Where do you start with a show that has been SO influential in all our lives? Well, I guess like everyone, all I REALLY know is the personal. I can tell you the story of a 15 year-old kid in Texas and how Saturday Night Live changed HIS life. It’s 1975, and it starts as it always does with a “cold open” and the first person you see is Michael O’Donoghue, reading to John Belushi:
“Repeat after me. I would like to feed your fingertips to the wolverines…”
I watched that first show and the all of the following episodes and fell in love with New York City. Five years later, I was living in that city and five years after that, I met one of my idols, Michael O’Donoghue. By then, he had left the show he helped create as its first head writer. We became great friends, much to my amazement and delight. I was a groomsman when he married the music director of SNL, Cheryl Hardwick. More on that later…
I don’t think you can overstate Michael’s influence on SNL. Looking back it seems that first year, that nearly every word out of those incredible actor’s mouths could have come out of his own. There WERE other great writers, but the “tone” of the show was set by Michael, no doubt about it. Yes, there were many other comedy and variety shows before that, but none had the subversive counter-culture vibe that we now take for granted. Michael came from the National Lampoon and his humor was widely known, so, he was one of the only guys who were really “established”, so to speak. Everyone else was really an unknown. Lorne Michaels said recently that the SNL of today would never have existed without had that first cast not happened the way they did. They had a HUGE impact on the culture at the time. NYC was broke, the Vietnam War had just ended and Watergate was still fresh news. The establishment (like NBC) was under attack and Michael lead the charge.
And of course, all of this is clear after watching the three and a half hour 40th anniversary extravaganza last night. What a show that was! Geez. If terrorists had attacked 30 Rock last night, today we’d be left with WHO to make us laugh? People have been trying to dismiss it outright for 40 years. I had a Facebook pal comment last night, “I stopped watching after the first season.” Wow. They really missed a LOT. The special tried to recap it all last night. Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake, arguably two of most well-liked young guys in the country, started the show off with an SNL tribute song and dance, and Steve Martin, one of the most widely liked old guys, plead the case for why comics were the best hosts over the years. People joked on social media about how OLD everyone looked, but it IS preferable to being in the “In Memoriam” segment Bill Murray introduced. (Billy opened the show 20 years ago to announce Michael’s sudden death on live TV, something unprecedented in it’s history.) …and there was Michael last night along with all his pals, Gilda Radner, John Belushi and on and on…
Last Thursday, Michael’s widow, Cheryl –now called just Quack– remarried and settled in Hawaii, in town to perform on the show, met me for lunch, catching up as we do every few years. She’s one of my favorite people on earth. We were friends before, when Michael was alive, but we became very close after his death. I organized the wake that the entire SNL alum world showed up for after Bill Murray made the live announcement, perhaps the last big SNL reunion, before last night’s blow-out. In the summer of ’95, I started making a documentary of his life (generously funded by Cheryl) filming at their house in Ireland, Garranbaun, where his ashes are scattered and at their West 16th Street brownstone. I’ve not yet completed the film, but made a teaser trailer years ago which I was going to share with you here. World of Wonder digitized it to upload to YouTube but moments after it was uploaded, NBC took it down as I don’t own the SNL footage. So, another time maybe. But 20 years ago Cheryl gave me, among many other treasured items belonging to Michael –including a Stickley chair he used to sit in to write– 200 or so paint by number paintings of his. He collected them and in ’92, I helped him organize an exhibit. Since then, I’ve collected some 2,000 more, given some on loan to the Smithsonian for a retrospective in 2000 and now they are the basis for my artwork. I will have been in New York 35 years this summer and my life today is due, in no small part, to Michael O’Donoghue. And if you’ve watched and loved the show over the years, then Mr. Mike changed YOUR life too. So, thanks, Michael. I’ll leave you with one of his endearing quotes:
“Laugh, you assholes!”
For highlights from SNL‘s 40th Anniversary Special, you can go here.