I saw the first Saturday Night Live episode in a way that many would consider to be “on the sly". Owing to the fact that I was staying up incredibly late for an 11-year old, some would consider it that, but it really wasn’t that way. My parents, especially my Mom, let me stay up late on Friday and Saturday nights, and these late night vigils were aided by the very layout of our home in Eagle River. The parents upstairs, we three kids in our secluded basement fortress, with me spending some weekend nights in a sleeping bag in the playroom. Technically, I was supposed to shut the tube off at midnight (I begged and pleaded to get it moved from 11:00 p.m., to which my mother relented), but I was soon dipping well past that, staying up to watch music and video shows like The Midnight Special (with Wolfman Jack) and Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert until the wee hours of the night. I would soon up this in the next couple of years to include any number of midnight matinee movie shows, The New Avengers and Kolchak the Night Stalker. But first, there was Saturday Night Live.
When SNL (then merely called Saturday Night, perhaps to distinguish it from Howard Cosell’s failed ABC series of the same season) showed up on my radar, I really had no idea what I was getting into. I just happened to stay awake (sometimes I didn't even make it), my brothers were asleep in the next room, my parents were asleep upstairs, and I had a burgeoning form of insomnia and a very obliging but quite hypnotizing television downstairs, which I was allowed to move to my room. I had seen the ads for the show throughout the week on NBC, and I even remember an article in the paper talking about the Battle of the Saturday Night shows (I recall a picture of a bunch of water-skiers in a pyramid promoting the Cosell show). While I had thought after I read the article in the paper that it would be cool to check both of these new shows out -- I was at a point in my youth where I had completely memorized the TV guide in the paper and watched any show at least one each season -- I really didn’t think that I would get the chance to see the late night version. The Cosell show, actually titled Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell, arrived in our home near "the family hour" -- and we did our normal Saturday evening family pizza routine on the night it premiered, watching the ridiculous Bay City Rollers and the rest of the variety-style entertainment -- and then never saw it again. Cancelled -- gone -- and all but forgotten.
And then, a couple of weeks later, just flipping channels one night, there was George Carlin, whom my cousin Brad had already introduced to me, this time really "on the sly," beginning one of his routines. Since I had missed the opening of the show and the credits that followed, I had no idea what I was watching. So I checked the schedule, and there it read Saturday Night. I had stumbled upon the very show I thought I would never get to see.
Cut to last Sunday morning: living in a world already past the VCR, I was once again watching George Carlin describing to me the differences between baseball and football on the SNL stage. This time, though, I am seeing him work his verbal magic on my DVR player. I am able to burn through the commercials and the Janis Ian performances, and am able to watch the entire show in just under an hour. It's amazing just how much of the routine of the show, which our society has by now absorbed into its collective consciousness, was already built into that first episode, almost as if the structure -- outside of the individual characters and skits which would propel it to immense fame -- had risen fully formed out of the mire of that first Saturday evening in 1975. And another thing arose in that opening pilot of a show: the so-so skit based on an incredibly sketchy idea. The half-joke that almost feels like it was tossed together in a desperate attempt to fill time. Sometimes though, the joke comes off solely through the utter charm of the performers involved.
Following Ian's At Seventeen (which, I must admit, I have always secretly liked, so I rewound the show to watch her sing it later), we are shown a rough approximation of the famous rising-shark image from Jaws, and the words Victims of Shark Bite superimposed over it. The set-up is exceedingly simple -- a basic community talk show format. Jane Curtin, as she would steadfastly a thousand times it seems throughout her run on the show, plays the host. For her initial gig, she gives her name as Phyllis Crawford, and after welcoming the audience to Victims of Shark Bite, she introduces her "first guest," a "Mr. Martin Gressner of Long Island, New York." She begins the interview:
"Mr. Gressner, would you tell the audience just how you became a Victim of Shark Bite?"
The camera cuts to a shot of Curtin sitting next to John Belushi, still mostly unknown to the world, and seeming to strain hard to keep his wise-guy smirk at bay, much like many of the cast does in this initial show. At odds with his usual disheveled appearance, Belushi is wearing a tie and a brown blazer, and he is sitting in a chair, his right leg tucked comfortably under his other leg. What the viewer immediately takes in (as the audience clearly does judging from the massive giggling at large in the opening of the scene) is that Belushi seems to be missing his left arm. The effect is done in that time-honored, low-budget, improv way: by having Belushi keep from slipping his left arm through the sleeve of the blazer, leaving the cloth to spill unfilled down his side, and then selling the illusion by tucking the sleeve into his blazer pocket, while his arm remains inside the jacket. Belushi continues the skit:
"I'd be happy to, Phyllis. I was swimming about 50 yards offshore from my summer home in Montauk, Long Island. It was high tide, and all of a sudden, I felt this sharp, piercing pain in my left shoulder. I didn't know what it was at first -- my left arm felt numb. Well, my arm was gone, and since then, I've had to learn how to do everything with my right hand."
Belushi, the smirk mostly gone and delivering his lines like he really believes he has lost his arm, sells the illusion by hitting all of his marks. He points to the left shoulder, winces and nearly stutters when he mentions the arm, and even stretches his right hand briefly while stressing his predicament. The camera aids him greatly by slowly tightening its focus squarely on the comic's upper half. The bit has turned surprisingly serious to this point, despite the fact that Belushi clearly has his left arm inside of his blazer. Curtin then asks:
"Just when did this incident take place?"
"Oh, I'd say... three, maybe four months ago. I've had to learn how to shave with my right hand, and eat with my right --"
The audience goes wild, for when Belushi counts down the months, he does so by sticking his left hand out from its hiding place inside the jacket to thrust three, and then four, fingers. Curtin's host immediately jumps on his transgression:
"Just a minute, Mr. Gressner, it seems as if you do have a left arm there." Having been found out, Belushi grabs the flap of his blazer and flips it desperately into the air.
"No, it's gone! See, shark bit it off! Nothing there!"
"Mr. Gressner, THAT is your sleeve. You DO have a left arm, and it looks perfectly normal!"
Belushi tries hard to dig his way out of this fix, and his eyes search about for anything that will divert attention away. He sees his right leg tucked up onto his chair and changes direction:
"Oh... it was... my leg! He bit my leg off! You see, I had to hop around on one foot -- I'm an invalid. I have a wheelchair...!"
"No, you DO have a leg there -- it's tucked under your other leg." She pulls his foot out and drops it on the floor. "You see, you're fine! There's nothing wrong with you!"
"Well, I saw that movie where the guy had his leg bit off --" Curtin breaks away in frustration to announce to the audience that they will have their next Victim of Shark Bite on after a word from their sponsors, and the skit ends.
It's barely a joke, as I stated before, and it's almost the sort of gag a kid would pull goofing around with his friends. In fact, much of Saturday Night Live's material throughout the years is exactly that: juvenilia, the sophomoric stuff that most similar shows wouldn't touch unless it were to make an ironic statement of some sort. It doesn't make it any less funny, and as I said, much of the success of this material depends on the charm of the presenter. In Belushi, who built his every move on his scruffy, shambolic charisma, such a thin premise is almost guaranteed of success, because he allows the audience to be in on the joke from the beginning.
I find the skit most interesting, though, as a supplement to one of SNL's most famous characters, Chevy Chase's Landshark, which appeared in a handful of skits in the first two seasons of the show. That sharks played such a huge, early role in the development of this television landmark is surely a testament to just how pervasive our society's absurd fear of these creatures had overwhelmed popular culture in 1975, the year of the theatrical release of Jaws. The writers and producers of Saturday Night Live not only leaped upon lampooning this fear by introducing a character who would help them in capturing a devoted audience following, but even saw fit to include a rougher, more formatively child-like version of this humor in its opening show.
By testing the waters in this way, they may not have gotten a solid bite. But sometimes the slightest nibble can be a decent precursor of things to come...