Howard Cosell and The Original Saturday Night Live

In 1975, if any of my friends had said to me “Did you watch Saturday Night Live last night?” it is a dead certainty that I would have said, “You mean the show with Howard Cosell?” I was nine-going-on-ten when both shows premiered, but Cosell was a hugely famous TV personality and his ABC variety show aired in primetime. On the other hand, Lorne Michaels’ hip new sketch comedy program on NBC (then called simply Saturday Night, hence that opener which is still “Live from New York! It’s Saturday Night!) came in a late night slot well past my bed time. I was not allowed to stay up to watch the more successful SNL until around 1977 when I was 12. Meantime, Cosell’s strange crossover gambit had long since come and gone, forever to be an amusing footnote in TV history in people’s memories.

And make no mistake, Howard Cosell (Howard William Cohen, 1918-1995) was nothing if not memorable. I can conjure his unique voice, with its odd cadences and sonorities, its melodrama, and its extravagant persiflage, in a twinkling. Oddest of all was the fact that Cosell was a sportscaster, one so unique that he crossed far over into mainstream pop culture. I’m certain that guys like Marv Alpert, Bob Costas and Keith Olbermann would all quickly volunteer that Cosell made them possible. Cosell was a Brooklyn-bred lawyer who happened to represent the Little League of New York. His broadcasting career began in 1953, when he began to host a local show on New York’s WABC, spotlighting Little League athletes. This led to a sports talk show on local tv and radio, and then he began covering live Mets games in 1962, when the new team was established. And he became a regular contributor to ABC’s Wide World of Sports in 1964. He was especially fond of boxing and became a huge supporter of Muhammad Ali, an association that brought him enhanced national prominence. Cosell was a major supporter of civil rights for blacks. His hero was Jackie Robinson. When Cassius Clay became a Muslim and changed his name to Ali, Cosell stood by him as many others turned away. He also later supported him when he was stripped of his title and jailed in protest against the Vietnam War. But as I wrote here, the pair formed a kind of on-air comedy team, climaxing with Ali’s major comeback in the mid-1970s. At the same time, Cosell had begun to host the weekly Monday Night Football on ABC with Frank Gifford and Dandy Don Meredith. Occasionally Cosell’s sports reporting found him straying into other arenas of reportage. The phrase “the Bronx is Burning” is attributed to him, from his Yankees coverage during a time of racial unrest, although he actually didn’t use precisely those words. And it was Cosell who broke the news that John Lennon had died, as he was live, covering a football game that had gone into overtime, when the bulletin came in. Cosell had actually interviewed Lennon on tv six years earlier.

Cosell’s quirky, eccentric personality made him good television, so he soon found himself making the rounds of ALL the programs. He was on the talk shows of David Frost, Dick Cavett, Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas, Dinah Shore, and Johnny Carson. He was on Dean Martin celebrity roasts. He was on the variety shows of Bob Hope, Flip Wilson, Jonathan Winters, Sonny and Cher, the Carpenters, and Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. He was on sitcoms and dramatic programs like The Partridge Family, The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries, Nanny and the Professor, and The Odd Couple. He even wound up in movies, like Woody Allen’s Bananas (1971) and Broadway Danny Rose (1984), Disney’s The World’s Greatest Athlete (1973), and the thriller Two Minute Warning (1976).

So to me, it’s not as astounding as everyone loves to make out that Howard Cosell would host a variety show. Yes, he was stiff, awkward and ugly, but so was Ed Sullivan, and Sullivan was considered TV’s most important variety host for decades. Indeed, the fact that Cosell’s show was broadcast from the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York (where Colbert now does his show), seemed to underline that connection. Further, part of the concept of Cosell’s show was live remote feeds, a concept borrowed from sports reporting, which would allow for example, a Siegfried and Roy segment to be beamed from Las Vegas…which REMAINS a good idea, which to this day hasn’t been very much explored. And Cosell’s fame allowed him to book TOP guests. During its short life of 18 weeks, Cosell’s show had Frank Sinatra, Bill Cosby, John Denver, the Bay City Rollers (when they were hot), Aretha Franklin, Barry Manilow, Roy Clark, the Radio City Rockettes, Chita Rivera and Gwen Verdon (doing a number from Chicago), Lee Majors of The Six Million Dollar Man, Roy Clark, Chuck Mangione, and Mason Reese, among others.

Billy Crystal (who did impressions of both Cosell and Ali) was a frequent guest, and — to history’s great confusion — there was an-house sketch comedy company called the Prime Time Players, whose members included Bill Murray, Brian Doyle-Murray, and Christopher Guest. All four of those comedians would become regulars of the cast of the OTHER Saturday Night Live (In the case of Bill Murray just a few months after Cosell’s show crashed). NBC’s edgier, fresher Saturday Saturday Night Live with its Not Ready for Prime Time Players, premiered in October, 1975, just a couple of weeks after Cosell’s program. Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell ran until mid January 1976. One of the guests on that last show was the pop group The Movies, which I wrote about just a few days ago!) Cosell continued to make a big noise in show business for two more decades. His competition continues to rattle on.

To learn more about the history of variety entertainment, including television variety, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,