BrianSiano (briansiano) wrote,

Avoiding sentiment while writing about Saturday Night Live

Jay Smith wrote a brief recap of the recent 40th anniversay special ( which prompted me to work this up.

It's nice to think that the audience for the very first SNL show was very small, which'd put me in a nice, rarified, ahead-of-the-curve cohort. I was twelve.

Since I was around nine or ten, late-night television was like a weird personal samizadat for me. I don't mean Johnny Carson; I mean things like Tom Snyder's Tomorrow show, the Midnight Special, the Ghoul Show, and a few others. Snyder'd have on guests you'd never see on Merv or Johnny; he'd have people on like Buckminster Fuller, Ayn Rand, Harlan Ellison, or Meat Loaf, or a gang of special-effects experts, or mystery writers. The Midnight Special showcased not only musicians, but comedians like Richard Pryor, David Steinberg, and Steve Martin. The Midnight Speciel exposed me to a troupe of British comedians whose work was punctuated by bizarre cartoons, and seeing those was my first experience at true artistic rapture, an instant Stendahl Syndrome: so when PBS ran some promos for this group, called Monty Python's Flying Circus, I was among their first Philadelphia-area fans. (It was at least a year or two before I met another kid who'd heard of them.)

Let me explain why comedy's so important to me. I wasn't a very popular kid-- at that point, I had no friends and lots of people who beat me up on a regular basis. I grew up with this sense that most of the "normal" people around me-- the classmates regarded as well-adjusted normals-- were really violent, hateful, sadistic thugs, and that whatever government existed (like school adminitstration) was there to protect _them_. And I was the only kid I knew who even _suspected_ such things. Comedy was the one thing I found that said that I was probably right... and there's a way of looking at the rest of them that can give you a kind of strength. And while I enjoyed the standard, safe, establishment comedy of, say, Carol Burnett... well, when something like Python came along, I knew I was picking up the signals from my homeworld.

Anyway, Saturdays at 11:30 had become my little private TV-time because Channel 48, a Philadelphia UHF station (ask your parents) used that time slot for late-night horror movies. The movies were hosted by a guy called The Ghoul, who looked like Frank Zappa and did funny skits around the commercials. He was cancelled in late 1974. Do NOT contradict me with Internet nonsense about him being on the air in late 1970s: my memory is clearer on this than on most of my childhood.

I kept checking the listings for months afterward, hoping they'd bring the show back. And then, in early October of 1975, I see a listing for a new show. "NBC's Satuday Night," with George Carlin listed as the host. Terrific, I thought. I was a Carlin fan even then: I loved his appearances on Flip Wilson, and I had his first two "real" albums, AM/FM and Class Clown. My parents turned in after Carol Burnett, leaving the TV to me from 11 p.m. on.

So I'm sitting in the chair, I have the TV on, I'm all alone, and I'm getting ready to watch my favorite comedia, George Carlin. Instead, I see that utterly strange sketch where Michael O'Donoghue tries to teach John Belushi english, using phrases like "I would like to feed your fingertips to the wolverines." Carlin comes out. More sketches and commercial parodies, which were funny and unlike the gaudier Carol Burnett-style skits. The performers were younger, unknown, and clearly not part of my parents' generation (unlike Tim Conway and Harvey Korman). Matter of fact, they were _younger than Carlin_, who at the time was a pretty radical figure compared to the rest of television.

I loved the show instantly. Lots of people-- and even Lorne Michaels-- have said that the shows had the feel of kids sneaking into the studio after hours. I don't think I missed a single segment of the show for its first five years. I started to check magazines for articles about the show (an airport newsstand provided a weird Tiger Beat-like fan magazine with a big profile of Chevy Chase, which I read during a Disney World vacation). When people like Richard Pryor and Lily Tomlin showed up, you knew, instinctively, that even though these people did "normal" television, here was a place where you'd get a sense of what they were like onstage or in the comedy clubs that started to appear. It was hip when hipness still had the sense of being something rare, exotic, and if not underground, then clearly from below. And it attracted an audience that had been, at the time, content to ignore television and go out on a Saturday night. (And during the first three years, every fourth Saturday showcased "Weekend," a news magazine show with Lloyd Dobyns. Which used "Jumpin' Jack Flash" for its title music. Which did a segment on punk rock that showcased the Sex Pistols.)

So now the show's been on for forty years. It hasn't had that radical, underground charisma for at least thirty-six of those years-- in fact, hipness in general no longer has that "from below" quality anymore. I think about the shows that were considered "establishment" institutions, from Bob Hope specials to Ed Sullivan to Carol Burnett, and none of _those_ have continued for forty years, so the show's become even more of an "establishment" institution than what it set itself up to oppose, if you know what I mean. It was largely responsible for making comedy writing a _career path_-- which makes for happy comedy writers, at least, and occasionally, something as good as _Mr. Show_ gets some sugar.

But I'm going to hang onto that wonderful clandestine thrill I used to get when I'd plant myself in the TV chair, to watch a show I really thought was for _me_.
  • Post a new comment


    default userpic

    Your reply will be screened

    Your IP address will be recorded 

    When you submit the form an invisible reCAPTCHA check will be performed.
    You must follow the Privacy Policy and Google Terms of use.