Thursday, May 26, 2016


When Lorne Michaels started up Saturday Night Live in 1975, he had assumed it would be a stepping stone to bigger and better things. NBC had only given him the time slot because it had been airing reruns of The Tonight Show on Saturday nights and it needed to find something else to show. Johnny Carson had felt that the reruns were cutting into the future syndication value of the show and wanted NBC to show something else. They brought in Lorne and gave him the opportunity to put something together with minimal interference. He put together a show that became an instant sensation- Saturday Night Live.

NBC was thrilled with the show's success, but it had made a glaring error. Unsure of the show's potential, it had only locked in the show's talent for five years. (The standard is usually seven.) The show had made Lorne and his cast household names and they became impatient towards the end, waiting for their contracts to expire. Chevy Chase, who would only agree to sign for one season was the first to leave, quickly taking on huge projects. With none of the original cast onboard with going past five seasons, Lorne Michaels decreed that as far as he was concerned, the fifth season would be the last one. NBC had other plans.


The network hired Jean Doumanian, one of the show's writers, to keep the show going. With no returning talent, she recast the show completely. The new cast would have huge shoes to fill. When the show returned in Fall of 1980, a large audience greeted its return. They were terribly disappointed. It wasn't that viewers wouldn't accept change- the show was just awful. NBC began to think it had made a mistake.


Things came to a head when Charlene Tilton of Dallas fame hosted the show. The infamous "Who Shot J.R.?" storyline had captivated the country. Having one of the young, attractive stars from television's hottest show would certainly bring back viewers. NBC felt certain that this episode could turn the show's fortunes around. It would actually have quite the opposite effect.

The writers decided to have a corny recurring sketch in which it is announced that Charles Rocket, the Weekend Update anchor, was "shot" like J.R. The show wound down to its eventual conclusion with some time to kill at the end. During good nights, Ms. Tilton was asked to stretch things out, so she decided to ask him how he felt like to be shot. His response included an F-Bomb. NBC had toyed with the idea of canceling the show before and this incident was the last straw. Doumanian was dismissed as was Charles Rocket.


Enter Dick Ebersole. He had wanted the producer position when Lorne left the show, but he was passed over for Doumanian. While NBC merely expected him to just wind things down, he sought to convince them that he could fix things if given at least one more season. NBC just wanted him to get the last two scheduled episodes completed. (It had canceled the rest of that season's shows.) Ebersole decided to highlight the two strongest comedians on the show- Joe Piscopo and Eddie Murphy, who had been shamefully underused by Doumanian. Things seemed to improve and the network was ecstatic about Eddie Murphy. They were certain that he could be a breakout star. 

When the season ended, Ebersole won out. NBC would give the show at least one more season to prove itself. Everyone except for Piscopo and Murphy were fired and a new cast was brought in. NBC's risk paid off. Eddie Murphy became a sensation. This show was saved.