It's a little like trying to discover electricity a second time: building a new "Saturday Night Live" as good as the old one, and doing it in the ashes of someone else's miserable failure.
The job falls to Dick Ebersol, 33, who was present at and oversaw the creation of the first "SNL" six years ago as one of the youngest NBC program executives in history. Now Ebersol has been lured back for one of the mightier tasks in all TV. Although the first program became insanely successful and changed the Saturday night habits of millions, the second version, which premiered last fall, pratfell into oblivion and disgrace.
February ratings showed "The New Generation" -- as it was ballyhooed -- getting about half the ratings the old generation got. NBC affiliates hated the show, and it was heavily populated with, at best, semi-talents. Producer Jean Doumanian was shoved aside so Ebersol could come in for emergency surgery.
"We're going to be born on the air," says Ebersol, whose first show as producer will air this Saturday. "And," he says, "we ain't 'the new generation.' We're not out to imitate the old show, either; that would be an insult. But I want to reinstate the tradition of the old show in terms of creative freedom."
Three cast members were fired -- Charles Rocket, Ann Risley and Gilbert Gottfried -- and three new faces hired, including Belushi look-alike Tony Rosato ("100 percent Italian," raves Ebersol), Robin Duke and Tim Kazurinsky. One's faith in the new venture may be further shaken by the fact that Ebersol has also brought back the dour and morbid Michael O'Donoghue to be his "chief of staff."
Ebersol is first to admit that what Lorne Michaels, the original producer, did with "Saturday Night Live" was spectacular; Michaels had brilliant instincts for finding the best and bringing out the brightest in them. "Lorne pulled off the dream, he really pulled it off," says Ebersol. "And the people who worked for him have a loyalty unlike any I've ever seen to any other human being."
Indeed, many of them are now living with Michaels in Saturday Night Exile on the ninth and 10th floors of Broadway's Brill Building, where Michaels has formed what he calls "a small empire, really," working on movie projects to be released by MGM. On a recent day, Art Garfunkel and Penny Marshall were touring the empire, which includes elaborate videotape facilities that Michaels will rent to other producers.
Ebersol has had the good sense to consult Michaels about saving the show -- in contrast to the previous regime, which adopted a know-it-all, nihilistic stance from Day One. "They totally cut themselves off from the people who had really made it happen," Ebersol says when asked what their biggest mistake was. "They cut themselves off cold."
Incredibly, after five years of making "SNL" the talk of television -- and carving out valuable new revenue terrain for the network -- Michaels and his colleagues were given 24 hours by NBC to clear out their offices and take a hike. In fact Michaels recently returned to NBC for the first time since leaving, to attend an office-warming party for Gilda Radner, one of the original "SNL" players. She signed an exclusivity contract with NBC, which means she won't do specials for any other network for a year.
For this she got an office on the third floor, down the hall from Gene Shalit and formerly the domain of the president of NBC-owned stations. It was christened with a small shebang attended by among others, Michaels, writer Buck Henry, former NBC Entertainment president Mike Weinblatt (now with Showtime, a pay-scale network) and Ebersol.Radner, drinking Tab and vodka (and now starring on Broadway in "Lunch Hour"), peered out the window at the Rockefeller Center skating rink below. "Look! I'm closer to the rink than Lorne was!" she said. "I can just jump out the window and go skating any time I want."
Gilda may prove to be the most beguiling comic discovery to come out of "SNL" -- maybe the most beguiling comic discovery to come out of '70s television, period -- but Michaels' gift was, in part, finding and inspiring gifted people. They really were, for all the creative tiffs and frenzied meetings, one big happy squabbling family. That is the ephemeral quality Ebersol wants to revive.
"I really look at the show on the level of family and tradition," he says. "I think getting the family straight here is more important than getting the show straight, because the family thing is the only reason it worked as well as it did."
Ebersol has had meetings with former "SNL" regulars Chevy Chase, John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray and Radner, and contacted all the others as well. Naturally there are rampant rumors that his New Deal will find some of the originals -- now big stars of predominantly crummy movies -- returning to the show as guests.
Former "SNL" writer-performers Al Franken and Tom Davis have agreed to host Elbersol's third show, but he says he's been "misunderstood and misquoted" on the matter of bringing the old greats back onto the air and he's tired already of questions about whether Belushi and Aykroyd will be on the premiere (their agent, also Michaels' agent, Bernie Brillstein, is apparently discouraging them from appearing at any time).
"What I've done is extend an open invitation to everybody to climb on my case and tell me different things," he says, indicating he is interested in the old-timers mainly on an advisory level. If there's guest starring, it's to be "just wandering in on the level of surprise."
Ebersol also has been pursuing -- "desperately," according to one of them -- writers from the old show, many of whom are now working on movies for Michaels. Whether he can repeat the triumph of the first show is iffy, but Ebersol can certainly try to revive its honorable and glorious traditions.
In its palmiest, balmiest days, "Saturday Night Live" was nonformula television. Anything that succeeds in television becomes a formula, however, to be copies by others -- like, in this case, ABC's dimwitted "Fridays." Ebersol wants to duplicate the mercurial molecules that made the first "SNL" so formidable.
The problem with the Doumanian show isn't just that it wasn't funny. It's that it had no heart. People speak of "Saturday Night Live" in terms of comedy and satire, but there was a warmth there; the audience didn't just watch this show, it became spiritually allied with it. When it was deplorable, one forgave it, in the way one overlooks the indiscretions or miscalculations of a well-meaning friend.
Ebersol means well. Whether he can bail out enough water to rescue the sinking ship remains to be seen. How long should he be given? He didn't want to take over until next fall, finally got NBC to agree to a four-week suspension from the air, and says viewers "should have a good taste in their mouths by the end of May."
As for Michaels, he was recently approached by NBC to produce a prime-time show for next fall, but he's too angry with Fred Silverman to think about that. He's still watching over his baby. NBC recently sold all the old shows to Filmways, a syndicated outfit, which planned to slaughter them into half-hour chunks until Michaels talked them into letting him cut the shows down to hour-long programs.
They'll show up on local stations in late-night slots beginning next fall, and, "stripped" Monday through Friday, stations will be able to run through all five years in five months. Michaels is glad he won a tiny victory, and he obviously feels a strong proprietary and sentimental attachment to the program, but he says he's tired of repeatedly attending "the funeral for 'Saturday Night Live.'"
This week, Ebersol hopes he'll be witnessing the birth. Again.