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The Twisted History of Saturday Night Live

Twisted History produced by John Kelly, researched by Saint Anne

Notes from this week's episode:

“SNL” is the longest-running, most Emmy-nominated, and highest-rated weekly late-night television program in TV history. First aired in 1975, the original cast included: Chevy Chase, John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Laraine Newman, Garrett Morris, Jane Curtin, and Dan Aykroyd.

NBC. Getty Images.

They all made $750 a show. Compared to the current cast, first-year cast members make $7,000 per episode, or $147,000 per season. Second-year cast members make $8,000 per episode, or $168,000 per season. If a cast member makes it to their fifth season, they make $15,000 per episode, or $315,000 per season.

That is now, but let’s go back to the beginning: 

Originally called "NBC's Saturday Night," the series began in part because Johnny Carson wanted more time off from his late-night talk show. Do I need to say this? - back in 1974, Johnny Carson hosted something called "The Tonight Show," and it was a HUGE moneymaker for NBC. NBC aired reruns of the Tonight Show on weekends, but Carson requested that NBC save his re-runs for his vacation days instead.

To fill that weekend slot, NBC's director of weekend late-night Dick Ebersol, teamed up with up-and-coming TV writer and producer Lorne Michaels to create what is now "SNL."

LORNE MICHAELS

First off, he’s a filthy Canadian, having attended the University of Toronto. He turns 76 in November, and has been married 3 times. He has 3 kids, and is worth $500-million dollars.

In 1968, he moved to Los Angeles and worked as a writer for NBC’s “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In,” which he left in 1975, and moved to New York to begin work on SNL.

Rowan and Martin was a variety show with two-man hosting team. It premiered January 22, 1968, and it was the first comedy variety hour to provide funny 30-second sketches for ADD audiences (Like Tik-Tok). They had a wall of jokes where random cast members and celebs would pop out and say a one-liner. They hosted a cocktail party in the background of every show, and surrounded the set with go-go dancers, including a VERY young Goldie Hawn.

So, Michaels took the basis of R&M, and tweaked it into the SNL format we all know and used to love. It worked, and Lorne Michaels is one of the most decorated talents in all of show business.

Here is Lorne Michaels resumé:

Michaels personally has won 16 Emmys as a writer and producer. In 2016, he was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, for his significant cultural contributions to the country.

He was inducted into the Television Academy of Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame in 1999, and in 2004, he received the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.

He received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1999.

In Canada, he was awarded the Governor General’s Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement in 2006, and was inducted into the Order of Canada in 2002. He was made a Companion of the Order of Canada in 2018, but I have no clue what that is.

In 2008 and 2015, he was named one of Time magazine’s "Time 100" - a list of the most influential people in the world. 

In 2013, Michaels received the Distinguished Collaborator Award by the Costume Designers Guild and also earned the rare honor of an individual Peabody Award - which is the oldest major media award in the United States.

Michaels has been the executive producer of the Emmy-nominated “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon”,“Late Night with Seth Meyers”,“Documentary Now!”,“Portlandia”, NBC’s “A.P. Bio” and more …

His TV specials have featured Lily Tomlin, Steve Martin, Paul Simon, Flip Wilson, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, Randy Newman, Neil Young, Simon and Garfunkel in Central Park, and Adele.

On Broadway, he produced and directed “Gilda Radner - Live From New York” and produced the subsequent film “Gilda Live.” In addition, he produced “Mean Girls,” the Tony-nominated Broadway musical based on the hit movie that’s currently at the August Wilson Theatre.

But even after all that, SNL is the project that is synonymous with Michaels, even though he did abandon it at one point!

After the fifth season, Lorne decided he wanted to do something else, and he turned over the reigns to producer Jean Doumanian for seasons six through ten. But SNL did SO POORLY during that time (the only bright spots were a young Eddie Murphy and Joe Picopo) NBC president Brandon Tartikoff called Michaels and begged him to return.

Michaels did and hasn’t left since.
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SNL Fun Facts

Only a few sets (like the Oval Office) are saved and reused. Most are destroyed after each show.

After-party attendees — including cast members — have to pay for their own food and drinks.

Carrie Fisher and Dan Aykroyd - Back in 1978, Princess Leia and the fattest Ghostbuster met when Fisher hosted. They later fell in love on the set of The Blues Brothers and eventually got engaged. HOWEVS, Fisher called it off because she fell in love with singer Paul Simon.

Larry David was a staff writer for one season, but just one of his sketches made it to air, and (not surprisingly) he didn’t seem to get along with anyone. BUT, he did connect with cast member Julia Louis-Dreyfus, whom he later cast as Elaine on Seinfeld.

For your viewing pleasure, The Olympia Restaurant sketch:

According to Don Novello, who penned the first Olympia Café sketch, the diner was based on the Billy Goat Tavern on Lower North Michigan Avenue in Chicago, which is still operating (and part of a small chain). According to his brother Jim Belushi, John based the character on their uncle, who at one time owned a hot dog stand on Chicago's Northwest Side.

Led by John Belushi as Pete Dionasopoulos, the staff also included Bill Murray as Nico, a busboy who doesn't speak English, Dan Aykroyd as short-order cook George, and Sandy, a waitress played by Laraine Newman. Series regulars Garrett Morris, Gilda Radner, and Jane Curtin had recurring roles as regular customers.

As various guest stars discovered (with a few exceptions), only three items on the long menu could actually be ordered successfully: the cheeseburger (pronounced "cheeburger" by Belushi), chips (pronounced "cheep"), and Pepsi. Attempts to order Coke (later Pepsi) were invariably met with the response: "No Coke! Pepsi!" (or later on, "No Pepsi! Coke!") Likewise, those who ordered french fries got the response, "No fries! Cheeps!" 

Most famously, if a customer complained about having to order a cheeseburger, Pete would point out all the other customers enjoying a cheeburger, e.g. "Too early for cheeburger? Look! Cheeburger, cheeburger, cheeburger, cheeburger, cheeburger, cheeburger, cheeburger, cheeburger, cheeburger! Eh?" The short-order cook (usually played by Dan Aykroyd) would mistake the retort as an order for more cheeseburgers, loading up an absurd number of patties onto the grill.

MUCH more on The Twisted History podcast with Pat and Large this week:

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