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Saturday Night Live in the 70s – Classic Sketch Photos of the Early Years

Steve Palace
ane Curtin as Prymaat Conehead, Dan Aykroyd as Beldar Conehead, Laraine Newman as Connie Conehead during the 'The Coneheads At Home' skit on January 15, 1977 (Photo by NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images)

Saturday Night Live has been a staple part of the US TV diet for over 4 decades! But back when it started, it was pretty radical. How so? By getting the American establishment in its cross hairs during primetime. This was a first for network entertainment. SNL fired bite-sized chunks of comedy at an unsuspecting public, delivered by performers who went on to become the best in the business. Names such as Bill Murray, Jane Curtin, Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi and others.

Canadian-American Lorne Michaels has been running the show for most of its time on air. He started out on the Canadian Broadcasting Co and moved to the States as a writer in the late 60s. Amongst his credits were Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, a variety show not dissimilar to SNL.

Saturday Night Live Coneheads

Jane Curtin, Dan Aykroyd and Laraine Newman, in a still from their skit ‘The Coneheads’ in 1975. (Photo by Warner Bros./Getty Images)


Blues Brothers

Dan Aykroyd as Elwood Blues, John Belushi as Jake Blues of musical guest the Blues Brothers perform November 18, 1978 (Photo by Al Levine/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images)

Paired with young NBC exec Dick Ebersol in 1975, he was asked to devise a program that would fill an important gap in the schedule. This had been created when talk show legend Johnny Carson decided to ditch his weekend workload. For Michaels, then 30, it was an exciting opportunity to push the boundaries of what Saturday night TV could bring to a network audience.

Saturday Night Live 1970s

SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE Season 1 — Pictured: (back, l-r) Chevy Chase, John Belushi, Michael O’Donoghue, (middle, l-r) Gilda Radner, Jane Curtin, Laraine Newman, (front) Garrett Morris — Photo by: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank

“I thought if I could do a show that that I’d watch, that it would work,” he told the YES Network in 2008. “When I looked at the idea of doing 90 mins, I just sort of added up everything I was interested in, which was comedy and music and politics and films. And threw it all together… at the beginning I had the ingredients, I didn’t quite have the recipe.”

Gilda Radner

Gilda Radner as Roseanne Roseannadanna during “Weekend Update” in 1979 (Photo by NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images)


Dan Aykroyd SNL

Dan Aykroyd prepares to demonstrate the ‘Super Bass-O-Matic’ on a sketch from the TV comedy show ‘Saturday Night Live’, 1976. (Photo by Edie Baskin/Warner Bros./Archive Photos/Getty Images)

It took a little while for the series to come together in the way people know best. At first they titled it NBC’s Saturday Night. SNL didn’t come till the 2nd season. Debut host George Carlin also received some surprising feedback from NBC top brass. Surprising by today’s standards at least!

George Carlin

George Carlin hosting the first episode of SNL, 1975 Photo by: Herb Ball/NBCU Photo Bank

Michaels revealed “someone at the network who’s in charge of us wanted him in a suit. He felt we would lose the affiliates if he didn’t wear a suit. And he wanted to wear a t-shirt, which was a 1975 argument. So the compromise was he wore a suit with a t-shirt.”

George Carlin SNL

George Carlin with the suit and T-shirt on SNL — Photo by: Herb Ball/NBCU Photo Bank

Jane Curtin commented in a 2019 interview with the New Yorker that “Television was very highly produced and crisp and clean… So everybody was sort of perky and American-looking, and here were a bunch of people who didn’t quite look like they should be on television.”

OJ Simpson Gilda Radner Jane Curtin

Gilda Radner, OJ Simpson and Jane Curtin when OJ co-hosted the show. Getty Images

In fact the original cast, sourced from comedy improv groups like Second City, were tagged “The Not Ready for Prime Time Players”. The line up for the debut season included Chevy Chase, Curtin, Aykroyd, Belushi, Gilda Radner and Garrett Morris. NBC’s Saturday Night wasn’t warmly-received to begin with, but once it hits its stride the rest was hysterical history.

John Belushi

John Belushi during “John Belushi’s Dream” skit on March 12, 1977 (Photo by NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images)

Chevy Chase was identified as SNL’s first breakout star, though Michaels encountered him off-duty. “Chevy Chase I met on a line in LA,” he revealed to the YES Network, “a movie line, yeah.” He then added, “It was a certain kind of movie line, for a Monty Python film.”

Chevy Chase SNL

 Chevy Chase during “Weekend Update” — (Photo by: NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images)


Saturday Night Live 1970s

Jane Curtin and Chevy Chase play the role of a couple in bed with the Supreme Court Justices watching over them on Saturday Night Live. (Photo by Owen Franken/Corbis via Getty Images)

Chase hosted the high profile Weekend Update section, playing a newsreader. He also opened each show with physical comedy and a cry of “Live from New York, it’s Saturday night!” In one famous case he broke his groin when falling from a podium.

Bill Murray Steve Martin

Bill Murray as okna, Steve Martin as Caveman during the ‘The Hominids’ sketch — (Photo by: Alan Singer/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images)


Bill Murray SNL

Bill Murray as spokesperson, Gilda Radner as wife, Buck Henry as husband during the ‘Speci-Pak’ skit on November 10,1979 — (Photo by: Alan Singer/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images)

SNL in those days was the place where anything might happen. “You kept waiting for something to go horribly wrong,” Curtin said, “because it was live. But then it sort of grew into itself, and started being really funny.” Curtin eventually took over as host of Weekend Update.

Chevy Chase Dan Akyroyd Elliott Gould

SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE — Episode 22 — Air Date 05/29/1976 — Pictured: (l-r) Chevy Chase as Ramone Diarga, Elliott Gould as Moe Greenstein, Dan Aykroyd as Mr. Russo during “Foreign Card Playing” skit on May 29, 1976 (Photo by NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images)

While comedy and music jostled for position at first, it became clear making people laugh was the way to go. Early plans for a permanent host, thought to be Albert Brooks, were also scrapped. Another element of the show, a segment called The Land of Gorch, was a Jim Henson production. However there wasn’t an appetite for Muppets on SNL, so production was stopped shortly after the first year. It went on to influence Henson’s The Dark Crystal.

Andy Kaufman

Guest SNL performance by Andy Kaufman on October 11, 1975 — Photo by: Herb Ball/NBCU Photo Bank

Chase moved swiftly into movies and Bill Murray came on the scene in 1977. It took Murray a period to adjust, with the future star appearing strangely uncomfortable. He notoriously got into a mild altercation with his predecessor when Chase returned to guest host. Cast mates were angry over what they viewed as his abandonment of them.

Saturday Night Live

Pictured: (l-r) George Coe as bee, John Belushi as bee, Chevy Chase as bee, Gilda Radner as bee, Michael O’Donoghue as bee during the “Bee Hospital” skit on October 11, 1975 — Photo by: Herb Ball/NBCU Photo Bank


The Widettes SNL

Dan Akroyd as Bob Widette, John Belushi as Jeff Widette, and Jane Curtin as Betty Widette during the ‘The Widettes’ on December 16, 1978 — Photo by: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank


SNL The Widettes

Garrett Morris as Earl Bass, Cicely Tyson as Wilma Bass, Dan Aykroyd as Bob Widette, Jane Curtin as Betty Widette during the ‘The Widettes’ skit on February 10, 1979 — (Photo by: Al Levine/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images)

With SNL ruling the airwaves during the latter half of the Seventies, it faced an uncertain future by the start of the Eighties. Some players were doing hard drugs, with Belushi’s habit spiralling out of control. Many wanted to move on. Michaels thought it would be a good idea to put the show on hiatus for 6 months and bring in new people. With things not well between him and NBC, he left in 1980. 5 years later he was re-hired and has stayed ever since.

Lorne Michaels

Lorne Michaels during “The New Beatles Offer” skit on May 22, 1976 (Photo by NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images)

“Lorne really was the skipper of that show,” Curtin commented. “It was his baby. And it was very difficult to pass that on to somebody who didn’t understand what the premise was, what it was based on.” She went on to say, “I’m not really sure Lorne understands how to do it, but he does hire well.”

As for the head honco, he considers himself fortunate he got the chance to make SNL in the first place. “You couldn’t do this show now,” he said, speaking at the Cannes Lions event last year. “Mostly because of budget…. The depth of costumes, design, film, all of those plus the talent office and all of the people working with each other…you can’t start that now because we’re in an age of narrowcasting (an example being streaming services).”

Related Article: The Bad Blood Between Chevy Chase and Bill Murray which Erupted into a Fistfight

It may be traditional, but for millions of viewers Saturday Night Live still packs a comedic punch in today’s competitive and often volatile landscape.