|History of Saturday Night Live series:
(seasons 1, 2, 3, 4, 5)
(seasons 6, 7, 8, 9, 10)
(seasons 11, 12, 13, 14, 15)
(seasons 16, 17, 18, 19, 20)
(seasons 21, 22, 23, 24, 25)
(seasons 26, 27, 28, 29, 30)
(seasons 31, 32, 33, 34, 35)
(seasons 36, 37, 38, 39, 40)
(seasons 41, 42, 43, 44)
From 1965 until September 1975, NBC ran The Best of Carson reruns of The Tonight Show, airing them on either Saturday or Sunday night at local affiliates' discretion (originally known as The Saturday/Sunday Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson). In 1974, Johnny Carson announced that he wanted the weekend shows pulled and saved so that they could be aired during weeknights, allowing him to take time off.
In 1974, NBC president Herbert Schlosser approached his vice president of late night programming, Dick Ebersol, and asked him to create a show to fill the Saturday night time slot. At the suggestion of Paramount Pictures executive Barry Diller, Schlosser and Ebersol then approached Lorne Michaels. Over the next three weeks, Ebersol and Michaels developed the latter's idea for a variety show featuring high-concept comedy sketches, political satire, and music performances that would attract 18- to 34-year-old viewers. By 1975, Michaels had assembled a talented cast, including Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris, Laraine Newman, Michael O'Donoghue, Gilda Radner, and George Coe. The show was originally called NBC's Saturday Night, because Saturday Night Live was in use by Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell on the rival network ABC. After the cancellation of the Cosell show, NBC purchased the rights to the name in 1976 and officially adopted the new title on March 26, 1977.
Debuting on October 11, 1975, the show quickly developed a cult following, eventually becoming a mainstream hit and spawning (in 1978) "Best of Saturday Night Live" compilations that reached viewers who could not stay awake for the live broadcasts. But during the first season in 1975 and 1976, according to a book about the show authored by Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad, some NBC executives were not satisfied with the show's Nielsen ratings and shares. Lorne Michaels pointed out to them that Nielsen's measurement of demographics indicated that baby boomers constituted a large majority of the viewers who did commit to watching the show, and many of them watched little else on television. In 1975 and 1976, they were the most desirable demographic for television advertisers, even though Generation X was the right age for commercials for toys and other children's products. Baby boomers far outnumbered Generation X in reality but not in television viewership with the exception of Michaels' new show and major league sports, and advertisers had long been concerned about baby boomers' distaste for the powerful medium. NBC executives eventually understood Michaels' explanation of the desirable demographics and they decided to keep the show on the air despite many angry letters and phone calls that the network received from viewers who were offended by certain sketches.
They included a Weekend Update segment on April 24, 1976, the 18th episode, that ridiculed Aspen, Colorado murder suspect Claudine Longet and warranted an on-air apology by announcer Don Pardo during the following episode. Herminio Traviesas, a censor who was vice president of the network's Standards and Practices department, objected to cast member Laraine Newman's use of the term "pissed off" in the March 13, 1976 episode with host Anthony Perkins, according to the book by Hill and Weingrad, and was in the process of placing the show on a permanent delay of several seconds, instead of live, but he changed his mind after Newman personally apologized to him.
Chevy Chase left the show in November of the second season and was replaced a few months later by the then-unknown comic actor Bill Murray. Aykroyd and Belushi left the show in 1979 after the end of season four. In May 1980 (after season five), Michaels—emotionally and physically exhausted—requested to put the show on hiatus for a year to give him time and energy to pursue other projects. Concerned that the show would be cancelled without him, Michaels suggested writers Al Franken, Tom Davis, and Jim Downey as his replacements. NBC president Fred Silverman disliked Franken, and was infuriated by Franken's Weekend Update routine called "A Limo For A Lame-O", a scathing critique of Silverman's job performance at the network and his insistence on traveling by limousine at the network's expense. Silverman blamed Michaels for approving this Weekend Update segment. Unable to get the deal he wanted, Michaels chose to leave NBC for Paramount Pictures, intending to take his associate producer, Jean Doumanian, with him. Michaels later learned that Doumanian had been given his position at SNL after being recommended by her friend, NBC vice president Barbara Gallagher. Michaels' departure led to most of the cast and writing staff leaving the show.
The reputation of the show as a springboard to fame meant that many aspiring stars were eager to join the new series. Doumanian was tasked with hiring a full cast and writing staff in less than three months, and NBC immediately cut the show's budget from the previous $1 million per episode down to just $350,000. Doumanian faced resentment and sabotage from the remaining Michaels staff, particularly males who did not appreciate a woman believing she could take Michaels' place. The season was a disaster; ratings plummeted, and audiences failed to connect to the original cast's replacements, such as Charles Rocket and Ann Risley. Doumanian's fate was sealed when, during a sketch, Rocket said "fuck" on live television. After only ten months, Doumanian was dismissed. Although executives suggested that SNL be left to die, network chief Brandon Tartikoff wanted to keep the show on the air, believing that the concept was more important to the network than money. Tartikoff turned to Ebersol as his choice for the new producer. Ebersol previously had been fired by Silverman. Ebersol gained Michaels's approval in an attempt to avoid the same staff sabotage that had blighted Doumanian's tenure.
Ebersol's tenure saw commercial success, but was considered lackluster compared to the Michaels era, except for the breakout of new cast member Eddie Murphy during the 1980–81 sixth season. Murphy, the main draw of the cast, left in 1984 to pursue his already successful film career, and Ebersol decided to again rebuild the cast. He broke with history by hiring established comedians such as Billy Crystal and Martin Short who could bring their already successful material to the show. Ebersol's final year with this new cast is considered one of the series' funniest, but had strayed far from the precedent-shattering show that Michaels had created. After that season, Ebersol wanted a more significant revamp, including departing from the show's established "live" format. Following unsuccessful forays into film and television, in need of money, and eager not to see Tartikoff cancel the show, Michaels finally returned in 1985 after Ebersol opted out. The show was again recast, with Michaels borrowing Ebersol's idea to seek out established actors such as Joan Cusack and Robert Downey Jr. The cast and writers struggled creatively, and in April 1986, Tartikoff made the decision to cancel the show, until he was convinced by producer Bernie Brillstein to give it one more year. The show was renewed but for the first time in its history, for only thirteen episodes instead of the usual twenty-two. Michaels again fired most of the cast and, learning his lesson from the previous seasons, sought out unknown talent such as Dana Carvey and Phil Hartman instead of known names.
The show ran successfully again until it lost Carvey and Hartman, two of its biggest stars, between 1992 and 1994. Wanting to increase SNL's ratings and profitability, then-NBC West Coast president Don Ohlmeyer and other executives began to actively interfere in the show, recommending that new stars such as Chris Farley and Adam Sandler be fired because Ohlmeyer did not "get" them, and critiquing the costly nature of performing the show live. The show faced increasing criticism from the press and cast, in part encouraged by the NBC executives hoping to weaken Michaels's position. Michaels received a lucrative offer to develop a Saturday night project for CBS during this time, but remained loyal to SNL. By 1995, Farley and Sandler were fired, and Mike Myers, another popular cast member, had left for a film career, but a new cast featuring Will Ferrell, Jimmy Fallon, and Tina Fey proved promising. The show focused on performers, and writers were forced to supply material for the cast's existing characters before they could write original sketches. By 1997, Ohlmeyer renewed his focus on limiting Michaels's independence, forcing the removal of writer Jim Downey and cast member Norm Macdonald.