John Belushi and Gilda Radner are no longer around. The other Not Ready for Prime Time originals have phased into either obscurity or fat-cat Hollywood stardom. The baby boomers who discovered the show in the mid-'70s are now watching alongside their kids and struggling to keep up with the cast changes (which one is Phil Hartman?). Still, an anniversary for Saturday Night Live -- which will mark the start of its 15th season with a prime-time special next Sunday -- is more than just a routine occasion for TV nostalgia. The pressing question: Is Saturday Night still alive or merely on life support?
Saturday Night Live was not just another television show; it was the show that changed television. When it made its debut in October 1975, Carol Burnett and Sonny and Cher were still the definition of hip TV comedy. NBC's new late- night series burst onto that scene with a countercultural whoop. It brought to TV, for the first time, the comic sensibility of the '60s generation: anti- Establishment, idol-smashing, media savvy. The show seemed to break new ground almost weekly: pushing the boundaries of permissible language and subject matter, rejuvenating political satire, breaking the "fourth wall" to make fun of the TV medium itself. It helped launch or boost the careers of comics like Steve Martin and Andy Kaufman, gave avant-garde rock an outlet on mainstream TV and made the world safe for David Letterman.
Most of those accomplishments date from the show's first five seasons -- also known as the Golden Age. A young producer named Lorne Michaels had assembled a talented group of writers and performers from such cutting-edge venues as the Second City satirical troupe and National Lampoon magazine. Chevy Chase was the show's first star and formative influence, but the group effort soon produced a cornucopia of cultural reference points for the '70s: Roseanne Roseannadanna, the Coneheads, the Nerds, Belushi's Samurai warrior, Dan Aykroyd's Tom Snyder, and on and on.
The last of the original cast members, as well as Michaels, left at the end of the 1980 season, and Saturday Night Live was forced to rebuild from scratch. In the next few seasons -- the Dark Ages -- the show managed to unearth one superstar (Eddie Murphy) but a lot of also-rans (Charles Rocket, Mary Gross). One year it brought in seasoned ringers like Billy Crystal and Martin Short (no fair -- they were ready for prime time); then Michaels returned with an all new cast that ranged from teen flashes-in-the-pan like Anthony Michael Hall to Hollywood veteran Randy Quaid. But the ensemble - feeling had disappeared, and the writing had grown desperate and juvenile: in one witless sketch, Bobby and Jack Kennedy plot to murder Marilyn Monroe. There was talk of cancellation.