Saturday Night Live premiered on this day in 1975. When co-creators Lorne Michaels and Dick Ebersol conceived of SNL, they wanted “the first television show to speak the language of the time,” a show that escaped the pandering “need to please.” In the Samurai-speaking John Belushi, they knew they had a kindred, though perhaps uncontrollable, spirit: “In John’s first interview with Lorne,” recalls Judith Belushi, “one of the first things he said was, ‘My television has spit all over it.’ ”
Belushi’s comment is among those included in Live from New York, the 2002 oral history of the show compiled by Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller. Michaels says there that the credit for setting Belushi loose must be shared with Buck Henry, one of the first SNL hosts: “Buck so totally got it. When he got there he said, ‘Do you want to do the Samurai again?’ And we had never thought of repeating things until that moment.” Among Henry’s contributions to the book is this recollection of the sketch which turned Belushi’s unpredictability into a signature SNL moment:
On the Samurai sketches that I did with John, one never knew where it was going, because John’s dialogue could not be written. You never knew what was going to happen next. In “Samurai Stockbroker,” he cut my head open with the sword, but it was really my fault; I leaned in at the wrong time. And I bled all over the set.… A commercial came on right after the sketch, and someone shouted, “Is there a doctor around?” And John Belushi’s doctor was in the audience — which made me a little suspicious. So the guy came and put this clamp on my forehead. We went on with the show…. When “Weekend Update” came on, which was about 10 minutes later, Chevy [Chase] appeared with a bandage on his face. Then Jane [Curtin] had her arm in a sling. They featured the moment when I got hit by the sword on “Update” like it was a hot news item.… By the end of the show, when the camera pulls back, you see some of the crew are on crutches, others have bandages or their arms in slings. As if the whole show caught a virus. It was pretty funny. And the genius of Saturday Night Live, it seems to me, is encapsulated in that event.
Auspiciously, Bill Clinton and Hilary Rodham were married the same day as the SNL premiere. Bill Clinton holds the SNL record for Most Impersonated — 73 episodes, on all but three occasions by either Phil Hartman or Darrell Hammond.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.