Saturday Night Live (SNL) is a weekly late-night 90-minute comedy-variety show from NBC which has been broadcast virtually every Saturday night since its debut on October 11, 1975. It is one of the longest-running network entertainment programs in American television history. Each week, the show's cast is joined by a guest host and a musical act.
The show has been the launching place for some major American comedy stars of the last thirty years. It was created by Lorne Michaels, who, except for June 1980 to June 1985, has produced and written for the show, and remains its executive producer.
In January 2005, NBC renewed SNL's contract until 2012.
Structure of the show
The show usually follows a standard format. It opens with a sketch, known as the cold opening, which begins without any announcement or titles, is often about politics or other current events, and always ends with someone saying "Live from New York, it's Saturday Night!" The show then segues into the opening credits, which usually open with a shot of the Statue of Liberty and a montage of the cast members cut with various locations around the city. The opening credits are voiced-over by long-time NBC announcer Don Pardo.
Next is the opening monologue performed by the guest host(s), often followed by a TV commercial parody. The show continues with more comedy skits (sketches might feature recurring characters, running gags, celebrity impersonations, movie and TV spoofs, and skits parodying the news issues of the day), followed by a performance by the guest musical act. More recent shows have the second act divided by an animated short by Robert Smigel. The news parody segment Weekend Update marks the show's midway point. The second half of the program continues with more sketches, and in most cases a second performance by the musical guest. Some shows also feature filmed segments, often featuring cast members, or it may feature independent film shorts. In a few rare cases, a third musical performance by the week's musical guest is done at the end of the show, but in most instances this is just a goodbye segment by the host and musical guest.
Current repertory players
For a full list of past and present cast, see Saturday Night Live cast.
Although SNL has an often rapid turnover of supporting players (many of whom have appeared for only one season or less), some performers have had long tenures with the show. Few have broken the eight-year barrier. Among the longest serving repertory players are:
Cast member deaths
Several cast members died tragically young, notably Belushi and Farley (from drug abuse), Radner (cancer), and Hartman (victim of a murder-suicide by his wife). One-season cast member Danitra Vance died of breast cancer in 1994, and one of the original writers and featured players, Michael O'Donoghue (he wrote the classic Star Trek spoof in the first season) died of a brain tumor in 1994.
SNL received some negative publicity in 1999 when it was leaked that, henceforth, actors joining the show would have to agree in their five-to-six year contract that, upon request, they would act in up to three movies by SNL Films, for fees of US$75,000, US$150,000, and then US$300,000; and also that, upon request, they would leave SNL and act in an NBC sitcom for up to an additional six years. This appeared to be a reaction to former cast members like Adam Sandler and Mike Myers going on to movie stardom.
Some agents and managers characterized these long-term contracts as involuntary servitude, saying that almost any young, undiscovered comic would immediately agree to any given set of exploitative contractual restrictions for the opportunity to launch their careers via the show. NBC publicly defended the new contracts, saying that SNL was doing a service to young comics by launching so many careers.
It was reported in 1999 that the starting salary for SNL cast members was US$5,000 per episode.
The following is a summary of the process used to produce the show. It is based in part on an August 2000 Writer's Digest article and an April 2004 Fresh Air interview with Tina Fey:
- Monday: The day begins with a topical meeting, identifying the biggest story for the show's opening. This is followed by a free-form pitch meeting with Lorne Michaels and the show's host for the week. According to an October 2004 60 Minutes segment on the show, throughout the week the host has a lot of influence on which sketches get aired. Following the meeting, writers begin to draft the two scripts each must produce.
- Tuesday: Starting in the afternoon, anywhere from 30 to 45 scripts are written, significantly more than will make it to air. Most writers work through the night. Once a writer's scripts are complete, he or she will often help other writers on their scripts.
- Wednesday: All scripts get a read-through. After the read-through, the head writer(s) and the producers meet with the host to decide which sketches to work on for the rest of the week, with Lorne Michaels and the host having the final say.
- Thursday: The surviving sketches are reviewed, word-by-word, by the writing staff as a whole (or in two groups in the case of co-head writers). Some sketches which survived the cut because of their premise but otherwise needed a lot of work are rewritten completely. Others are changed in smaller ways. Thursday is also the day that Weekend Update starts coming together, starting with the news items written by writers dedicated all week to the segment. This is also the first day the crew comes in for rehearsal. The music act is rehearsed as well as some of the larger more important skits.
Friday: the show is blocked (staged). The writer of each skit acts as producer, working with the show's set designers and costumers.
- Saturday: With the show still far from finalized, the day begins with a run-through, with props, in front of Lorne Michaels. After the run-through, the cast and crew find out which of the sketches are in the dress rehearsal, and which are cut. The writer/producer deals with any changes. This is followed by an 8pm dress rehearsal in front of a live audience, which lasts until 10pm or sometimes later, and which contains around twenty minutes of material which will not make it to the broadcast. Lorne Michaels uses first-hand observation of the audience reaction to the rehearsal, and input from the host, to determine the final round of changes, re-ordering sketches as necessary. The show then begins at 11:30pm (Eastern Time).
The status of the show during the week is maintained on a bulletin board. Sketches and other segments are given labels which are put on index cards and put on the board in the order of their performance. The order is based on content as well as production limitations such as camera placement and performer availability. Segments which have been cut are kept to the side of the board. As the broadcast approaches, often the writer/producer discovers the fate of his or her segment only by consulting the bulletin board.
A 60 Minutes report taped in October 2004 depicted the intense writing frenzy that goes on during the week leading up to a show, with crowded meetings and long hours. The report particularly noted the involvement of the guest hosts in developing and selecting the skits in which they will appear.
When it's not live
SNL is one of the few shows on television to have its in- and off-season reruns aired out of its original broadcast sequence. The sequence of the in-season reruns (that is, encore shows that air during the season it originally aired) are usually determined by the episode(s)' popularity. So, for example, if by the midway point of the season in December, a show hosted by Robert DeNiro turned out to be the highest rated show of the season thus far, it would be the first show to be repeated when SNL begins airing its reruns during one of their live breaks. Shows usually air twice during a particular season, but often the highest rated shows of the season have a second encore show towards the end of the off-season.
Encore showings are not always identical to the original broadcast. Frequently, segments that did not work well during the original showing are replaced by alternate performances, or sometimes completely different skits that had been taped at the dress rehearsal that preceded the live broadcast.
From time-to-time, SNL airs compilation shows. Such shows will feature the best of a previous season (consisting of skits and musical segments specially selected by the producers), or of a particular cast member (such as Eddie Murphy or Adam Sandler) or guest (such as Tom Hanks), or centered on a particular theme (for example, Halloween, Christmas, or a major news event). Every election year, SNL aires a "Presidential Bash" featuring both classic and new skits involving Presidents and presidential candidates. The 2000 Bash was notable for having self-deprecating skits taped of the actual candidates (George W. Bush and Al Gore) rather than the players normally assigned to impersonate them.
When it's less than live
Over the years SNL has almost always been broadcast live on the east coast, in spite of the expletive spoken by Charles Rocket in 1981. The exceptions were shows hosted by Richard Pryor, Sam Kinison, and Andrew Dice Clay, which were broadcast on a seven-second delay.
During Eddie Murphy's last season, he was only available for part of the season, so they recorded a number of extra sketches featuring him that were broadcast in episodes he was not available for, according to the book Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live by Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad.
Some live shows may also be altered and edited for the west coast (where it is broadcast at 11:35pm Pacific Time, three hours after the live broadcast); in some cases recordings of sketches or performances from the program's dress rehearsal have been substituted for the later feed. When Sam Kinison delivered a comic monologue in 1986, NBC removed his plea for the legalization of marijuana from the West Coast broadcast.
Rights to SNL
NBC holds the copyright to every episode of the show made thus far. The syndication rights to the original incarnation (1975-1980) were originally acquired by Filmways Television (later Orion Television and MGM), while the syndication rights to the shows made from 1980 forward (that is, rerun rights beginning two years after its original NBC airings) have been held by Broadway Video, Lorne Michaels' production company.
The home video rights have also been scattered. Warner Home Video originally released several episodes from the original incarnation (1975-1980). Paramount released a "Best Of Eddie Murphy" video compilation in the 1980s (Murphy had a multi-picture deal with Paramount at the time). In the 1990s, Starmaker Entertainment held the video rights. Today, Lions Gate Home Entertainment handles the VHS and DVD releases of SNL under a new license with NBC.
For many years, both Comedy Central and E! Entertainment Television aired SNL reruns under license with Broadway Video and Orion/MGM (respectively). In 2003, full rights reverted completely to NBC, and the E! network acquired the exclusive syndication rights to the series.
The only episodes that have not been included in any syndication package (including the current deal with E!) are the prime-time special at the Mardi Gras in New Orleans (the only time the show has originated outside of New York), the Louise Lasser and Milton Berle episodes, and the infamous 1989 episode in which Andrew Dice Clay hosted.
Since it is broadcast live, SNL has had several infamous events that were either unplanned or provoked sufficient controversy to receive media coverage:
- In 1977, musical guest Elvis Costello threw the show's schedule off by playing the song Radio Radio, (see The Banned List below).
- In 1980 writer Al Franken performed the sketch "A Limo for the Lame-o" which mocked NBC president Fred Silverman's failure to improve the network's ratings. NBC executives were furious.
- In 1981, Charles Rocket, portraying the gunshot victim in a parody of the Who Shot J.R.? plot on the program Dallas, said "I'd like to know who the fuck did it" during the live feed of the "goodnights" segment.
- In 1988 a sketch set at a nudist colony used the word penis an excessive number of times.
- In 1990, comedian Andrew Dice Clay was chosen to host; cast member Nora Dunn and scheduled musical guest Sinéad O'Connor boycotted the show in protest, due to perceptions that his jokes were misogynistic.
- In 1992, Sinéad O'Connor ripped up a photo of the Pope (see The Banned List below).
- In 1994, host Martin Lawrence delivered a raunchy stand-up routine including jokes that had not been approved (see The Banned List below).
- In 1994 a sketch in which host Alec Baldwin played a pedophile scoutmaster generated more hostile letters than any sketch in the show's history.
- In 1997, during his Weekend Update Norm MacDonald fumbled with his words and then said "What the fuck was that", not realizing what he had said.
- In 2004, musical guest Ashlee Simpson became the first performer to walk offstage when a pre-recorded backing track for the wrong song was accidentally played. It appeared to viewers that Simpson had been lip synching, though the singer later said she was using the backing track on account of a throat illness. The incident was the subject of wide-spread coverage in the news and even SNL skits.
Banned from the show
Over the years, SNL has banned both hosts and musical guests from re-appearing on the show whether it be for a complete lack of effort in performance or for unconventional or often arrogant behavior either on or off the set.
- One of the first hosts to be barred from performing again was Louise Lasser , who hosted at the end of the first season on July 24, 1976. Lasser was said to be going through personal problems at the time and was reportedly nearly incoherent throughout the broadcast. This episode was such a disappointment to producer Lorne Michaels, that it was also barred from syndication until as late as 2002.
Elvis Costello was banned from SNL for 13 years. In December 1977, he was slated to perform with his group The Attractions . NBC and the show's producer Lorne Michaels didn't want Costello to perform "Radio, Radio" since it was an anti-media song. Costello defied them by beginning to play "Less Than Zero," stopping at the beginning, telling the audience that there was no reason to do that song, and started playing "Radio, Radio." Besides the defiance, this also infuriated Michaels because it put the show off schedule. Costello was finally invited to come back and play in 1989, and even reenacted his act of defiance on the 25th Anniversary Show in 1999.
Frank Zappa had been banned from the show after his hosting stint on October 21, 1978. His acerbic and often misunderstood sense of humour made him more than unfavorable with the cast and crew. During his performance, he made a habit of reading cue-cards and mugging the camera. Many cast members (save for John Belushi) stood noticeably far from him during the goodnights.
- The April 24, 1979 episode of the show hosted by Milton Berle resulted in his banning due to his habit of upstaging other performers, overacting, mugging for the camera, insertion of "classic" comedy bits and his maudlin performance of September Song. This episode was also barred from rebroadcast for over twenty years (until February 2003 when an edited version was shown on E!) as Lorne Michaels felt that the broadcast, and Berle in particular, brought the show down. 
- Another banning of sorts happened in 1982 when the show decided to leave the fate of a frequent guest in the hands of viewers. Andy Kaufman, who had appeared on the show periodically since its beginning in 1975, was on the chopping block. Viewers had to call a 900 number to decide if Kaufman should be allowed to stay, or be banned for life from the show. Viewers decided to kick him off and Kaufman never returned to the show. In truth, the idea was pitched to Dick Ebersol weeks before by Kaufman, and Ebersol used the idea after he had a fight with Kaufman. When Kaufman heard the news that he was banned, he felt betrayed.
- Ironically, another name was added to the list the very same night as Kaufman. The host that night, Robert Blake, was very uncooperative with the scripts that had been given him throughout the week (at one point, he even crumbled up a script presented to him by cast member and writer Gary Kroeger, and threw it back in his face), and was also barred from performing on the show again.
Steven Seagal, who hosted on April 20, 1991, has also been barred from hosting due to his difficulty in working with the cast and crew, who weren't afraid to make note of the occasion almost a year and a half later. During Nicholas Cage's monologue in a 1992 episode, Nicholas is speaking with Lorne backstage and says, "...they probably think I'm the biggest jerk who's ever been on the show!" To which Lorne replied, "No, no. That would be Steven Seagal." 
- Perhaps the most notable ostracism came in 1992, when Sinéad O'Connor appeared on the program with host Tim Robbins. In her second set of the show, she performed an a capella version of Bob Marley's "War." At the end, she picked up a picture of Pope John Paul II, ripped it up, and shouted, "Fight the real enemy!" From the booth, Director Dave Wilson immediately withdrew the "applause" cue, and NBC received many complaints about this within a matter of minutes. At the end of the show, Robbins refused to even thank O'Connor--as is custom--for being the musical guest. O'Connor was given a verbal beating by many other celebrities and public figures. To this day, NBC refuses to lend out the footage of the performance to any media outlet. They have also edited out the incident from the syndicated version of the episode. However, it was finally released in 2003, with an explanation from Lorne Michaels, on Disc 4 of the "Saturday Night Live - 25 Years of Music" DVD set.
- Comedian Martin Lawrence has also been banned from the show. His opening monologue included talking about female genitalia. The monologue has been completely edited out in the syndicated version, with just a graphic describing in general what Lawrence had said. The graphic also told viewers that it was a lively monologue and it almost cost many SNL employees their jobs. 
- The latest victim came on May 10, 2003 when host Adrien Brody came out to introduce the musical guest, reggae musician Sean Paul, dressed in Rastafarian attire. Without any prior notice, he began speaking in a Jamaican accent and went on a "tirade" of sorts for close to 45-seconds before finally introducing the act. Lorne Michaels is notorious for his disdain of improv and unannounced performances (as was also the case in Elvis Costello's incident), and therefore was furious with Brody for not obtaining clearance before performing this "monologue."
The following performers have hosted SNL at least five times:
Several special episodes of SNL have been compiled and aired that were "best of" episodes of several of these hosts, including Christopher Walken and Tom Hanks.
Recurring characters and sketches
Below is a short list of some of SNLs most popular recurring sketches. There is also a list of recurring Saturday Night Live characters and sketches.
- "Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead" (Chevy Chase)
- "But nooooooo!" (John Belushi)
- "Jane, you ignorant slut." (Dan Aykroyd)
- "We are, two wild and crazy guys!" (Steve Martin, Dan Aykroyd)
- "I'm Chevy Chase, and you're not." (Chevy Chase)
- "My father always used to say, it's always something. If it's not one thing, it's another." (Gilda Radner)
- "Never mind." (Gilda Radner)
- "You look mahvelous!" (Billy Crystal)
- "Yeah, that's the ticket!" (Jon Lovitz)
- "Well, isn't that special?" (Dana Carvey)
- "Ve are goink to pump (clap) you up!" (Dana Carvey, Kevin Nealon)
- "I'm all verklempt ... (sniff) ... talk amongst yourselves .. I'll give you a topic ...." (Mike Myers)
- "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!" (Al Franken)
Movies based on SNL skits
The early days of SNL spawned a few movies and low-budget films. However, it wasn't until the huge success of Wayne's World that Broadway Video (Lorne Michaels's production company) became encouraged to feature more film spinoffs, with several popular 1990s sketch characters (and a few unlikely ones) becoming adapted into movies. Producers tried their luck with a revival of '70s characters The Coneheads, followed by movies based around Pat, Stuart Smalley, The Ladies Man, The Butabi Brothers and Mary-Catherine Gallagher. Some did moderate business but others bombed disastrously — notably It's Pat and Stuart Saves His Family, with the latter losing US$15 million despite good reviews.
Steve Martin was a frequent guest host of the program, and even had popular recurring characters. However, contrary to popular belief, Martin was never a regular member of the cast.
- Although Darrell Hammond holds the record for longer tenure of a Contract Player with 10 consecutive seasons (about 200 episodes), Al Franken has been credited for 12 seasons (1977-80) & (1985-94), although appearing only in a total of about 140 episodes, as a Featured Player.
Morwenna Banks holds the record for the shortest tenure of a Contract Player with only four episodes (4/95 - 5/95). The record for shortest tenure of a Featured Player goes to both Laurie Metcalf and Emily Prager , both appearing in only one episode (4/11/81).
Eddie Murphy is the only person to have hosted the show while still a cast member; this occurred during season 8 (December 11, 1982), when Murphy filled in for a sick Nick Nolte.
- The cold opening occasionally varies from the traditional, "Live From New York..." either to commemorate the season number (usually during season premieres) or to follow the consistency of a certain sketch. In 1981, the traditional cold opening was done away with entirely (returning the next season).
Michael McKean is the only performer to appear as cast member, host, and (as "David St. Hubbins" of Spinal Tap) musical guest.
Michael McKean and Billy Crystal are the only two people to join the cast after having hosted the show.
- 17 former cast members have later come back to host the show. Curiously, none of them female (Gilda Radner was scheduled to host in 1988, but was called off due to a writers strike, and died the following year).
Harry Shearer and Brian Doyle-Murray are the only two cast members to work under both Lorne Michaels and Dick Ebersol. Shearer in 1979 and 1984, and Doyle-Murray in 1979 and 1981. In addition, Doyle-Murray also worked under one-season Producer Jean Doumanian as a writer.
- The oldest host was Ruth Gordon, at age 80, in the episode aired on January 22, 1977.
- The youngest host was Drew Barrymore, at age 7, in the episode aired on November 20, 1982.
- The eldest cast member was Michael McKean at age 47 (1994-1995).
- The youngest cast member was Anthony Michael Hall at age 17 (1985-1986).
Kenan Thompson is the only cast member to date born after SNL's premiere in 1975.
- The highest rating audience (according to Nielsen) was for the episode aired on October 13, 1979.
- Guest hosts who had previously auditioned for the show earlier in their careers only to be turned down, include: John Goodman (1980), Jim Carrey (1985) and Lisa Kudrow (1990).
Foreign versions of the show
- Georgian version of Saturday Night Live
Last updated: 10-12-2005 03:05:12