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By Saturday Night, Were They Still Alive? : Backstage in the Early, Chaotic, Glory Days of NBC-TV's Comedy Hit

March 23, 1986|DOUG HILL and JEFF WEINGRAD | Doug Hill is a staff writer for TV Guide . Jeff Weingrad is an editor at Women's World magazine.

"Saturday Night Live" was chaotic by design. From producer Lorne Michaels on down, the production philosophy of the live, late-night comedy show that NBC put together in 1975 was that inspiration, accident and passion were of greater value than discipline, habit and control. "Saturday Night" was the first program of its kind to commit itself consciously to the subconscious, to emulate as much as it could the spirit of artistic abandon embodied and endorsed by the gods of 20th-Century hip. Baudelaire, William Blake, D. H. Lawrence, William Burroughs, Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, Lenny Bruce, Ken Kesey, the Beatles and Hunter S. Thompson were as much the fathers of "Saturday Night" as Kovacs, Carson, Benny and Berle. Dan Aykroyd called it Gonzo Television. They were video guerrillas, he'd say. Every show was an assault mission.

Michaels was very much a child of the television generation, and something of an angry young man of the '60s as well. He was the sort of man that women described as "cute"--sweet-faced and slight of build, intensely funny but, beneath the jokes, intensely serious. He was also very smart, and something of a dreamer. The Hawaiian shirts and reindeer-patterned ski sweaters he wore were casual but carefully chosen. His dark hair had a flyaway quality, as if he'd just come out of the wind.

What distinguished Michaels more than anything was his love of television. He not only worked in TV (he won an Emmy in 1974 for writing a Lily Tomlin special), but he also watched it, constantly. It was said that when Michaels moved from his room on the second floor of the Chateau Marmont to one on the seventh, he had to be picked up and carried upstairs in his chair during a commercial.

The slowest day of the week was Monday. Everyone showed up at 5:30 or so for the writers' meeting in Michaels' office. The host would be introduced to the group and the writers would toss up for consideration whatever ideas they were working on, if any. People often pretended they had some great things in mind even if they didn't, since the meeting served the function of assuring the host that, yes, there was a good chance there'd be 66 minutes of material--the amount of actual program time without commercials--written by Saturday night. It was a sure bet there wasn't much written by Monday.

Pitches in the writers' meetings ranged from full-blown sketch ideas to oblique one-sentence summaries. Chevy Chase was one of the most animated pitchers: He'd fall all over the room and the people in it acting out a bit he wanted to do. Dan Aykroyd sometimes gave full-scale manic performances in which he'd play several parts in several different voices, leaping up on chairs and desks, doing the entire sketch and then storming out of the room. Marilyn Miller, on the other hand, usually offered only the barest outline of an idea. "Well, Lorne," she'd say, "I'm working on a piece where Danny is a Hammond organ salesman in a shopping mall with the organ going around on a turntable."

Other writers would chime in with suggestions, offers to work on a piece, derisive comments or gratuitous remarks. Michaels would sit back, at ease (Michael Palin, a member of Monty Python who hosted "Saturday Night" several times, described Michaels as "the very definition of laid-back"), throwing out comments and jokes of his own.

"I don't have anything this week, Lorne," Anne Beatts said once, "but I noticed that if you fold a grapefruit juice label like this, it looks just like a little mouth."

"Information is always acceptable in lieu of ideas," Michaels said.

When the writers' meeting broke up, various pairings would generally go out to dinner, during which ideas would frequently be fleshed out on place mats, napkins, menus, matchbooks or checks. By midnight a majority of the writers were back in the show's offices on NBC's 17th floor, where they'd often work through most of the night. The serious all-nighter, however, was Tuesday, because pieces had to be in some reasonable shape for the read-through Wednesday afternoon.

The unspoken rule was that the more time spent on 17, the more material one was likely to get on the show. The writers were there virtually nonstop from Monday night till Wednesday morning and sometimes for 16-hour days the rest of the week. Of the cast members who weren't writers, Gilda Radner was probably the most dedicated. She hung around constantly, handing out Linzer tortes and improvising ideas that often turned into sketches. If she went home to sleep she kept her telephone next to her in bed, always ready to come back to work on a piece. She once showed up on 17 in her pajamas at 2 a.m., claiming she'd actually been dressed when the writer called but that she'd changed into more appropriate attire to come to the office.

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