The Saturday Night Live 40th Anniversary Show: Mostly Funny, Occasionally Poignant

By Jonathan Spira on 16 February 2015
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In 1975, a new television program made its debut on late-night television and forever changed what people would watch.

Since then, for most Saturday nights throughout the year come 11:30 p.m., a sketch would appear on the small screen that would end with someone breaking character and crying out, “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!”

Broadcast on the Peacock Network, the show was known simply as NBC’s Saturday Night, thanks to a program that also aired (albeit briefly) that year, Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell. While NBC’s show later adopted the SNL name for itself, the opening phrase remains the same through today for what has become the longest-running variety show in the United States.

This past Saturday night, the show’s original episode was rebroadcast. A few things haven’t changed, including the show’s ensemble formula and the Saturday Night Live Band. With minor exceptions, Don Pardo remained the show’s announcer from its start until his death last summer.

The original cast, officially known as “The Not Ready for Prime-Time Players,” followed the same formula we more or less see today, including a variety of sketches, musical numbers, and Weekend Update fake news. The cast then included Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Jane Curtin, Laraine Newman, and Gilda Radner.

Indeed, one of the anniversary special’s best moments was a reel of cast audition highlights, including Belushi, Radner, Amy Poehler, and Jim Carrey (who famously didn’t get hired), among others.

The anchor chair or chairs of Weekend Update, which pioneered a genre of political satire (sorry, Jon Stewart), is one of the most coveted roles on the show. Past anchors Jane Curtin, Tina Fey, and Amy Poehler presented one of the best moments of the show when Ms. Curtain said, “I used to be the only pretty blond woman reading the fake news.” As the logo for Fox News appeared, she added: “Now there is a whole network devoted to that.”

Tina Fey acknowledged the show’s nihilistic origins: “Also joining us, one of the show’s original producers: cocaine.”

Some skits and performers worked quite well, notably, fake Celebrity Jeopardy with Will Ferrell, Darrell Hammond, Kate McKinnon, and Alec Baldwin, and a repeat of Belushi’s 1978 “Don’t Look Back in Anger” sketch in which he played an elderly version of himself visiting the cold and deserted Not Ready for Prime Time Players Cemetery. “I was one of those ‘live fast/die younger/leave a good-looking corpse types,” he says in the skit. “But I guess they were wrong.”

(Photo: Accura Media Group)

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