Live From New York,
It’s Saturday Night!
Created by producer Lorne Michaels in 1975, NBC’s Saturday Night Live is one of the longest-running and most popular variety shows in television history, having launched the careers of Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy, Mike Myers, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and dozens of other comedy legends. The connections between SNL’s celebrity guest hosts and the writers behind the sketches, parody commercials and news send-ups tell us a lot about variety shows past and present.
Steve Martin has hosted 15 episodes of Saturday Night Live, tying him with his mock rival Alec Baldwin. Martin has been integral to many classic SNL sketches, including “Dancing in the Dark,” a wordless musical melodrama of physical comedy with the late, great Gilda Radner, and “Two Wild and Crazy Guys,” in which he and Dan Aykroyd portray “swinging” Czech brothers who attempt, relying in part on their “bulges,” to woo “Amur’can women.”
SNL’s guest hosts have included politicians and Olympic athletes, but Martin is a truly seasoned comic and therefore one of the few hosts given free range to perform his own material, often in solo sketches. His original bits include such time-honored monologues as “A Christmas Wish,” about his one unselfish, and four selfish, holiday wishes for the world, and his own songs, like “King Tut,” about a very funky pharaoh. Martin has often used SNL as a testing ground for jokes he planned to release on his albums, notably Let’s Get Small (1977) and Wild and Crazy Guy (1978), both of which went platinum.
In 1967, gearing up for the second season of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (1967–1969), Dick and Tommy Smothers made what their biographer David Bianculli calls the “strangest hire of all”: Steve Martin. At the time, Martin was a 22-year-old stand-up comic who wasn’t just unknown—he was disliked. When he auditioned for a guest spot on the show, he walked onstage with a banjo case and a music stand piled with typewritten notes, all scathing reviews of his stand-up routines. “The worst reviews you could imagine,” remembers former Smothers writer Allan Blye:
And while he’s [reading from them], he is doing shit to himself like you cannot believe. He’s breaking eggs, raw eggs, on his head; he is pie-ing himself; he is seltzering his armpits and crotch.… You can’t see him anymore. There’s just crap everywhere.… And the last line of [one] review says, “Opening act Steve Martin does nothing to be remembered by.” And he just looked out at everybody and said, “I may not be very funny, but can you honestly say you won’t remember me?” I was on the floor, it was so funny!
Only a few years out of Harvard, while writing for various cable comedy shows, Conan O’Brien caught Saturday Night Live executive producer Lorne Michaels’s eye and began a four-year writing stint for the show that lasted until 1991. His most popular sketches include “Mr. Short-Term Memory,” starring guest host Tom Hanks, and “The Girl Watchers,” in which Hanks and SNL cast member Jon Lovitz unsuccessfully attempt to pick up women at their high school reunion. O’Brien’s gravitation toward awkward humor was evident even at this early stage in his career.
After establishing himself as an SNL writer, O’Brien began asking for walk-on roles in various sketches. His pale, gangly form can be seen throughout his four seasons, first in “The Five Timers,” in which he portrays a doorman who welcomes Hanks into the “club” of people who have hosted or been a musical guest on the show five or more times. (Of course, O’Brien would one day host SNL himself.) O’Brien and his fellow writers won an Emmy in 1989, for a season brightened by the first “Wayne’s World” and “Sprockets” episodes, both starring a new cast member, soon-to-be megastar Mike Myers.
Conan O’Brien wrote for and produced The Simpsons from 1991 to 1993. He and a few other young writers became known around the office as the Dream Team, and fans of The Simpsons recognize the high-caliber seasons of O’Brien’s tenure as “the Conan years.”
In an interview with James Lipton for Bravo’s Inside the Actors Studio, O’Brien discussed the fears he experienced during his first months on The Simpsons. He had never written “that kind of comedy” before, and he was especially frustrated because the producers forced him to work on a computer for the first time. On his first day, a wayward bird flew through the window and landed on his desk, “in its death throes.” George Meyer, a highly regarded writer for the show, walked in on O’Brien, saw the bird and muttered, “Not a good sign, man.”
Two days later and out of ideas, O’Brien pitched a concept he hoped wasn’t too weird: a spoof of Broadway musical The Music Man, in which a huckster comes to Springfield to sell the town a doomed monorail. The episode, “Marge vs. the Monorail,” eventually went down in fan history as a Simpsons classic.
Tina Fey, creator of the meta–variety show 30 Rock, moved to Chicago in 1992 to attend the hallowed Second City, an improvisational-comedy school. The institution has long been the gold standard for aspiring comedians, including those on Saturday Night Live (Mike Myers, John Belushi, Chris Farley) and Canada’s now defunct Second City Television, or SCTV (Rick Moranis, John Candy, Catherine O’Hara). Fey has explained, “I just wanted to touch the same stage that Gilda Radner had walked on.” Fey’s plans evolved, however, when she began submitting scripts to Saturday Night Live and got hired as a writer. Her first few SNL seasons were rough, but after five years (and after dropping 30 pounds, which Fey admitted probably helped her get noticed in the cutthroat, image-obsessed New York environment), she became the show’s first female head writer as well as cohost of its news recap, “Weekend Update.”
Produced by SNL creator Lorne Michaels, 30 Rock shares a few cast members with SNL, including Jason Sudeikis as an ill-fated boyfriend of Liz Lemon (Fey’s geeky character), Chris Parnell as Dr. Spaceman (pronounced “Spa-tchem-in”), chameleon comedian Rachel Dratch and Tracy Morgan as, well, an exaggerated version of himself.