Forty years ago, a 27-year-old Canadian earned himself the right to program a Saturday night sketch comedy block on NBC, and American comedy would never be the same. Saturday Night Live premiered October 11, 1975, and went on to become the fount from which mainstream American comedy springs. Tonight, NBC will rebroadcast that first episode, hosted by George Carlin, in preparation for Sunday’s three and half hour anniversary special.
Lorne Michaels, that diminutive, former radio journalist from Toronto, was sure he had something special. But precious few thought he would even survive the show’s rocky first season. (“How are you going to get people to watch television on a Saturday night?”) SNL’s creator proved his doubters wrong, establishing a dynasty that would come to virtually define when and why Americans laugh.
Michaels plucked some of today’s comedic juggernauts — Bill Murray, Chris Rock, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler — from hardscrabble improv troupes and stand-up circuits across North America (though there were always a few Harvard Lampoon-ers thrown in). These former nobodies would go on to create and star in some of the last four decades’ most seminal comedies: from Coneheads, to Zoolander, to Parks and Recreation, with Michaels often in the role of executive producer-slash-creative bodyguard.
Looking through the list below, which chronicles the massive comedic output of SNL’s Not Ready For Primetime Players, there’s no denying it: SNL is is not just the gold-standard of modern American humor, but the glue that holds it together. This is Lorne’s world, we’re all just laughing in it.