This new box set cherry picks 33 complete episodes from the first five years of Saturday Night Live, acting as something of a sampler for the full-season sets that remain available. I’m not entirely sure who the target audience is here, as hardcore fans of the early years will undoubtedly opt for the full seasons, but this is a good abbreviated way to get the flavor of the show during the full run of the original cast. The video quality isn’t the greatest, especially around the discolored frame edges, entirely due to the original videotaped format that likely wasn’t preserved all that well at first. Still, this collection is a stellar reminder of just how revolutionary and impressive the show was during its earliest incarnation.
The original cast members are all legends now, but here we see them taking their first shots at stardom and finding their way in an entirely new late-night format. Chevy Chase as a bumbling idiot Gerald Ford; Coneheads with Dan Aykroyd, Jane Curtain and Larraine Newman; Gilda Radner as Baba Wawa and Roseanne Roseannadanna; Aykroyd and Belushi as the Blues Brothers; Bill Murray as a lounge singer; and many more classic characters. As a lifelong fan of the show, I really enjoyed reconnecting with these earliest appearances, with many skits still seared in my memory since childhood and still hilarious today. That’s not to say everything has aged well, as certain skits are more cringe-inducing in our enlightened present, such as Belushi’s Samurai character.
As a new show without its current baggage of 45 years of precedence, things were a bit more experimental in the early years. The Muppets had recurring appearances, something I had no memory of, and while the characters were all exclusive to SNL and decidedly more adult in nature, there’s no mistaking the voice actors including Jim Henson himself. Albert Brooks presented recurring artsy films, not even comedic at times but certainly unlike anything viewers could find anywhere else. Weekend Update used to have phony commercial breaks in the middle. The debut episode with George Carlin found him performing multiple times throughout the episode rather than one big monologue at the beginning. It’s really interesting to review the genesis of the concept into its current well-worn format, seeing what didn’t really work and what might have still been good today.
The weekly hosts aren’t much of a surprise, aside from the whopping seven episodes hosted by Steve Martin, a guest who appeared on the show so frequently in the ‘70s people still think he was part of the original cast. Unfortunately, Buck Henry also hosted many times in the early days, so we get five of his total ten appearances in the set. He’s the stolid, dry wit opposite of the wild and crazy Martin, and as a result, each of his appearances have lower appeal. Elsewhere, Richard Pryor put in a fantastic hosting appearance at the height of his comedic powers, while Chevy Chase returned as host in an included Season 3 episode, and other luminaries include Candice Bergen, Charles Grodin, Eric Idle, Madeline Kahn, Elliott Gould, Fred Willard, Carrie Fisher, and Walter Matthau. Then there are the head-scratchers, because it wouldn’t be SNL without some questionable guests (hello, Charles Barkley), with now-forgotten hosts Michael Sarrazin, Jack Burns, and Ron Nessen. I guess the classic sketches in their episodes made their inclusion necessary, but it’s a chore to get through their featured performances.
In addition to the weekly host, the early episodes also gave billing to special guests, unlike today’s unannounced celebrity appearances like Alec Baldwin and Maya Rudolph. Lily Tomlin contributed a stunning monologue as a guest during a Steve Martin episode, while Andy Kaufman performed his ridiculous rendition of the Mighty Mouse theme during another, and NYC Mayor Ed Koch appeared during the episode hosted by the Rolling Stones. As for unbilled appearances, it's amusing to see Al Franken and his writing partner Tom Davis pop up in skits from time to time, years before he became a legitimate cast member.
It wouldn’t be Saturday Night Live without musical guests, and this set has some real gems including the Rolling Stones, Blondie, Devo, Paul Simon, George Harrison, the Kinks, Frank Zappa, and of course, the Blues Brothers.
The discs are separated into two sturdy cases housed in a flimsy slipcase with a booklet, with six discs in each case. Each disc has either two or three complete episodes, with bonus features padding out the two-episode discs. Those bonus features are all archival and comprise a mix of behind-the-scenes footage including original screen tests along with cast interviews conducted during their run. The best bonus might be an amazing Tom Snyder interview with the full cast and Michaels that served as a promo appearance before the premiere show even aired, with none of the participants having any idea of the lasting legacy they were about to create. The bonus features also include the original screen tests of all of the players and Andy Kaufman, a “wardrobe test” with Belushi and composer Howard Shore clowning around, and Today Show interviews with Radner and Belushi. Even if you’ve seen and still remember all of the episodes, the rare bonus features add a great amount of appeal to this set.