus years down the road, just about everyone knows the legend of the Not Ready for Prime-Time Players: producer Lorne Michaels takes a rag-tag bunch of writers and performers, throws them into a studio with a bunch of drugs, and makes comedy history. Over the years, though, the episodes of the 90-minute show have been trimmed to fit into 60-minute timeslots, and the most memorable sketches have been distilled into countless best-of collections and anniversary specials. It’s gotten to the point where you pretty much have to have watched the show when it was originally aired to say that you’ve seen a complete episode from the early years. The good news, then, is that you’ll discover a lot of material in “The Complete First Season” that you’ve never seen before, both comedy and music; the bad news, though, is that a long-standing tradition of “Saturday Night Live” is that every episode has a couple of sketches that are real stinkeroos…and now’s your chance to see that it extends all the way back to the historic first season.

Watching the first season of “SNL” in chronological order is watching the evolution of a television staple; by the end of the year, the show more or less resembles the series that remains locked into Saturday night’s 11:30 PM timeslot…but lord knows it doesn’t start out that way. When talking about the show, the best tactic is to divide it into the three key parts of the show – the cast, the hosts, and the musical guests – so let’s do that, shall we?

The Cast

There’s no point in dwelling on the stars of the show for too long, given that virtually every one of them went on to have some sort of steady high-profile gig after departing the ranks. We all know about Akyroyd, Belushi, and Chase. Curtin had “Kate & Allie” and “3rd Rock from the Sun,” Morris had “Hunter,” “Martin,” and “The Jamie Foxx Show,” and Gilda Radner had…well, she had her marriage to Gene Wilder, right? I don’t really want to call out the only Not Ready for Prime Time Player who’s spent their career flying way under the radar, but…well, we have an interview with her right here. It might, however, be a surprise to some that Al Franken was an “SNL” writer from its very first show, serving with his writing partner, Tom Davis; the two make many on-screen appearances as well, along with fellow writer Michael O’Donoghue. If that’s surprising, though, it’ll completely blow your mind to hear that Jim Henson’s Muppets were regulars as well. They’re not the ones you know and love – the show featured unique Henson creations – but you’ll recognize the familiar voices of Henson, Frank Oz, and Jerry Juhl, who went on to create “The Muppet Show” only a year later. Albert Brooks also did several short films during the early weeks of the show.

The Hosts

Every TV trivia fan worth their salt knows that George Carlin was the first-ever host (the network demanded that he wear a coat and tie, and his compromise was a coat with a t-shirt) – and guys like Elliott Gould and Buck Henry hosted so many times during the early years of the show that their presence is pretty well documented in the best-of collections for Aykroyd, Belushi, and Chase. Such collections have also frequently spotlighted episodes hosted by Candice Bergen (the debut of “Land Shark”), Richard Pryor (for the sketch where Pryor performs word association with Chase which ends with Chase saying “nigger” and Pryor responding “dead honky”), and Madeline Kahn (Aykroyd does his Richard Nixon impression as Pat Nixon – played by Kahn – reminisces on her husband’s last days in the White House), and political junkies will be aware of the episode hosted by Gerald Ford’s press secretary, Ron Nessen.

The most interesting shows, therefore, are the ones that are least documented. British comedy fans will love the one co-hosted by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, even though the pair don’t really team up with the cast very often (they do their own routines as often as not), and it’s pretty bizarre to see Anthony Perkins from “Psycho” doing comedy…though, to be fair, it’s nowhere near as bizarre as the sketch from the Cook & Moore show where they play the Scottish Sonny and Cher, singing “I Got You Babe” in full brogue while dressed head to toe in tartan. (Cook gets the wig, skirt, and thigh-high boots, if you’re wondering.) The real treasure from the season, however, comes when Desi Arnaz serves as both host and musical guest. Arnaz was in his late ‘60s at the time, but he’s clearly up for anything as he reads Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” (he pronounces it “Habberwocky”) and reveals the rejected pilots for “I Love Lucy,” like “I Love Louis,” where Ricky shares an apartment with Louis Armstrong; he also performs “Cuban Pete” – yes, the song from “The Mask” – and his theme song, “Babalu,” with as much enthusiasm as he had during his heyday, and the show ends with him leading the entire cast in a congo line around the studio. Can you even imagine today’s “SNL” having a host whose heyday was 20 years ago, just because they like what he’s done in the past? (Steve Martin doesn’t count.)

The Musical Guests

Nowadays, you might think of “SNL” as being the place where you’ll find the hippest new musical acts, but you’ll think again as you thrill to performances by Anne Murray, Neil Sedaka, Carly Simon, and Gordon Lightfoot. Okay, that’s being a bit unfair, since you’ll also see Gil Scott-Heron, Jimmy Cliff, Leon Redbone, the Patti Smith Group, and Kris Kristofferson (who also hosted the season finale). Meanwhile, somewhere in the middle lies ABBA, who find themselves lip-synching – reportedly because their instrumental backing tapes didn’t make it to the studio in time – on a set designed to resemble the deck of the Titanic. Nice one.

After watching “Saturday Night Live: The Complete First Season” in its entirety, you might not get every joke (particularly if you’re under 40) and you might not laugh at every joke you do get (the Muppet segments are smirk-worthy, but it’s rare for them to elicit full-on hilarity), but you’ll definitely feel as though you’ve seen a nice chunk of television history.

Special Features: It’s a good thing this set has its historical importance going for it, because the special features are way lacking. Being able to see the original screen tests for the various cast members is certainly cool (particularly Chevy’s obscene outburst), and the 1975 interview that Michaels and the cast did for Tom Snyder’s “Tomorrow” is short but certainly interesting…and that statement extends beyond just the pants Garrett’s wearing…but that’s it! What, are you kidding me? No audio commentary from any of the major players? No featurettes with new interviews? Since it’s reasonable to presume that you clicked on the above link already, you may have already read where Laraine Newman implies that an unwillingness to pay anyone for their participation might’ve had something to do with it. Cheap bastards.

~Will Harris