On October 11, 1975, television made another watershed conquest. It absorbed and thus ended the so-called counterculture. Within a few weeks of the premiere telecast of "NBC's Saturday Night Live," the idea that the Truly Hip don't watch TV was buried.
People who said "I never watch television" before "Saturday Night Live" were considered intelligent, moral and chic. People who say "I never watch television" now are simply Out Of It.
The joke at the heart of the term "Not Ready for Prime Time Players," formerly used to describe the regular cast of the program, is that while they were as ready as heck, prime time wasn't quite ready for them.Tonight, apparently, it is, because NBC is going to toss out a handful of highlights from the series' first 3 1/2 seasons on "The Best of Saturday Night Live, Part 1," on Channel 4 at 9:30.
The "Part 1" in the title, indicating further samplers to come, attests that this is anything but an all-inclusive look at the program's best and most irreverent moments, but the assortment is representative, diverse and as satisfying as a consummated tease can be. It begins as the very first program began on that October night at the crest of the '70s, with John Belushi and writer Michael O'Donahue in a short Dada-esque sketch that sets a defiantly off-every-wall tone for the special and for the shows that followed.
Soon, through the magic of videotape, Chevy Chase has returned as the teacherous land shark at Candice Bergen's door in "Jaws II," with Belushi doing a wickedly fidgety impersonation of Richard Dreyfuss; Gilda Radner and Dan Aykroyd join Chase in extolling the new miracle product "Shimmer," a floor wax that thinks it's a dessert topping, and is right; and we are teleported back to the first earthly appearance of The Coneheads, Fred and Joyce (Aykroyd and Jane Curtin) and daughter Connie (Laraine Newman).
Radner returns as RoseAnn Roseannadanna; Steve Martin and Aykroyd play those swinging Czech bachelor brothers, the Festrunks, fanatical in their quest for "big American breasts'; Belushi performs daring sword feats for Buck Henry at the "Samurai Delicatessen"; and Bill Murray as nerd Todd takes Radner as nerd Lissa to the prom, after a snack of Tang and Lissa's seminal rejoinder, "That's so funny, I forgot to laugh."
The material gets as recent as Belushi's uproarious turn as Elizabeth Taylor choking on a chicken and as pivotally tasteless as the old "Weekend Update" joke about the death by drowning of the entertainer known as "Professor Backwards," whose cries of "Pleh! Pleh!" went unheeded. Johnny Carson once specifically cited that joke as evidence the Saturday Nighters had Gone Too Far.
Going too far is only half the fun of the show and the special, which ends with Garrett Morris introducing Belushi and Aykroyd as the eventually immortal Blues Brothers. The cast has been ravaged now by that marauding bandit known as the Big Movie Deal, but if the show's best days are past, they are indisputably worth recalling.
The program not only brought new audiences to television, it also has been a source of invention and rejuvenation for the medium; a throwback in the most productive sense. It begins with words that carried great weight in TV's Golden Era -- "Live, from New York" -- and it has remained true to its goals and reluctant to pander even to its fans. It is a reminder that Television Done Right can be as splendid as anything.