In 2020, the popular NBC late-night comedy sketch show Saturday Night Live marked its 46th season. The iconic show has come a long way since premiering on October 11, 1975. During the ’70s, the cast had to create something out of nothing and they were wildly successful at it.
Once unknown comedians, many of the cast members, including Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, and Dan Aykroyd, went on to have successful acting careers. Now, let’s time travel back to those early days of Saturday Night Live by checking out some vintage photos from the set.
Lorne Michaels Created Saturday Night Live
There would be no Saturday Night Live if it weren’t for Lorne Michaels. He has been with the show since the beginning and is now the executive producer. There was a short period in the early ’80s when Michaels left the show, which led many of the original writers and cast members to leave as well.
Michaels is involved with just about every aspect of the show, including choosing the cast members each year and making sure that everything runs smoothly. Here, he’s pictured with Paul Simon as the famed musician was getting ready to perform with George Harrison.
The Opening Sketches
Saturday Night Live follows a certain format in order for the sketches and musical numbers to easily flow over the course of about an hour and a half. The opening sketch tends to be about current events, often politics, happening in the United States.
To signify that the first sketch is done, some of the cast members will shout, “Live from New York, it’s Saturday night!” Then, the announcer introduces the cast, musical guest, and host, with the SNL house band playing in the background. Here are Chevy Chase and Buck Rogers in a scene from episode 10 of the first season.
“Two Wild And Crazy Guys”
The audience can expect to see a celebrity host in every episode of Saturday Night Live. They will give out the opening monologue, introduce the musical guest, and star in most of the skits. During the 1970s, some popular hosts included Paul Simon, Lily Tomlin, and Steve Martin.
Martin is one of the most frequent hosts of the show, having done it a total of 15 times. He and Alec Baldwin always compete for the top spot, with Baldwin in the lead with 17 times. This photo shows Martin and his pal Dan Aykroyd doing their classic sketch, “Two Wild and Crazy Guys.”
Women Rule SNL
The women who were on SNL during the 1970s made a huge impact on the show’s success. The country was going through a women’s liberation movement at the time, so having a cast of talented men and women collaborating on numerous sketches was monumental.
This retro 1970s photo is from when Sissy Spacek came on the show to promote Carrie and got to act alongside cast members Gilda Radner and Laraine Newman. It’s easy to tell that they had a lot of fun, because they couldn’t stop smiling.
The Impressions Were Top-Notch
A lot of the sketches that make it onto SNL are based in satire. One way to hilariously do satire is to perform celebrity impressions. The cast members would do some of the best spot-on impressions. It’s hard to forget Dan Aykroyd’s Julia Child or Gilda Radner’s Baba Wawa (Barbara Walters).
The sketch pictured features Radner doing a hilarious impression of punk rock singer Patti Smith. She has everything down perfectly from the costume and mannerisms to the voice. Even today, many sketches on the show include the cast doing celebrity impressions.
ABBA Was A Memorable Musical Guest
Saturday Night Live isn’t non-stop comedy. There are a couple of breaks in the show where the audience can watch performances by famous musical guests. For many musicians, it’s an honor to get an opportunity to perform on the show. During the ’70s, top musical guests included The Rolling Stones, Patti Smith, and ABBA.
ABBA got to be one of the first musical guests on Saturday Night Live. According to AV Club, ABBA lip-synced to “Waterloo,” which enraged the show’s creator Lorne Michaels because he didn’t allow lip-syncing on the show.
“The Coneheads” Was A Popular Recurring Sketch
When a skit gets a lot of laughs on SNL, it will usually become a recurring feature. One of the earliest of these was “The Coneheads.” Dan Aykroyd, Jane Curtin, and Laraine Newman played an alien family with oddly-shaped heads who acted very abnormally.
Audiences couldn’t get enough of this wacky family. Aykroyd said he got the idea for the skit after seeing the ancient stone statues of Easter Island. The sketch was so popular that it was made into a movie and Frank Zappa wrote a song inspired by the characters.
“Weekend Update” With Chevy Chase
Part of the strict format of Saturday Night Live is a news break called “Weekend Update.” This is the segment of the show where one or two cast members will talk about the week’s current events and bring on some other cast members for brief, funny interviews.
Chevy Chase was the first person to host “Weekend Update,” which was considered one of the highlights of the first season. He would often work with Jane Curtin and Garrett Morris to come up with recurring gags such as Morris repeating (and yelling) what Chase just said for the “hard of hearing.”
John Belushi As A Samurai
John Belushi was one of the most memorable SNL cast members. He got to perform in a ton of original sketches and was a great scene-stealer. Belushi starred in the “Samurai Futaba” sketches from 1975 to 1979. The sketches would show him acting as a samurai in different jobs such as a hotel bellhop, dry cleaner, and TV repairman.
The photo of Belushi seen here is from the February 25, 1978, sketch titled “Samurai Night Fever.” He was famously mocking John Travolta’s dance moves from Saturday Night Fever.
Bill Murray Sang His Heart Out
After the first season, Chevy Chase decided to leave the show. SNL was left scrambling to find a good replacement, but they were able to discover one of Hollywood’s leading men before he was famous. Bill Murray was cast as Chase’s replacement and he hit the ground running the second he appeared onscreen.
Murray quickly assimilated into the cast and started to create many new and hilarious characters. He’s best remembered for “The Nerds,” “Father Guido Sarducci,” and “Nick the Lounge Singer.” This photo shows him singing a song as “Nick the Lounge Singer.”
Andy Kaufman Was A Special Guest On SNL
One of the most notable guests of Saturday Night Live during the 1970s was the offbeat comedian Andy Kaufman. He was invited on the show to do parts of his famous comedy acts such as “Foreign Man.” As the character, he would put on the track for the Mighty Mouse cartoon show and only lip-sync one specific part of the song.
After appearing on SNL, Kaufman’s fame grew and he was cast on the hit sitcom Taxi and many more comedic movies and TV shows. Today, he’s a legendary figure whose life has been featured in multiple films.
The Beatles Almost Reunited On The Show
A few of the members of the Beatles have appeared on SNL, but the four of them never reunited on the show together. When George Harrison was on an episode with Paul Simon, Lorne Michaels offered the Beatles $3,000 to do a reunion.
John Lennon and Paul McCartney were actually about a mile away from the SNL studio, but the two decided against going because they were too tired. Another highlight of this 1976 episode was Simon singing “Still Crazy After All These Years” while dressed in a hilarious turkey costume.
Chevy Chase In His Land Shark Costume
Chevy Chase holds the distinct honor of being the very first person to say, “Live from New York, it’s Saturday night.” Chase was the show’s first breakout star and was the first cast member to leave at the start of the second season.
His “Land Shark” character was a recurring skit on the show and one of the most popular during the first season. Chase was influenced by the 1975 film Jaws and the new hysteria over shark sightings. Lorne Michaels gave Chase the costume in 1983, but it was stolen from his Pacific Palisades home.
Jane Curtin Was SNL’s Straight-Man
Jane Curtin was one of the first female cast members of Saturday Night Live and stayed on the show for its first five seasons. She would often play the straight-laced characters because they matched her personality. Curtin was also “Weekend Update’s” first female anchor after replacing Chevy Chase in season two.
Her work on the show has been imitated by many and she’s gone on to do a lot more TV and film appearances including Kate & Allie and 3rd Rock from the Sun. Here, Curtin is seen doing a sketch with famous comedian Ray Goulding where they played a couple getting ready for bed.
Dan Aykroyd In The “Super Bass-O-Matic” Sketch
Certain SNL sketches will go down in history for being the most memorable. One that many viewers from the 1970s will likely remember is Dan Aykroyd’s “Super Bass-O-Matic” sketch. It was in the format of an infomercial where he put fish into a blender and the screen would cut to different people drinking it.
This skit set the precedent for numerous sketches in the years that followed. Almost all of the episodes of Saturday Night Live feature fake, satirical commercials. Some of these skits have included “Mom Jeans,” “Nike Turkey,” and “Five-Hour Empathy.”
John Belushi Hard At Work During Rehearsal
Before the cast goes out to perform live on Saturday night, they have to go through about a week-long rehearsal process. Writers give out scripts where the cast will read aloud a large number of sketches. The ones with the most laughs usually get chosen for the show.
Then, they will do wardrobe fittings, blocking, and a full run-through of the show. The run-through in front of a live audience and gives the cast a general idea of how people at home will react to the jokes. Next, they adjust the skits to match the general consensus. This photo shows John Belushi reading through his script with musician Stephen Bishop.
Willie Nelson Was An Early Guest
Almost every kind of musical genre has been performed on Saturday Night Live. Some of music’s most iconic artists have made their way onto the stage and will usually return years later. This vintage photo shows Willie Nelson’s first performance on SNL in 1977.
He returned in 1987 to host and be the musical guest and came back to be a musical guest with Paul Simon in 1993. There have been quite a few hosts who doubled as the musical guests such as The Rolling Stones, Frank Zappa, and Olivia Newton-John.
Candice Bergen Skates With “The Killer Bees”
“The Killer Bees” was the very first recurring skit on SNL. The cast would dress up in bee costumes and make humorous jokes and puns having to do with bees. The network told Lorne Michaels to cut the sketch after the first show, but that made him want to keep doing more.
After doing the sketch for about half the episodes in the first season, the cast grew tired of it and seldom performed it for the next five years. Most frequently filmed during the winter holidays, this photo shows “The Killer Bees” ice skating with actress Candice Bergen in Rockefeller Center.
John Belushi Signing Autographs
Many cast members who got their start on Saturday Night Live have become stars in their own right. John Belushi is seen here signing autographs for his fans after a taping of the show in 1977. He was one of the first breakout stars of SNL known for films such as National Lampoon’s Animal House and The Blues Brothers.
Before starring on Saturday Night Live, Belushi was part of Chicago’s The Second City comedy troupe. Many alumni of The Second City went on to become cast members on SNL including Bill Murray, Mike Myers, and Chris Farley.
The Cast Says Good Night
At the end of Saturday Night Live, the host will come out and thank everyone for watching. They are usually joined by the cast standing behind them waving goodbye to the viewers. This is the part of the show where everyone is on stage together to mingle and give some celebratory hugs.
Then, the SNL house band plays some light saxophone music to signify that the show is done for the night. Here is actor Peter Boyle (back row, center) closing out the Valentine’s Day 1976 episode with the original cast.