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Looking Back at ‘SNL’s First Year with Al Franken

We best know Al Franken as an author, political satirist and a radio show host on Air America. But in 1975, Franken was one of the writers for a little known late-night TV show called Saturday Night Live, a sketch-style live program starring a cast of unknown comedians–the very first crop of Not Ready for Prime Time Players, including: Chevy Chase, John Belushi, Dan Akroyd, Jane Curtin, Gilda Radner, Garrett Morris and Laraine Newman. For the first time in U.S. television history, people were exposed to fresh, edgy comic material that satirized all things topical. Now that the complete first 1975-76 season of SNL is available on DVD, Franken reminisces with Hollywood.com about what it was like creating the groundbreaking show.

Hollywood.com: Is it sort of strange talking about Saturday Night Live after all these years?
Al Franken: Well, it’s more strange talking about the first year [Laughs]. It’s been like, what, 31 plus years or so?

HW: How did you get the SNL gig originally?
AF: I was 24, fresh off the comedy circuit with Tom [Davis, Franken’s longtime writing partner]. An agent saw us and asked us if we’d like to get jobs as writers, because we wrote all our own stuff and he thought it was really good. We needed money, of course, because we weren’t making that much money doing stand up and were actually interested in writing. So we said sure. We put together a portfolio of stuff, which included a news segment, a commercial parody, a sketch, a film thing, and we got hired. We showed up, the first day of Saturday Night Live in July of 1975, and I met Chevy [Chase] and Gilda [Radner]. I turned to Tom and said, “Oh, this is going to be a giant hit!”

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HW: You knew right away.
AF: Yeah. Partly because when we wrote our portfolio of stuff, we wrote it for a show that didn’t exist. We weren’t right for anything that was actually on TV at the time. I mean, there was the Tonight Show, which was a really great show. [Johnny] Carson was the best. But we weren’t right for that. Carol Burnett was on, but we weren’t right for that either. And Sonny and Cher was on—and that was a terrible show. So we ended up on SNL, surrounded by people with the same basic sensibilities like us. And I thought, well, this the first time our generation, the generation who grew up watching television, was going to get to do a television show. And it’s going to be a huge break through.

HW: Did you know any of the players before the show, like Chevy Chase or Gilda Radner?
AF: The only guy I had met before was [John] Belushi. I met him through Harold Ramis. Chevy had come from Lemmings Theater and from the National Lampoon radio hour, along with Ramis. Danny [Akroyd] came from Second City. We were definitely all in the same circles. All these people, there were these parallel groups, like SCTV, which came a little bit later [after SNL]. But you know, Lorne [Michaels] selected an incredible group of people. He was able to because none of us had real jobs. Now of course, it’s a lot harder because a really good comedian can get work elsewhere. There really wasn’t any place else for us to work. We were incredibly lucky, me and Tom and everybody, to be associated with the show. To be part of that. A great experience, just a rare, unbelievable treat to do that.

HW: What was Lorne Michaels like back then compared to now? Has he mellowed a bit?
AF: I’m not sure mellowing is what he did, but at the time, he was really there all the time. I don’t think you can do that for 31 years, so he has had to, by its very definition, define what he does and what he doesn’t do. But back then, he’d be there all night. I remember when Tom and I would write something, Lorne would ask, “Is it the BEST thing you’ve ever written?” And I’d go, “Oh, you know? It isn’t.” “Well, go back and make it the BEST thing you’ve ever written.” I’d literally say, “Oh, OK, you’re right!” And I’d have to make it the BEST thing I’ve ever written. It took us years before we said, “Hey, wait a minute! We can’t ALWAYS write the best thing ever!” We caught on, but for awhile he fooled us into writing the best things we’ve ever written.

HW: Have you watched any episodes of the new shows mirroring SNL, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip or 30 Rock?
I really haven’t been able to. I think I’ve seen one or two of each but because I do this radio show [on Air America] every day, I really don’t have that much time to watch TV. I do watch the new SNL, though.

HW: Still a faithful viewer then?
AF: If I’m home at 11:30, it’s a habit. I turn on the show. They have a great cast now, love the cast.

HW: Why do you think Saturday Night Live has lasted as long as it has?
I think it’s a number of things. One, it’s Lorne. Two, it’s the format. We just created a great format, with a new host every week, which generates a new thing. And we have the music. Then you have a cast that becomes the star of the show. But mostly because its live television. You can do topical stuff. And also there’s an excitement to live TV—no editing, which is good. Just power down and you’re done.

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