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Lorne Michaels' Original 'Saturday Night Live'

His face may not be as well known as Chevy Chase's, but perched above the studio, it's clear that Lorne Michaels was at the center of the cyclone that was the early days of 'Saturday Night Live.'

By Geeks StaffPublished 7 years ago 14 min read

In late 1975 Rush Magazine, sent a reporter into Rockefeller Plaza to report on the then nascent sketch comedy show that would become the voice of counterculture for generations to come.

1975:Looking down from the empty, pastel yellow bleachers above Studio 8H in Rockefeller Plaza, a few intruders on the closed set of Saturday Night are watching the cast, crew, writers, and friends of the show circulating through the capacious studio. At a table facing the main set, Buck Henry and Chevy Chase are reading their scripts and discussing the sketch they are about to rehearse. Lorne Michaels, wearing a T-shirt with a large star on it, khakis, Adidas tennis sneakers, and a jean jacket, jokes around with Gordon Lightfoot on the opposite side of the studio.

Early in the second season of Saturday Night Live, Chevy Chase decided to leave the show. He moved to Hollywood and almost immediately became one of the biggest movie stars in the world. He made a lot of money and became incredibly famous, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have regrets. In fact, he was hit with a wave of them when he walked back into Studio 8H for a photography session with other legends to celebrate the show’s 40th Anniversary.

His face may not be as well known as Chevy Chase's, but perched above the studio, it's clear that Lorne Michaels is at the center of the cyclone. A writer for Laugh-In at twenty-three, he produces, writes and often appears in the show.

Michaels arrives at the meeting table and flows into a discussion of the tone he'd like the piece to have. In the "Crowd Scene” segment of the show, Henry will play a film director who tries to audition a crowd as if it were an individual. Michaels' presence acts as an invisible magnet, pulling people, cameras, and lights slowly in his general direction.

A guy comes home from college to find his mother sleeping with his uncle, and there's a ghost running around. Write it good, it's Hamlet; write it bad, it's Gilligan's Island. —Lorne Michaels

“Crowd Scene. Crowd Scene. Hold it down," director Dave Wilson signals in a voice over from the control room. "Quiet please." Michaels takes a seat on the adjacent set as the rehearsal begins. This is an unusual occurrence, having many of the show's writers, most of the "Not Ready For Prime Time Players," and a majority of Howard Shore's band on stage at the same time.

The Original Cast

The Original Saturday Night Live Cast - Laraine Newman, John Belushi, Jane Curtin, Gilda Radner, Dan Aykroyd, Garrett Morris, and Chevy Chase

Wilson breaks in often at this stage, sometimes he makes technical adjustments and at other moments he reminds everyone to act as individuals within a crowd, not as a chorus. During a pause for laughter, Danny Aykroyd joins the crowd and explains his absence.

"Just straightening something out with the New York Hell's Angels. Dynamite has been set outside the RCA Building," he tells them in a gangster voice. A round of laughter echoes through the studio. The Angels have registered a protest over the use of their colors in a "Johnny Angel" sketch. Michael O'Donoghue, John Belushi, and Danny Aykroyd have been mediating the dispute. The rehearsal continues as the crowd attempts to get its timing together.

"'You've got to follow these cuts or we'll be here until 2:00 AM" Wilson lectures them.

"We're too hip for this!" Gilda Radner shoots back.

"Forgive me," Michaels begs, using a deep, mock apologetic voice. It often seems that everyone creatively associated with the show has a dozen voices at their disposal. They are not so much obsessed with comedy as immersed in it. When things get too frisky, Michaels dons his producer's hat and brings the group back to order. "There are now eight directors working on this one piece," he tells them sternly. There is a smoother rehearsal of the piece, and the studio empties quickly as the dinner break announcement comes over the speakers.

"Saturday Night was a gamble from the beginning. NBC was dead last in the ratings game, running the same old cops and sitcom Stuff. Some two dozen shows later, primed by the appearance of presidential press secretary Ron Nessen (who mercilessly goofed on his boss), the show has garnered four Emmy awards and attracted a youthful audience of 12 million viewers. One of the rumors abuzz in the television industry is that by mid-season, the network plans to unleash these loonies on an unsuspecting prime time audience. Indeed, the gamble has paid off."

It is already Friday evening; the day began at 2:00 that afternoon and, for many, would go on as late as 11:00. On our way from 8H to the Saturday Night offices on the 17th floor, traces of fatigue are evident on the faces of John Belushi, and Aykroyd.

John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd

Saturday Night Live - John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd

Belushi, a native of Chicago, was picked for Saturday Night by Michaels after appearances in Lemmings, The National Lampoon Show, and the Lampoon’s “Radio Hour.” His training has prepared him well for the diverse improvisatory demands the show makes of him. The actor looks like a hip cabdriver with a hangover. His round, malleable face and soft but mobile body enable him to change from Marlon Brando to Joe Cocker to Jack Nicholson in almost imperceivable shifts. Aykroyd, Belushi's "partner," was born in Quebec and, according to his biography, "pursued such assorted interests as studying criminology, driving truck ,and operating a bar before he auditioned for the Toronto company of Second City." Strangely, none of this seems terribly unlikely.

"Some comedians love their characters. I don't fall in love with mine. In fact, I get tired of them very fast. You have to be willing to throw it all away." —John Belushi

During the free-form, interview/conversation that was to follow, John worked his way through his phone messages, partially written skits, empty Emmy champagne cartons, and fan mail on his desk. Danny filled out his CB radio application for the F.C.C. In one drawer, and up on a bulletin board, myriads of Polaroids comprise a still movie of their last cross country trip, loosely titled "CB Madness."

The mere mention of Hunter Thompson's recent appearance on Tomorrow, combined with mild anxiety due to a missed phone call from Sandy Alexander of the Hell's Angels sends these Dr. Gonzo's of improvisation into a quintessentially Saturday Night sounding flight of whimsy.

"Hunter Thompson is an idol of mine. He and I are the most paranoid people in the world," Dan Aykroyd tells us in animated stacatto bursts. "He collects guns. I live in an armored fortress and I've got a friend who's arming up now. We've got mortars together and everything, man. We're just waiting till the Yanks come over the border into Canada and try to take over the farm. You can come in with me John."

"I'll come in with ya, man," he says soothingly.

"Yeah, I'm a fucking wreck. I've fucking had it, right to the wall." Danny gets up, bounds across the room, and makes a move for Belushi.

"I'm sorry, I'm not doing anything," he says innocently and tries to defend himself.

"I can trust you, that's why I level with you. I can't tell anybody else."

Dan Aykroyd

Saturday Night Live - Dan Aykroyd

"Now we're telling a fucking hundred thousand readers, if this goes on."

"What are you, with Rolling Stone?," Aykroyd asks, remembering for a moment the reporter.

“You’re not going to write all this?"

"No, I really won't."

"Hey, this is fun, it's fun, really." Danny goes on and instead of cooling out, he's really cooking.

"You caught me on a day when I'm against the wall. The Angels are chasing me, I got a Harley, I need parts—I need PARTS—I want to get along with them. I'll stop if I see somebody on a fucking Twin. Fuck man, we know. We ride those fucking Harleys and they're the worst motorcycles in the world. They'll tell you that they love them." He's all over the office now, acting the sketch out in mock fear and loathing.

"That was a dangerous thing we did. The Angels have been through shit, man. We've had it plush. We're working in video and that's PLUSH, you know?"

"Yeah, it's plush, but we could get killed any second with a pipe over our heads just like people who don't have it plush.”

"No pictures" Danny protests. "Except in costume..." He's only playing paranoid. He flashes a wide grin, winks, and is gone. Order has been restored on John's desk. Waiting for dinner sent up from Pastrami & Things. Getting them to focus on a single topic is like lighting a hash pipe on a roller coaster.

If the host doesn't blend in enough, I pointed out, the program becomes unbalanced.

"It's tough to throw a host in, up against us, I'm telling you it's like a matador in a bull ring. They just send out these actors, they've got two days to do it in, and you gotta carry the whole show while these actors are darting in and out at you. We've got to make that person look good, that's our job."

Saturday Night Live - Raquel Welch

"You should see what they had planned for me," Raquel Welch said while rehearsing for a week before hosting.

“You should have seen what we had. She wouldn't do it."

"Take Off Your Shirt, (a running gag on the show, in which Chevy thinks up various arbitrary situations so he can repeatedly pop the question), was just the tip of the iceberg then?"

"Tip? It was the tit of the iceberg, that's all we got. Got a little tit, a little nipple. We had her taking her clothes off in every scene. I wanted her to be dressed in her outfit from Bedazzled, when she played Lust. I had a scene with her in a library, where I'd say, 'Miss Jenkins, come in here.' She comes in with these glasses and her hair up. I said, 'This book on anthropology was filed in the wrong section. We're trying to convert the library from Dewey Decimal to the Library of Congress system. It's very difficult for all of us, so please try and get it right.'

She says, 'Mr. Kramer, I've worked here for seven years and you've never used my first name.' He gives her a second look. She takes her glasses off.

'You're a very attractive woman, I guess I hadn't noticed that.' She takes her hair down.

'I guess I never noticed that about you before. Yeah, you're very, very attractive.' She takes her blouse off. 'Yeah, pretty, pretty attractive.' She takes the rest off. 'You're a real attractive woman.' Then, a cheap joke—'If I wasn't gay I'd go for that stuff.' Just to get her to take her clothes off. We had her...''

Danny returns with Michael O'Donoghue, a co-founder and former editor of the National Lampoon. Tomorrow night, this thin, soft-spoken gentleman with the wire-rim glasses will do an impersonation of Tony Orlando (and Dawn) with, uh, 6" knives stuck in their eyes. O'Donoghue's mild, eccentric exterior camouflages the intense satirical presence luring behind it the way Chevy's straight looks allow him to get away with the naughtiest bits. Michael wrote "The Claudine Longet Invitational Ski Tournament, the only satire, as far as I know, that Saturday Night has had to apologize for on a later show for its misleading image."

Now, he's pissed because the Angels hassle has distracted him from finishing "Peter Lemon Mood-Ring," his spoof of the M.O.R. singer who changes color according to the feeling of each number. “Color him unforgettable." He decides that the best way to settle the dispute is to return their colors personally. He and Danny take off to do this. Rehearsal prevents John from joining them and he reluctantly returns to the studio.

John Belushi

Saturday Night Live - Killer Bees

Earlier, I asked Anne Beatts, a tall, willowy, and very tired writer, if she had any inkling of how the should would go when she was asked to join the staff. "I was pretty sure that it would be successful, but I wasn't sure if I would like it. I thought it would be a hit, but I wasn't sure how much we would be able to do. When Michael and I were first approached by Lorne, we thought that he was doing good stuff and I was impressed by his choice of Albert Brooks. But I wondered, what would we be able to say on TV? I didn't know what the standards were. Actually, it's been loosening and loosening because success is hard to argue with."

Back in the studio, Belushi and Buck Henry are working on "Samurai Tailor," John's main skit this week. Out in the hall, the people filling in for striking technicians are setting up an elaborate tracking shot for the opening. It begins in the lobby, where the security guard refuses to admit Buck because he doesn't recognize him. Lorne Michaels arrives to rescue him while Belushi fills in on the show, still wrapped in his bathrobe. Laughter, rolling from groups scattered around the monitors, occurs spontaneously, first time around. It's a stunner. Lifted by the success of the opening, and the good vibes generated by Aykroyd's successful Hell's Angels arbitration (the colors were accepted—no sweat), the adrenaline for tomorrow night-the actual show-begins to flow.

Upstairs, the writers are still writing. Chevy Chase leans over a desk covered with news photos. Somewhere in the pile lies the remainder of "Weekend Update."

"I've got a lot of work to do," he tells John. Leaning over on one arm, Chevy mumbles lines to himself. Writers and performers weave through the office, like they do on the sets downstairs, thrashing out material.

Activity winds down after 11:00, as the remaining writers and players drift off. Out in front of Rockefeller Plaza, around midnight, John Belushi says he is up for drinks, but the group dissipates.

The previous Monday night, Michaels, Wilson, Chevy, and the Saturday Night writers went to Hollywood to accept Emmys, leaving only three writers behind to work on the show. On the night of the Emmy cast, about 50 million viewers heard the writers placating Buck, as each one in turn offered the bit they were supposed to be writing as an acceptance speech. "We're working this very minute," Michaels kidded.

During the relative calm on Monday afternoon, Laraine Newman, a player, discussed the problem of getting seven people together and still having them maintain enough identity so that people could recognize them as individuals.

“That has been a problem. It's difficult, it's very difficult. Gilda, for instance, as part of the girls, is a funny personality and more easily used because of that. Jane Curtin and I do characters. Sometimes the writers get familiar with the characters and then they can incorporate them, which has happened."

Laraine Newman

Coneheads - Laraine Newman

Curling her long, thin legs under her Indian style, Laraine continued. "Even though I don't feel that I do that much, I'm not anonymous anymore. I'm recognized a lot—which is amazing to me. My going some place and not being stared at is becoming less and less all the time. It's just changed my life," she coos like a warm, contented puppy, half-goofing.

Changing the mood I broach a prime taboo subject. Are there ego hassles among the Prime Time Players?

"Yeah. I won't be more specific than that. Chevy has felt that we have resented his success. Now, I don't in the least, and I don't think most of us do. I imagine at times some people have, but, mostly I think people tease him and I think he feels guilty, which he shouldn't, that this has happened to him, and not so much to the rest of us. He feels that people kid him but they really mean it. Nobody can tell the media what to do. Nobody can tell writers what to write."

Weekend Update

Weekend Update - Chevy Chase

"Chevy promotes himself very well. He's Chevy Chase. He's said that from the outset. He's not a character, he comes on as himself, always. He never does characters, ever. He's himself—that's something easy to remember. Chevy also has the look we need to balance out the show. I mean, Danny and John and Garrett look like a bunch of truck drivers."

I love the stuff Chevy does on the phone before "Weekend Update."

Chase made a connection with audiences that all of the cast would eventually make, turn into exceptional careers and they would become Icons in the world of contemporary comedy. Something about Weekend Update connected very early on with viewers, and to date is one of the longest running consistent skits on the show.

''That's when we get away with the most. He was asking me about what kind of things women masturbate with. He wanted to say, 'Look, just call the doctor and he'll take the zucchini out.' Just no way he could do it."

"It's becoming like a family here, at the risk of sounding too Pollyanna. I think all the shit that we've been through is over. Now it's the calm after the storm. I have really good feelings and I care a lot and love all the people here."

A final question. How has the presence of journalists on the set affected you?

"There have been very few shows that we haven't had reporters around. Now that that article has come out a piece by Gerry Nadel in New Times. I'm going to be sure as hell to watch what I say. It's malicious stuff and I'm shocked and surprised by it."

She's not the only one. The New Times article, which carried a series of in-house Totie Fields jokes, has made everyone wary of the press. "He wrote it down. I mean, how accurate can you get writing it down?” John Belushi asked. “I don't think any of the articles about us have been accurate. One week, we had the guy from New Times, Joyce Maynard from the Times, and a writer from Rolling Stone. I wondered whether we were doing Meet The Press or Saturday Night."

Nadel claims that all of his quotes are correct. "I'm amazed they're upset," he told me over the phone. "Their specialty is mean, nasty, vicious humor and they turn around and object to some lines about Totie Fields' amputation. Saturday Night looks to set the world on its ass and from them, it's a chicken-shit objection."

“Reporters want to know the dirt," Belushi said angrily. “They're always looking for dirt. Even if there was any I wouldn't tell them. Sometimes we tend to reject outsiders like white blood cells. It's protective more than anything. You find these people who want to destroy the show so your instinct is to protect it."

On Saturday afternoon, Belushi happens by the elevator bank as I'm trying to convince the guard to let me in. Shades of the opening. John's doing a quick study of Milton Berle and his head's buried in a copy of Berle's autobiography.

In one corner of the studio, Danny, Buck and Jane are rehearsing "Del Stater’s 99c Toad Ranches." Tastiest toad you'll ever eat. A semi-circle of players, writers, and friends laugh and chat as they watch. Across the way, Chevy beams a wide grin. Another winner, you can tell.

"Mood-Ring. Mood-Ring next." Dave Wilson announces. Michael O’Donoghue glides over to confer with Chevy as technicians check the microphones and the slides that will color Chevy unforgettable. Perched on a cabaret stool, holding a cocktail glass, a smoke, and the microphone, Chevy gets into that mellow mood. A bit of tension breaks his relaxed manner when the signal to start goes on and on while he knows his his mike isn't even hooked up. ''Get it working, will you," the director ordered angrily.

"I'll wing it," Chevy says impishly. I get the feeling he likes to work this way. leaving room for spontaneity. "I don't know the song yet," he tells Wilson.

"I wouldn't worry about it Chevy. I have the feeling they're going to be laughing so much they won't need to hear the song." They decide to do it once more, just to get the pacing down. Besides, the crowd scene still needs work and it's got to be done before 6:00. The pace in the studio has picked up noticeably. Props are gathered and put in place on all the sets at the same time. Last minute lights are mounted, tape makes set and, in a room off one of the exits, costumes are checked and altered.

When the rehearsal breaks up, everyone seems to disappear. The offices upstairs are dark and deserted. John arrives and informs me that everyone is eating in the Green Room. He offers the use of his office, grabs a blanket draped over the chair and retires to a couch in Michaels' room, opting for an extra hour's sleep instead of dinner. Alone in the quiet upstairs, I relax with my feet up on Belushi's desk. John pops back in, looking refreshed. "Gotta go to make-up. Keep moving," he advises, deposits the blanket and nods good-bye.

Live from New York-it's Saturday Night

At 7:30, the cast does a full dress rehearsal. On Saturday Night, even the dress rehearsals draw S.R.O. crowds. The audience provides the only element that's been missing so far. The final test of the tone, timing, and impact of the material is never complete until the audience has had a chance to respond. After the dress rehearsal, everyone attends a final production meeting where adjustments and refinements are made. For the players, it's final make-up and show time.

They know that very shortly, the anticipation and expectations of about 12 million viewers will be on them live.

So, in the spirit of Ernie Kovacs, and despite the distractions of the Hell's Angels, various reporters, striking technicians, Emmys, and ego hassles, the Saturday Night family triumphs. Confronted with an awesome feat, attempting 90 minutes of live comedy three times a month (four in a row this month), the video vanguard of comedy is ready to roll.

At home, with my Sony warm, I'm bubbling with excitement to see it all come together. The opening is a riot, Laraine pushes Chevy off his crutches, he tumbles, looks up with that broad smile and says, ''Live from New York—it's Saturday Night…”


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