October 11, 2015, marks the 40th anniversary of the first episode of Saturday Night Live. Originally titled NBC’s Saturday Night, the show was initially conceived by creator Lorne Michaels as a mere six-episode stop gap to fill a slot formerly held by Johnny Carson reruns. Now in its 41st season, the variety and sketch comedy show has become one of the longest-running and most popular series in television history, launching the careers of everyone from John Belushi, Chevy Chase and Eddie Murphy to Will Ferrell, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Jimmy Fallon; spawning films such as The Blues Brothers, Wayne’s World and MacGruber; and boasting a mind-boggling array of guest hosts, musical performances and cameo appearances.
Saturday Night Live established this blueprint for success right out of the gate, bolstering its immensely talented original cast with comedian George Carlin, who sat in as the show’s first guest host. Then 38 years old, Carlin was experiencing something of a career renaissance, having reinvented himself after shedding the clean-cut image and material that had made him a regular—and frequent guest host—on The Tonight Show. By the time he appeared on SNL in 1975, Carlin had established himself as a counterculture icon, typically sporting long hair, a beard and casual clothing during his performances and adopting a free-association comedic style that consisted of biting social commentary. His first offering in that vein, 1972’s AM & FM, would win the Grammy Award for best comedy album, but it would be Carlin’s second album from that year, Class Clown, that would truly cement his outsider reputation. A profanity-focused segment from that recording titled “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” not only remains one of Carlin’s most famous, but also became a central item in the Federal Communications Commission v. Pacifica Foundation Supreme Court case that would ultimately grant the FCC the power to prohibit the broadcast of “indecent” material.
Stick It to the Man
It was with these lofty antiestablishment credentials to his name that Carlin made his historic appearance on Saturday Night. Following the show’s opening sketch, which featured John Belushi as an ESL student and ended with Chevy Chase delivering the show’s now-famous tagline, “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!” Carlin emerged from the balcony level of the audience and made his way down to the stage wearing . . . a suit??? Yes. Jeopardizing Carlin’s street cred, the network insisted he wear formal attire for his performance, which he half obliged by donning a sharp, dark-blue three-piece ensemble . . . over a T-shirt. Further sticking it to the Man, by all accounts, he was also incredibly stoned.
Whereas typically a guest host on SNL will appear for an opening monologue and then in subsequent sketches, Carlin was given the opening monologue as well as three subsequent segments, during which he delivered his characteristic brand of humor, albeit without the inclusion of some of the words that had made him famous. Praising SNL as a welcome respite from the deluge of baseball and football games on television at that time of year, Carlin’s first segment was an investigation of the differences between the two sports and the language surrounding them, opining that football is the less flaky, more American of the two, based as it is on territorial expansion: “Knock the crap out of 11 guys and take their land from them,” he says in summary, before going on to elaborate with such insights as “In football, you get a penalty. In baseball, you make an error . . . whoops!”
A Star Studded Lineup
As interesting as Carlin’s bits are many of the segments that they fall between, including musical performances by Billy Preston and an early television appearance from Andy Kaufman, who displayed his penchant for offbeat humor in a sketch consisting of him playing and lip syncing to a record of the Mighty Mouse cartoon song. (The segment was left in the final run of the show over a scheduled performance by Billy Crystal, much to Crystal’s chagrin.) Following Kaufman, Carlin returned to the stage to ask the audience such questions as “Ever look at the crowds in old movies and wonder if they’re dead yet?” and “What do dogs do on their day off?” Alongside what may now seem like dated jokes, Carlin made one observation that now reads as something of a poignant historical juxtaposition, noting that after passing through airport security one is given a knife, a fork and “as much wine as you can drink. I mean, I could take over a plane with a piece of loose-leaf paper, right? Just hold it to the stewardess’s head and threaten paper cuts!”
After a cameo by Paul Simon, who would host the show’s second episode; the debut of SNL’s longest-lasting segment, “Weekend Update,” anchored by Chevy Chase; and a strange sketch featuring the Muppets, Carlin returned to the stage to decry the nonexistence of blue food, give advice on the transportation of “vitamins,” and point out that the term “jumbo shrimp” is an oxymoron. “It’s like ‘military intelligence,” he says. “The words don’t go together, man.”
Not So Ready for Primetime
Following sketches that included the ensemble piece “Bee Hospital”—with the core cast of Jane Curtin, Dan Aykroyd, Laraine Newman, Garrett Morris, Gilda Radner, John Belushi and Chevy Chase starring as bees in a maternity ward—Carlin performed his fourth and most edgy bit, which he devoted to God and religion. After joking about bugging God on Sundays, his day off, and then questioning the notion of his perfection (“Everything he has ever made died!”), Carlin closes with this observation: “Religion at best is like a lift in your shoe. If you need it for a while and it makes you walk straight and feel better, fine. But you don’t need it forever or you can become permanently disabled. Religion is like a lift in the shoe, and I say just don’t ask me to wear your shoes, and let’s not go down and nail lifts on the natives’ feet.” More sketches and encore performances by Billy Preston and Janis Ian (a more or less one-hit wonder lost to time), Carlin appears one final time for “goodnights” and to plug his newly released album, An Evening With Wally Londo Featuring Bill Slaszo.
Carlin would go on to become one of the most successful and influential comedians of all time, touring the world and making countless appearances on stage, television and film. He died of heart failure on June 22, 2008, at the age of 71.