On Lorne Michaels and the SNL Revolution

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The famous Beatles offer

Today is the birthday of Lorne Michaels (b. 1944). It would be impossible to overstate the revolution brought about in pop culture by his principal brain child Saturday Night Live during its formative phase (1975-1979). I know because I was a television addict and at an impressionable age during those years (10-14) and felt that revolution happen in my own mind. Post-SNL, I found myself looking with new eyes at stuff I had previously enjoyed, suddenly finding it unwatchably tame, passe and old-fashioned. A prime example would be something like The Carol Burnett Show, previously the most popular sketch variety show on the air waves, but now most assuredly unhorsed. Once you had your mind blown by John Belushi, it’s not like you were going to go back and continue watching Tim Conway.

Saturday Night Live comedy LP. Home video was not yet a thing

Many viewers did continue on just as before, I suppose, but it seems to me my own brain had been sort of permanently altered by the new kind of comedy being offered on SNL, which was subversive, brave, angry, and highly critical of American institutions and values and norms and sacred cows. You either saw that or you didn’t, and it seems to me most people didn’t, as they continued to embrace other flavors of the month in later years without a peep of regret or even an apparent awareness that anything fundamental had changed.

Not all of the material on SNL had been social or political. Some of it had just been refreshingly surreal or outlandish in a druggy sort of way, and some of it was just funny. I imagine the widest subset of the audience were the ones who signed on for that aspect without fully appreciating the significance of the show in general. But the show also took a CRITICAL stance and that was what appealed to me, what changed my life forever. People for the most part are somnambulant consumer-zombies who never question themselves, their government, or society, or anything really. The best, the most extreme, of SNL’s early writers Michael O’Donoghue lived and breathed that fact and wrote the sketches that provided the biggest ass-kickings. But the other writers in the early years were on board too, being part of a generation whose twin preoccupations were civil rights and ending the war in Vietnam. That energy infused the show, even if its targets seemed more diffuse in the late 70s.

The quality I refer to is perhaps best identified in the light of its subsequent absence. When Michaels and the original cast (Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris, and Laraine Newman) left in 1979-1980 (Chevy Chase had departed in 1976), there was one brief disastrous transitional season and the satirical gauntlet was picked up by the ABC program Fridays for a season or two. When SNL found its footing again in the mid 80s with Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo as its principal stars, the entire energy had shifted. Though Michaels had returned, it seemed he was now at the helm of an attempt to return to Eisenhower era programming, fully in lock-step with the country’s conservative Reaganesque mentality. Political and social content, subversion, even surreal way-out wit were all a thing of the past. The show would occasionally get slightly edgier, but ultimately it remained safe as milk. It was (and is) a big machine, a cash cow, an entertainment vessel that seldom makes waves.

What was the revolution, then? As with  all revolutions, after an initial period of upset and unrest, some superficial changes did remain. One is that, thanks to SNL,  old school television variety has remained dead since the early 1970s. SNL is a sketch comedy revue, with a smattering of music — not a variety show in the old school sense. I have chronicled the slow death of tv variety many times; the “ignominious end of the line” was Pink Lady and Jeff. The Ed Sullivan type thing was long over by ’75. Clearly most baby boomers hated it or it would have remained a tv staple. I can only think of a handful of vaudeville type people who appeared on SNL, Harry Anderson is the best example. Steve Martin and Andy Kaufman, too, although people tended to regard them as GOOFS on show biz types.

And the death of the variety show was a fine development in its own time. Such programs were beyond moribund in the 70s. But if I may make bold: Now that SNL is going on 40 years old…retaining the exact same format that it had in 1975, maybe it too is a bit ossified, conservative, unsurprising, dull? Well, it is, or sometimes is. Entire decades go by when I don’t tune in. And would I love to see a brand new show that showcased all kinds of contemporary variety talent and was more like Ed Sullivan (though perhaps with more irony)? Desperately. I’m in the vaudeville business.

The other revolution brought about by SNL was musical. Before SNL, the official show biz “sound” was typified by the Doc Severinsen Orchestra. All the shows had these late big band orchestras with jazzy horn sections. When I was a kid I couldn’t understand it. Who wants that, I wondered? No one listens to it. It’s not on the radio. Well there were old people stations, but as a kid as far as I was concerned “everybody” listened to the top 40. My idea of music in 1975 (at the age of 10) was Elton John. Why wasn’t the interstitial music on television more like that? SNL brought about that innovation, and it changed throughout the television industry (and everywhere else, really –including stores and elevators, which had previously used muzak exclusively) after that. It was like the other shoe dropping from Elvis and The Beatles one and two decades earlier. “Young people music” was now institutional, the default. The SNL band itself, led by Paul Schaeffer was saxophone centered, just at the time when sax was making a major come-back in pop music. (I always get melancholy when I hear the show’s original closing theme). And the acts they booked ranged from typically mellow top 40 late 70s California rockers…to some truly thrilling introductions to new wave acts like Patti Smith, Talking Heads, and Elvis Costello (who was banned for ten years for switching songs in the middle of his set). Which brings us to….

The show’s third innovation, which didn’t last long: the feeling of spontaneity and danger resulting from the fact that some very uninhibited improv comedians and rock acts were going to be performing live. There was a sense that anything could happen, that history could be made that night. That’s long since gone out of the show. SNL goes out on a time delay, and the entire cast slavishly, blatantly reads their lines off of teleprompters — have done for years. It’s about as dangerous as Brian Williams reading the news.

Look, I’m a critic. I only like — truly like — about 5% of everything. If you want a rah-rah thing, flip the channel. To quote John Belushi, “My television has spit all over it.” Still you can’t deny that Mr. Michaels ought to be proud of the vast mountain of entertainment he has brought before the appreciative public.

And he no doubt is! Here’s an account of the genesis of the show from the horse’s own mouth:

To find out more about the history of the variety arts (including television variety) consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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