FINALLY, we've figured out what's wrong with Saturday Night Live to the point where it can legitimately be fixed. NBC finally released, in their unedited "glory" (more on that in a moment) the very first season of SNL, or "Saturday Night" as it was original called until Howard Cosell's show of the same name got cancelled. No need to go out and buy the entire set (again, we'll get to that), especially at itunes, you can order a complete unedited 90 minute show for only $1.99. It's worth a couple of bucks to get the Richard Pryor show, or the one where Chevy Chase first brought out "Landshark" (in a sketch called Jaws II ironically enough).
But taking a look at some of these episodes from the very first season, it's quite simple to figure out how to fix SNL in it's current incarnation.
No, more like fewer sketches. Here's what happened on the very first show alone, hosted by George Carlin: TWO musical guests (Billy Preston and Janis Ian) who EACH sang two songs, ('Nothing From Nothing" and "Fancy Lady" from the eternal fifth Beatle Preston and "At Seventeen" and "In The Winter" from Ian). This was also the show that marked the debut of Andy Kaufman (who would come back a few more times that season), a short film by Albert Brooks, and some stand-up by somebody named Valri Bromfield. And remember, this was the episode where they had to cut Billy Crystal's first appearance because they were so long on time.
That was just the first episode. Future episodes see bizarre appearances by Jim Henson's Muppets (seriously, I have no idea how this lasted beyond only one show), more Brooks films, but the second episode is where current staffers should start to pay attention. Paul Simon hosted, it was the show where he famously sang "Still Crazy after All These Years" dressed up as either a chicken or a turkey depending on your taste, and they STILL found room to bring back Art Garfunkel to do three songs with him. But that's not enough. Randy Newman was on to sing is classic "Sail Away". Phoebe Snow sang "No Regrets" (I know, I was hoping for "Poetry Man" too). And somehow, Simon still found room to sing three more songs ("Loves Me Like A Rock", "Marie" and "American Tune").
It's painfully obvious why they had more musical numbers and other films. A LOT of the sketches just weren't that good, or at least as not as good as we remember. We tend to all wax nostalgically about that first season, and justifiably the Bill Murray years (which were miles better than season 1 with Chase). Oh there are some incredibly great moments that still belong in the Hall of Fame. And for the most part, the shows are still much better than anything SNL has put on since Will Farrell left.
So the answer's quite obvious: It's still, after all of these years, a 90-minute show. Hell, even Johnny Carson had to cut down from 90 to 60 minutes. If you're going to keep things at 90 minutes (and I'm in the camp that says they should), then Lorne Michaels needs to rewatch a few of these old shows and realize that it ultimately needs to be a 90 minute VARIETY show. Book 2 more musical guests per week (Seriously, one of the greatest things about watching some of these shows are getting to see genuine live performances from people in the 70's you rarely see, especially from the likes of ABBA and Gordon Lightfoot). Take a chance on unknowns like Andy Kauffman was and try to create a buzz (let's face it, most of SNL's legendary moments involve the wild cards, from Sinead O'Connor ripping up the mug of the pope to Martin Lawrence having to have his monologue cut). But most of all, strip the show of unnecessary segments that just aren't funny. The best eras of the show are defined by the legendary stars. Chase (I actually forgot how funny he was from that first year, no wonder he busted out so quickly to cash in on movies). Billy Murray, John Belushi (who didn't bust out in a big way on the show until Chase left), especially Eddie Murphy (who probably saved the show from cancellation), through Phil Hartman and Farrell.
Go ahead and buy some of the episodes from 1975-76 on itunes. You'll be glad you did. No matter which one's you download, you'll see and feel the freshness and energy that the show hasn't had in years. It's not all legendary comedy, but it's enough of a history lesson to generations to come of how to right the ship.