The original cast and crew of Saturday Night Live changed comedy and television forever. Its been 43 years since Lorne Michaels launched an institution that continues to be one of the most sought-after gigs in comedy. So inviting members of that original team to speak at this year’s Lucille Ball Comedy during the Grand Opening and dedication of the brand new National Comedy Center, was a perfect choice.
The energy was electric in the sold-out 1400 plus seat stunning theater, and expectations were high. You could feel the audience leaning in as a clip reel full of favorite clips played to start the evening, as the familiar sounds of the Coneheads, E. Buzz Miller, Roseanne Rosannadanna, and more resonated throughout the theater. Despite the size of the room, the conversation felt like it took place in an intimate space with old friends, and by the end of the night, everyone agreed that the panel had not only met expectations, but exceeded them with great stories, insight, and laughs.
“This was pretty much the Beatles of comedy,” moderator and host Ron Bennington (SiriusXM, Unmasked, Ron Bennington Interviews) announced as he brought three of the original SNL team on stage at the beautiful Reg Lenna Theater in Jamestown New York this past weekend. The crowd agreed, going absolutely crazy as they welcomed writer and occasional performer Alan Zweibel, original cast member Laraine Newman and writer and castmember Dan Aykroyd to the stage. The hour flew by with Bennington talking with the cast about their memories of the show, and how they were chosen to be a part of comedy’s most unforgettable series.
Before joining team SNL, Zweibel said, he had a day job in a delicatessen and was writing jokes for Catskills comedians for $7 each (a joke that would become a recurring callback throughout the night). Newman was working for a rock band booking agent typing up contracts while spending time at the Groundlings. Aykroyd had “a lot of racquets” going on; he was working on a movie and performing with Second City in Toronto, had a commercial business going, and his infamous 505 Club. And Aykroyd revealed that it wasn’t an easy job for him to get. “Lorne wasn’t sure about hiring both Belushi and I,” he said. “Lorne was afraid we had a Kabal already.” It was Gilda Radner, and Al Franken and Tom Davis had convinced Lorne to hire both of them, Newman recalled.
But any concerns about casting evaporated quickly, and Dan recalled working on an early sketch with fellow castmember Garret Morris playing a lawn jockey and knowing right away that things were about to change drastically. “I remember standing back under the stands and going, this next moment in my life is going to be very key. Because if it works, I think it could be a lot of longevity. If it doesn’t, I know I can get a good price on that snowplow. But the import of it was felt the first moment I went on.”
Things took off quickly for all three panelists. “I knew by the fourth, fifth show,” Dan remembered. “Chevy and I would be walking down the street and people would be yelling CHEVY CHASE CHEVY CHASE CHEVY HEY CHEVY. And I knew then that boy, we were on our way.” Laraine had a similar experience after she and Gilda did the slumber party sketch, and described people shouting “That’s Disgusting!” at them when they walked down the street.
Zweibel put it into perspective. “I remember Lorne saying very early on, the only rule we had was let’s make each other laugh, and if we do that, we’ll put that on television. And he assured us that there was an audience out there that wasn’t being serviced this way in comedy and they would tell their friends about it. And it worked. And I remember it was Lily Tomlin did the sixth show an then Elliott Gould- the show that we won all these Emmys for was the tenth show. This thing started growing and gelling and took on a momentum of its own, and what a great ride it was.”
They were cool and they were popular, something Bennington pointed out is a very rare thing. “It was just you and the Rolling Stones who could pull that off.”
All three panelists recalled favorite firsts talking about favorite sketches and the origin stories of some of the most iconic recurring characters, like the Coneheads, and Roseanne Rosannadanna whose name was actually a take on Rosanne Scamardella a newscaster for WABC.
And there was a lot of conversation about Lorne and his role in creating the iconic series.
Dan remembered driving across country in 1969 and stopping by Lorne’s apartment at the Chateau Marmont in his 1963 Chevy Biscayne, and finding out Lorne already knew he wanted to create Saturday Night Live. “Lorne let us crash in his room and he said you know, in the next year and a half or so I want to bring back the Colgate Palmolive comedy hour. I want to bring back live tv,” Dan said. “I said give me a call and I’ll be there to help. And he did call…. And then made me audition nine times.”
He still credits Lorne as the heart of the show. “Lorne Michaels is the only man in the world who can sit between dress and air and look at those cards and go ‘that ain’t working, that’s gonna work, that’ll be good.” Nobody else helps him with that and he takes about 8 minutes to do it and goes that’s the show. And there’s only one guy on earth who can do that.”
Lorne wasn’t the only person who wasn’t in the room whose presence was felt heavily. The names Chevy and Murray came up throughout the evening, and the names of two favorite cast members gone too soon- Gilda and John- were as present in the theater as those on stage. Alan Zweibel described his platonic love affair with Gilda that lasted 15 years and how she seemed the natural successor to Lucy at many points.
Dan’s strongest memory of Gilda was the effect she had on Belushi. “Gilda was the only person who could really whip Belushi into shape and give him a sense of conscience,” he said. “When he was kind of running over the other girls and dismissing their talent- he did believe in their talent of the 3 girls but his way was sometimes to be dismissive about it and pejorative and Gilda was able to bring him back and make him realize that those convictions were wrong. She had a lot of power over John because he respected and loved her- respected her talent and respected her as an equal.”
Aykroyd’s own platonic love of course, was Belushi, and he described their first meeting. “We fell in love the minute we met,” he said, telling the story of the time Belushi came to Second City in Toronto to recruit for National Lampoon. “He walked in the back door of SC one night, it was a blizzard and the back door opened and the snow swirled around him. And there he was in silhouette and he had an old drivers cap on and very underdressed. He had a scarf on and a cable knit sweater, jeans and white sneakers – not dressed for Canadian winter at all. And he swirled in this magnetic whirlwind of snow and talent and charisma. That was the end there. We cooked up the Blues Brothers that night back at the 505 club.” They talked music and Dan promised to teach John the Blues because Belushi had been more into Grand Funk and Heavy Metal and the punk scene. “By the time we got to New York, he had 300 blues albums and was picking songs for our first record. So we brought the act to the show.” And 40 plus years later, Dan’s still doing it.
Everyone remembered the incredible talents that came through- the guest hosts, the musicians, and those who came downtown to party with them after the show at Dan’s bar. After the main party at a restaurant, Dan described racing down on his motorcycle to “throw open the armor and open this hole that we had at the corner of Hudson and Dominic,” a place Laraine described as “like that scene in Trainspotting” only dirtier. A place where Francis Ford Coppola would be tending bar while David Bowie jammed with ZZ tops and the limos would line up outside while the party went on till long after the sun came up.
And most of all, the cast remembered the pure energy of performing live- something Newman said their improv backgrounds prepared them for well. You could write a sketch on Monday and it would air on Saturday, Zweibel said even describing a few times he sat underneath the Weekend Update desk writing jokes on the fly. Without being live, “it would have been “Fridays”, Dan said referring to another late night show that launched in 1975, but didn’t last. “There’s something so exciting about live. That energy. The audience really, I think is so receptive to that because they know how risky it was,” Laraine agreed. “It was a high wire act,” Alan added.
And one that has endured for 43 years.
For those who weren’t able to make it to Jamestown this weekend, or couldn’t get tickets to the sold-out show, you can hear the entire 90-minute conversation when it airs on SiriusXM later this month. Check back for dates and times. And visit the National Comedy Center in Jamestown New York, now open 7 days a week. Go to nationalcomedycenter.com for details.