Bonus Points: DVD Reviews

Thank God It's 'Saturday Night'

SNL
In their prime: Gilda Radner, Jane Curtin, Chevy Chase, Laraine Newman, Garrett Morris, John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd on "NBC's Saturday Night." (Universal Home Entertainment)
By Jen Chaney
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 5, 2006; 12:00 AM

"Saturday Night Live: The Complete First Season" (List price: $69.98)
Release Date: Dec. 5

That famous catchphrase -- "Live from New York, it's 'Saturday Night!'" -- was first uttered by a comically clumsy Chevy Chase on Oct. 11, 1975. But only now, more than three decades after that momentous occasion, is it finally possible to see a full season of "Saturday Night Live" on DVD.

The arrival of the first 24 episodes of "SNL" is cause for celebration, not only for fans of the original Not-Ready-for-Primetime Players but for any student of comedy. Sure, some of the '70s-era jokes may fly over the heads of anyone coming of age during the Amy Poehler era of "Saturday Night Live," but there's no denying the ground-breaking, flying-by-the-seat-of-their-pants vibe that crackles through even the less inspired early installments of the sketch comedy series. The original members of the "SNL" cast and crew were not merely reinventing the wheel. They were creating one from scratch, spokes and all.

That's why these episodes, all of which aired in 1975 and 1976, look drastically different from the "SNL" we know so well today. Multiple musical guests often performed throughout the 90-minute broadcasts. Jim Henson's Muppets regularly appeared, though they certainly used more sexual innuendo and consumed more liquor than their counterparts on "Sesame Street." Even the show's title, then merely "NBC's Saturday Night," didn't sound the same. (The "Live" was officially added in 1977, after Howard Cosell's ABC program, "Saturday Night Live," had disappeared from the airwaves.)

But much of the humor remains timeless. Many classic characters and sketches appear in this box set, from John Belushi's Samurai to Dan Aykroyd's commercial for the Bassomatic to Chase's wry reading of the news on Weekend Update. The hosts occasionally veer into semi-obscure, '70s-celebrity territory (see Louise Lasser), but many qualify as comic royalty: George Carlin, Lily Tomlin, Candice Bergen and especially Richard Pryor, who turns in a performance that dances very close to genius. Most impressively, all of the musical performances remain in tact, which means viewers get treated to deliciously retro sets by the likes of Billy Preston, Abba and Paul Simon.

Now, the bad news: When it comes to special features, this collection stumbles more noticeably than Chevy Chase during one of his pratfalls. The only extras include midly amusing screen tests for the seven cast members and Tom Snyder's brief interview with the cast and "SNL" creator Lorne Michaels. The commemorative booklet that comes with the box set features fun black-and-white photos, but no text or information about the show's history. In fact, the DVD offers very little context about "SNL's" influence or how it began, which is practically a crime given its cultural significance. The box set screams out for a documentary and some commentary tracks, but sadly, none are included.

Yet, despite its flaws, any "Saturday Night Live" scholar would be remiss to skip this collection. The picture quality and the features may not be the best, but the laughs are top-notch and the nostalgia-value is priceless. After all, it's "Saturday Night." And in the mid-1970s, you couldn't get much better than that.

Best Bonus Point: If you have some spare time, the screen tests are worth a glance. The most impressive ones come from Dan Aykroyd, who becomes numerous characters within the span of just six minutes; Jane Curtin, whose antics include an impromptu massage from Aykroyd; and Gilda Radner, who giggles her way through most of her test but still can't hide her lovable glow from the cameras.

Also on DVD This Week: "Miami Vice," "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" and more.

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