Friday, January 12, 2007

The Not Ready For Prime Time Players

In 1974, NBC executives gave hipster producer Lorne Michaels carte blanche to put together a Saturday late night program that would appeal to the 18-to-35-year-olds who thought watching TV on a Saturday night was something their parents did. The thirty-year-old Canadian transplant knew exactly what he wanted to do: deliver the music, the humor and the attitude of his friends in a variety show that defied the conventional approach to the medium.

A former writer on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, Michaels had experience with shows that, at least on the surface, attempted to challenge convention. Inspired by the Canadian duo Wayne & Schuster (Michaels was so inspired, he married Schuster’s daughter Rosie, a future SNL writer), Michaels and his partner Hart Pomerantz created The Hart & Lorne Terrific Hour in 1971. It was his first foray experimenting with the classic variety show form. Over the next few years he produced several comedy specials, The Lily Tomlin Special and The Richard Pryor Special among them, pivotal in introducing a new kind of comedy to the mainstream.

Charged with assembling what would soon be The Not Ready For Prime Time Players, Michaels recruited cast members from the renowned Second City improvizational theatre troupe. At the Chicago company, he cherrypicked the frenetic young talent, John Belushi. While in Toronto, he discovered the hyperintelligent Dan Aykroyd and adorable Gilda Radner. Cast members from the same production in Canada included Eugene Levy, John Candy and Joe Flaherty. Although they were passed over by Michaels, within a year of SNL’s debut, they would be writing and performing the sketch comedy series SCTV for Canadian Broadcasting.

Belushi and Radner were also ensemble members of The National Lampoon Radio Hour. Written by scribes from the famed satirical rag, this syndicated radio program (their best bits compiled on several outstanding LPs) would prove to be happy hunting grounds for Michaels. He hired writers Michael O’Donoghue, Anne Beatts, Sean Kelly and Doug Kenney from among the ranks of the show. Michaels also found former Smother Brothers writer, Chevy Chase.

Chevy Chase was a musician (he released an album with his psychedelic band Chameleon) and a member of the experimental comedy troupe Channel One, whose movie, The Groove Tube is a cult classic. Michaels and Chevy Chase ran in the same circles from Michael’s days writing and producing for Laugh-In and various comedy specials. Choosing Chase was a gimme. Little did either of them know that Chevy Chase would become Saturday Night Live’s first “star” (a bone of contention with many of the players, especially Belushi and later, Bill Murray).

Michaels courted another team of writers and performers, a group of showbiz friends that included Meathead Rob Reiner, stand up Billy Crystal, National Lampoon’s Christopher Guest and Credibility Gap members Harry Shearer and Michael McKean. Their “sophisticated” NPR-style wit didn’t quite jibe with the working class (and oftentimes gallows) humor of the Second Citizens, or rather what was perceived as a superior attitude didn’t mesh with the playful approach of the middle American comics. Rob Reiner’s posse (and the future Spinal Tap) parted ways with SNL before the show went to air. (Over the next two decades, all save Rob Reiner would join the cast in some capacity.)

To round out the cast, Michaels hired Jane Curtin from the sketch group The Proposition, actress, Laraine Newman and network pick, Garrett Morris. Comedy team Franken and Davis were brought in to shore up the writing staff -- sharing a single writer’s salary. Although he wasn’t staffed in New York, LA comedian Albert Brooks directed short films for the first season. For guest hosts and featured performers, Michaels dipped into his trick bag of talent and acquainted the network TV viewing audience to the avant-garde of comedy: Steve Martin, Andy Kaufman, George Carlin, Richard Pryor and others. Even Jim Henson’s muppetry was represented in a weekly segment.

Saturday Night Live is 25-years-old this season. Through cast changes, producer changes, near cancellations, wrestling supplantations, tragic deaths--and even Charles Rocket--Lorne Michaels dream has not only withstood the test of time, but endured the ravages of it as well. A confluence of events or harmonic convergence or just good old kismet brought The Not Ready For Primetime Players together. Seasons come and seasons go, but that freshman year remains magical in the hearts of comedy fans still.

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