A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live by Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad, is a well detailed and no holds barred history of the early years of SNL. The bulk of the book covers the first five seasons with the "Not Ready For Prime Time Players", with a few chapters on the 1980s and the rise of Eddie Murphy.
For American television in the 1970s, Saturday Night Live signaled a new era. TV comedy appealed mostly to a middle aged audience with humor from a bygone era. There were precursors to SNL such as The Smothers Brothers and Laugh-In. In England, Monty Python set the template for SNL: witty and irreverent.
Lorne Michaels, a comedy writer and producer from Canada envisioned a Saturday night TV show to reflect the counterculture ethos: confrontational, irreverent, loud, taking on the powers that be. In the mid 70s, Saturday night remained a dead zone of reruns and old movies.
Saturday Night Live debuted on October, 11 1975 with George Carlin hosting. While the first show looks unremarkable in retrospect, it did set the tone for what was to come. Unable to perform in skits, Carlin performed his stand up material. One routine mocked the idea of God, setting network executives through the roof. The opening sketch with Belushi and Michael O'Donoghue set the tone.
The first season of SNL could very well be the best. Chevy Chase dominated the season. A veteran of National Lampoon, a syndicated radio show and magazine, Chase epitomized their fratboy/political humor the show continues to this day. Chase portrayed President Gerald Ford as a clueless klutz who fell down all time may have tipped the scales in favor of Jimmy Carter.
When Hollywood came calling Chase left midway through the second season. And the show evolved into something else entirely.
John Belushi, long resentful of Chase's success (envy and jealousy plagued SNL), proved the most funniest and unpredictable cast member with countless classic skits that still hold up, my favorite is the "no coke, pepsi skit" set in a deli. A Jekyll and Hyde personality, Belushi had the reputation of blowing up at anyone without notice (and would usually immediately apologize). As his star rose after the Box Office smash of Animal House, his drug use and erratic behavior increased, often too drunk or high to perform on live television, but even in his inebriated state he was electric.
Dan Aykroyd, according to Eric Idle was the only SNL member who could've made it as a Python, proved the most dynamic writer and performer. A mysterious character who believed in the supernatural and UFOs seemed an enigma to many on the show. He found a soulmate in Belushi. They created the Blues Brothers together which turned into a hit film.
Bill Murray replaced Chevy Chase and seemed the most unlikely of all to have the most successful movie career. A native of Chicago, Murray was a working class tough from Chicago who liked to start fist fights. When Belushi and Aykroyd left the show, Murray had to carry their weight. He went on to a successful movie career with Stripes and Ghostbusters and in recent years reinvented himself as a hipster deity.
The female members of the original cast typically had to step aside for the guys. Gilda Radner created many memorable characters, including "The Nerds." Lorraine Newman's refusal to do recurring characters and instead be a chameleon by playing all sorts of roles. Jane Curtain, known for distancing herself from the rest of the cast, basically saw SNL as just another job. Her rivalry with Belushi often veered from friendly to hostile.
The 80s proved a shaky decade. Only when Eddie Murphy came along did the show find its footing. Murphy's work on the show remains unsurpassed: pure comedic genius.
At the heart of SNL is a drama of excess, ego, addiction, rivalry and creativity. Drug humor proved a big part of the early years and it's well known most of the cast partook in the drug of the era - cocaine. The untimely death of Belushi at age 33 seemed an indictment of 70s and 80s show business culture above all else.
For anyone looking for a definitive account of the early years of SNL, this is the book to read.
Also, see Live From New York by Tom Shales to hear from the actual players themselves.