I was part of a generation of television viewers that had some interesting experimental shows. Reality television back then was in the form of variety shows or, what I’d like to term, “marvel shows”: That’s Incredible, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, Real People, etc. My parents watched a lot of comedy variety shows too: Donny and Marie, Sonny and Cher, and The Carol Burnett Show. Most of these were family friendly programs with subversive bents that would go right over kids’ heads, but strike happy chords with adults. It was with a bit anticipation that my parent’s tuned to the premiere episode of Saturday Night Live, or rather, NBC’s Saturday Night, as it was known back then.
Over time perspective changes and with it memories become a hazy mix of things that have made an impression on you. In 1975, I was around two years old. There’s no way I could remember first watching the premiere when it first aired, or maybe I do. Here’s what I know. There’s an anecdote my parents are fond of pulling out whenever they talk about their kids when they were small. This is one they often tell of me:
They had tuned to NBC’s Saturday Night because my dad loved George Carlin’s stand up. My mom thought him crude and cantankerous, so she’d go to kitchen if my dad put on his records. I was sitting up and crawling around in front of the television that premiere night. My dad has one of these uproarious laughs that scare you if you aren’t aware of it. It’s infectious too. Apparently I’d stop and stare at him and giggle when he’d laugh.
Andy Kaufman was introduced and he started playing the Mighty Mouse theme on his portable record player. Suddenly my dad broke out laughing so hard that tears came out of his eyes. I started giggling too, but I wasn’t giggling at my dad. I was laughing at the funny looking guy on the screen. I was so transfixed that the next time he put up his hand to “Here I come to save the day!” I put up my hand too. At some point I fell on my back because I was laughing so hard.
I don’t have any recollection of this, but my parents do, so the moment enters my sub-consciousness that way. I do remember seeing that skit a few years later during repeats. I ended up watching it with my parents again. I laughed so hard tears were coming out of my eyes, but I was also so perplexed as to why I found this seemingly stupid skit funny. It’s basically a guy miming to only one line in a song. Yet, by looking a little deeper, his fake nervousness and his awkwardness recalled something inside of myself then: an innate familiarity with the absurd.
The first episode of series was less skit oriented and more of a mish mash interpretation of what an early seventies variety show could be. It’s like a playhouse of actors that didn’t quite know what to do with itself. This gave it a vanguard feel. It was most definitely so unique that it stayed with the young impressionable minds that first saw it. Many seventies and eighties kids watched Saturday Night Live to tune into the possibility of randomness, the odd mistake, the outtake that can’t be taken out, and most of all, for something other than the mainstream slick productions we had become used to. There were no interesting laser graphics. The sets had the visual texture of dusty and torn props pulled out from the back of an old high school theatre. There was something very personable and real in that first show that it resonated with many. Despite the overbooking of musicians, acts, and the weird cuts to certain skits, it clung to the idea of an ongoing experiment. That premiere isn’t the best of shows, but the foundation was set with the cold open: a John Belushi skit and Chevy Chase yelling “Live From New York, It’s Saturday Night!” There was enough there with Jane Curtin hilarious deadpan, Albert Brooks’ goofy shorts, an odd Paul Simon, and yes, the late George Carlin high as a kite doing his thing that still annoys my mom to this day.
But it wasn’t any of the above that appealed to me first, nor was it the Muppets in The Land of Gorch, strangely enough. It was Kaufman’s little bit of glorious randomness that stuck with me. I still have a copy of the Mighty Mouse theme song on 45 because of it. I still wonder what it took for him to get the guts to do the confusing things he did on that show and later on in life (especially his really strange wrestling career and his stint as the Foreign Man aka Latka on Taxi – oh I miss that show too), but it didn’t matter so much because my own laughter stemmed out of that curious bewilderment. Why mess with that?
I still fall back laughing watching Andy Kaufman. I don’t even need to know why.