DVD Review: Saturday Night Live: The Early Years

DVD Reviews, Reviews, Top Story

When Saturday Night Live arrived in the Fall of 1975, the show revolutionized revolutionized both comedy on TV, but variety shows. There was nothing edgy about The Johnny Carson Show which occupied the 11:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. timeslot from Monday to Friday. People knew what they’d get from Johnny, Ed and Doc. The nearest thing to an edge was Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In which had been canceled a few seasons before. The new show promised so much since it featured a few familiar voices from National Lampoon’s Radio Hour and writers from the magazine. Although the average viewer stuck at home on a weekend after dark probably had no clue what they were getting when they left the TV set on after the local news. Most of them were probably anticipating The Best of Carson. Instead they were given more than Art Fern’s Tea Time Theater. Saturday Night Live: The Early Years features a sampling of 33 complete episodes during these early years (1975-1980) of the long running show that made Studio 8H the best place to be on the weekend.

The first episode with George Carlin starts the boxset. Carlin did three stand up segments. The show doubled up the musical guests with Billy Preston and Janis Ian doing two songs each. Andy Kaufman performs his Mighty Mouse routine. Albert Brooks directed a short film. There was even a strange new set of Muppets. But the big thing was the arrival of the Not Ready For Prime Time Players. The average viewer didn’t have a clue about Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris, Laraine Newman, Michael O’Donoghue and Gilda Radner on that night. But in a few short weeks, they became the faces of comedy in America. A major trivia point is George Coe was in the credits as a cast member for the first episode. But he’d only pop up now and then afterwards. Coe would go onto cult fame from playing the head of Network 23 on Max Headroom and voice Woodhouse on Archer. Chevy became the new face of the news with Weekend Update. The next two episodes in the boxset feature Lily Tomlin and Richard Pryor. When producer Lorne Michaels was formulating the show, he proposed there would be three hosts that would rotate the role between episodes. Those three would be Carlin, Tomlin and Pryor. All three did get to host at the start. The show did have a few odd selections for hosts in the early years including Ford’s press secretary Ron Nessen. He’s not bad in his sketches, but the inclusion of the episode is because the Patti Smith Group. The night before Easter of 1976 on national television, Patti Smith sings, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine” on “Gloria.” You weren’t going to hear that on Lawrence Welk. The other four episodes are hosted by Elliot Gould, Madeline Khan, Desi Arnaz (I Love Lucy) and Buck Henry. During the first five years, Henry was a regular host as the screenwriter of The Graduate quickly became a favorite of the regular cast.

The second season had a bit of drama as Chevy Chase was getting major offers and split the show after a bit of acrimony. Luckily for the show, Bill Murray was ready to step up. Also arriving was the genius of Steve Martin as a host. Included here are two episodes with Steve along with two more visits with Buck Henry. Monty Python’s Flying Circus at this point had become a late night hit for PBS stations so Eric Idle is a natural host. Paul Simon and George Harrison join up for an episode. It’s not quite Lorne’s dream of reuniting The Beatles on his show. Candance Bergen has fun introducing Frank Zappa. People might be confused by Jack Burns. He was George Carlin’s old comedy partner that went on to be the head writer on Hee-Haw, The Muppet Show and eventually was a part of SNL rival Fridays. If you close your eyes, you’ll recognize him as one of the Crash Test Dummies from the PSAs and not the band. Musical guests include Kinky Friedman, Joe Cocker, The Band, Santana, Jennifer Warnes and The Kinks. The Muppets were gone, but the fun remained.

Seasons three and four were consistent with cast members. Characters were becoming massively beloved like The Coneheads, the Nerds, Mr. Mike and the staff of the Greek diner. Hosts included here included even more Steve Martin, Charles Grodin, Robert Klein, Michael Sarrazin, Fred Willard, Walter Matthau, Carrie Fisher and The Rolling Stones. The Eric Idle episode is special since it featured one of the rare times Kate Bush performed in America. She sings “The Man With The Child In His Eyes” while sitting on Paul Shaffer’s piano. It was a glorious time except it was coming to an end as John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd were getting deep into their movie and music careers. They split. Season Five didn’t quite replace them. They elevated quite a few writers and others with Peter Aykroyd, Brian Doyle-Murray, Don Novello, Alan Zweibel and Paul Shaffer getting more screen time. Harry Shearer also was brought on the show. It wasn’t a disaster of a season like season 6. There’s only two episodes represented here. Steve Martin returns once more and there’s a 100th episode special with Paul Simon.

Having experienced all 45 or so seasons of Saturday Night Live, there’s never been a run as constant as the first five seasons. Even the “bad” bad sketches from this era are interesting failures instead of lame. This was such a special time as you can sense a level of “are we really getting this on the air?” from the cast and host. But they did. And they made it worth your while to sneak out of bed and stay up until 1 a.m. It was worth falling asleep in a church pew to see what Steve Martin did instead of merely hearing it on the school bus on Monday morning.

Saturday Night Live: The Early Years is perfect for people who want to get a grasp of what was going on after bedtime. So they can enjoy the late John Belushi’s prime in the non-prime time. So they can blast the Kinks and the Stones sets. So they can remember what happened when the envelop was truly pushed by a pack of creative freaks.

Saturday Night Live: The Early Years is available through Time-Life’s website at TimeLife.com/SaturdayNightLive

The video is 1.33:1 full frame. The show was broadcast live and recorded on standard definition video. The tape sources are fine for the time. Even at a lower resolution, you feel the power of Belushi’s reactions. The audio is Dolby Digital mono. The show was recorded live so there are moments the microphone misses the mark, but not often. That’s the danger element in being live from New York.

Screen Tests of Original Cast includes Dan Aykroyd (6:08), John Belushi (3:42), Chevy Chase (2:51), Jane Curtin (4:53), Garrett Morris (7:04), Laraine Newman (2:44) and Gilda Radner (4:57). The players sit at a desk with a green screen behind them for the test. Dan does Walter Cronkite. Laraine breaks out an amazing Valley Girl years before Moon Unit Zappa cut her song with Frank. Dan shows up for Garrett’s test and works with Jane. Belushi does Brando.

Screen Test: Andy Kaufman (4:19) shows he was being Andy. He reads the lyrics to McArthur’s Park. He follow it up with a hick reading the opening lines to the Superman TV show.

Wardrobe Test (2:20) with John Belushi and future Oscar winner Howard Shore showing off clothes. John and Howard have a little fun during the mundane work.

Today Show interview with John Belushi (2:14) has Gene Shalit asking him about Animal House. John mentions the upcoming Blues Brothers album, two more movies and finally still being on Saturday Night Live. This was from July 27, 1978.

Today Show Interview with Gilda Radner (5:05) in her office at 30 Rock with Gene Shalit. The hair becomes a topic. This was from April 14, 1980.

Tomorrow Show interview with Walter Williams A.K.A. Mr Bill (4:46) gets Tom Snyder into the clay superstar. He talks about creating Mr. Bill and getting on SNL. This was recorded at the peak of Mr. Bill mania on October 29, 1979.

The Tomorrow Show (4:43) has Lorne Michaels and his cast chat with Tom Snyder before the first show airs. This was from September 27, 1975.

Time Life presents Saturday Night Live: The Early Years. Starring: Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris, Laraine Newman, Michael O’Donoghue, Gilda Radner and Bill Murray. Boxset Contents: 33 episodes on 12 DVDs. Released: November 17, 2020.

Joe Corey is the writer and director of "Danger! Health Films" currently streaming on Night Flight and Amazon Prime. He's the author of "The Seven Secrets of Great Walmart People Greeters." This is the last how to get a job book you'll ever need. He was Associate Producer of the documentary "Moving Midway." He's worked as local crew on several reality shows including Candid Camera, American's Most Wanted, Extreme Makeover Home Edition and ESPN's Gaters. He's been featured on The Today Show and CBS's 48 Hours. Dom DeLuise once said, "Joe, you look like an axe murderer." He was in charge of research and programming at the Moving Image Archive.