For several years, I stayed up well past 2am on Saturday nights hoping to catch reruns of the classic, full SNL shows from 1975-1980. NBC was re-airing some of these great programs in their entirety (not “best of” packages) with few exceptions, starting in the late 1990s in most NBC outlets. Unfortunately, the original cast shows were the exception and the Dana Carvey and/or Will Farrell years were the norm. After several years, I managed to videotape about 25-30 original cast shows, but only about 4 from the first season.
Younger audiences unfamiliar with the original SNL will likely be surprised by a number of things in viewing this great collection. Firstly, for those of us who remember, SNL was the most weird and cutting-edge show to be found in those days. The concept of “late night” television was certainly not then what it is today either. There really is no “late night” anymore, what with hundreds of cable/satellite channels and the Internet to keep us entertained around the clock. In the ’70s, however, late night was a wasteland of old movies and reruns. Most stations ended their broadcast day by about 1 or 2am (for the tech-geners, this means the three network stations, one public station and typically about 3 or 4 local stations). As far as the networks were concerned, Johnny Carson owned the airways after the local news; this was literally true in many ways. Although not on air during the weekend, Carson Productions was quite a powerful entity, owning many weekend program slots. Beyond local news & the Tonight Show, there was little interest in developing a “late night” program. Secondly, SNL had huge shock value for a culture that wasn’t used to seeing risqué material paraded constantly on broadcast TV. For that stuff, most of us had to go to the movies for “un-edited” material. VCRs were not yet in every household and cable was only available in limited format in markets like New York. In the culture that was then, SNL’s impact was enormous, providing essential “water cooler” chat on Monday morning. It was what people stayed home for on Saturday nights. It was really the only “hip” show on TV.
The Not Ready for Primetime Players were a product of the counterculture 1960s. Much of their humor – especially the now surprising amount of drug references – will seem not only brazenly un-PC (thank heaven!), but incredibly raw for those used to the, ironically, structured and institution-ized nature of the show today. In this sense, the first season shows will not only appear dated, but also register way over-the-heads of most younger viewers. SNL has always been and always will be a victim of instant-datedness, in large part due to one of their greatest attributes: topical comedy. Even some of us still familiar with the pressing issues of the 70s may have a hard time remembering every reference!
These earlier shows are also striking in their experimentation. The format we now know & love was at least two seasons in the making. The cast themselves were not considered as the main draw, amazingly enough, and their presence in the first few shows is remarkably sparse. In fact, the second episode is largely music-oriented. Many creative techniques were tried, and some fail miserably. Watch how poorly Abba (although a good performance) are incorporated into an already-in-progress Robert Klein skit. Fast forward past the Muppets if you will…or, if you found them humorous & innovative, as I did, marvel at Jim Henson’s shocking (for him anyway) use of drug-related humor! No matter what the result, it’s great to see a show daring enough to explore such diverse elements of entertainment, from short films, stand-up comedy, audience participation, to the even occasional use of dramatic device & pathos in the skits. All these things are largely verboten on the show today. Fondly remember a time when often obscure musical guests were chosen for their performance chops and uniqueness, and rarely their pop status, let alone how well they could lip synch (oddly this was not completely true with Abba…but that’s a long story!). And of course, relish forever the genius blend of Chase, Belushi, Aykroyd, Radner, Curtain, Newman and the unsung Garret Morris.
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I must say that it is absolutely great that we can finally see the shows as they were originally broadcast (minus the 25 minutes of commercials that I hated sitting through). This is SNL in its prime. In seeing these uncut shows, you will see just how good the original cast was. Just one show from this season is better than any yearly “Best Of” they can put together from the current cast.
THE DOWN SIDE: There has been little effort made to restore the 30+ year old videotapes. The picture is often soft with color bleeding to the right of objects on screen. This is not the original way we saw the series live, so some restoration would have been nice. Other shows have gotten better DVD treatment.
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW if you never saw the first season live:
1) Take away the 25 minutes of commercials and these “90 Minute” shows only run 65 minutes.
2) In those days the show was NOT called “Saturday Night Live”, that title was used by sportscaster Howard Cosell for his weekly live vartiety show seen at 9pm, Saturday Nights on the ABC Network. This show’s first season was officially called “NBC’s Saturday Night” and introduced as “Live from New York, it’s NBC’s Saturday Night”. These original titles were later re-shot as just “Saturday Night” for the hour long syndication run, and “The Best Of Saturday Night Live” for the later cut-down half hour syndication run.
3) While the first show seems to be a in the regular sketch format, the second show is more of a Paul Simon Special with Chevy Chase making a brief appearance to introduce the show, and later to do a “Weekend Update”. The “Not Ready For Prime Time Players” make brief appearances in filmed segments. The third show returns to the familiar sketch format, but the end credits roll over a slide of the guest star rather than have everyone waving “by” on stage. It is apparent that NBC was still finding the style & format for the show.
4) Season 1 was the only season with Chevy Chase as a regular, after that he would appear as a guest star.
5) Bill Murray was not a regular in the first season.
I will tell you now that my review is primarily about the box set itself. It’s so nice and something that a fan of the show will really treasure.
SNL The Complete First Season (1975-1976) is a really sweet collectors item. A fan of SNL really would be pleased with this first season set release. Hopefully, the quality of future sets will measure up to the dedication and effort put into the first season set. If you have purchased those SNL “Best of Sets” in the past, don’t even compare those to this release. This is a really nice deluxe box set.
The 1975-1976 cast were the one’s who got the ball rolling with the series. Cast members from the debut season were Dan Akroyd, John Belushi, Jane Curtain, Chevy Chase, Garrett Morris, Laraine Newman and Gilda Radner. Surely these names ring a bell to you. The majority of the cast members went on to have successful film and television careers in the 1980′s.
The great thing about the DVD box set is that it includes the episodes in their original 90 minute format for the first time on DVD–with all musical performances in tact. Season one musical guests included Simon & Garfunkel, Joe Cocker, Neil Sedaka, Desi Arnez, Carly Simon, Kris Kristopherson, and Gil Scott-Heron among others. Each single sided disc includes three 90 minute episodes. The disc case includes the name of the guest host, the musical guest and the episode air date. The first air date on the set is October 11th, 1975 and the set ends with the air date July 31st, 1976.
Another nice feature of the set is a booklet which includes really awesome black and white cast photos from the shows first season. Special features include original screen tests, a 1975 interview with the cast and the aforementioned collector’s booklet with the cast photos.