Every episode has a "host", who is a celebrity guest starring on the show, as well as a musical guest, although a host can be both. At the beginning, a cold open sketch is preformed ending with someone breaking character and usually blurting "Live from New York, it's Saturday Night!". (This cold opening was removed for season 7, but quickly returned.) Additional sketches include Weekend Update, which functions as a new show, a digital short, and commercial parodies.
Saturday Night Live was born from NBC's desire to place original programming in the 11:30 PM Saturday timeslot. From 1965 until SNL began in 1975, this timeslot was filled with reruns of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson (which occupied the timeslot on weekdays). This was dependent, however, on Carson continuing to record shows with sufficient frequency to leave shows available for rerun. By 1974, Carson was hoping for more time off, and asked NBC to stop airing reruns on weekends, so that they could be rerun on weekdays, allowing him further time off.
Saturday Night Live was the original name sought by Michaels and Ebersol, due to the show's live broadcast, but the name was unavailable- at the very same time, ABC was developing a similar variety show for primetime Saturday, hosted by Howard Cosell, which had already been named Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell. As a result, the new show on NBC debuted under the simpler name Saturday Night. ABC cancelled Cosell's show after eighteen episodes due to poor ratings, and NBC purchased the name, renaming their show Saturday Night Live at the beginning of the second season.
The name was not the only thing taken from Cosell's show- Cosell had a cast of three actors: brothers Bill Murray and Brian Doyle-Murray, and Christopher Guest. They were known as the "Primetime Players". Michaels parodied this name by naming the new SNL cast the "not ready for primetime players". All three actors would also join SNL on NBC later on; the Murray brothers in season 2 (though Brian Doyle-Murray was a writer only until season 5) and Christopher Guest in season 10. All three anchored Weekend Update during their tenures on the show.
Needing actors for the new show, Ebersol and Michaels turned to Second City TV, a television show being broadcast from the Toronto wing of the Second City comedy troupe. From SCTV, they poached Gilda Radner and Dan Aykroyd. They also hired John Belushi and Chevy Chase from the National Lampoon's Lemmings (Belushi was also a Second City alumnus), as well as Garrett Morris, Jane Curtin, and Laraine Newman.
The new show debuted on October 11, 1975, broadcast from Studio 8H in 30 Rockefeller Center. The format was uncertain at first; the amount of time devoted to sketches, music, and stand-up varied widely, as well as the inclusion of Jim Henson's Muppets and pre-filmed content by Albert Brooks. One new sketch that remained permanently was Weekend Update, an invention of Chevy Chase. Chase, the original head writer, wrote the segment for himself.
First generation (seasons 1-5)Edit
The show saw little change in its first five seasons. Notable was the departure of Chase halfway through the second season; he was replaced by Bill Murray. Aykroyd and Belushi also left after the end of season 4, to pursue work on their film, The Blues Brothers. To fill their places, several writers were promoted to cast members, including Brian Doyle-Murray, Peter Aykroyd (brother of Dan), Don Novello, Tom Schiller and Alan Zweibel.
Doumanian era (season 6)Edit
Michaels and most of the cast were weary of the show's production schedule by the end of season 5. Worrying that the quality was beginning to suffer, Michaels asked NBC to put the show on hiatus for a season, in order to retool. NBC denied his request, and he promptly quit, with the rest of the cast (except for Brian Doyle-Murray) quitting along with him.
NBC chose Jean Doumanian, an associate producer on SNL, to take Michaels' place. Her time on the show went poorly- the season started unusually late, the new cast was not well received by fans, and reviews of their performances and the material were largely negative. On the season's 11th episode, cast member Charles Rocket (whom Doumanian was grooming as a second version of Chevy Chase, including installing him on Weekend Update) famously used the "F" word live on-air. By that time, however, NBC was already planning to replace Doumanian, and she was fired after the episode that followed.
Her replacement was Dick Ebersol, who had co-founded SNL with Michaels. The show went on a month-long hiatus to retool, and substantial changes were made in the cast and writing staff. Michael O'Donoghue was brought back to serve as head writer. Ebersol wished to fire the entire cast, with the exception of two breakout stars: Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo. However, the existing contracts needed to be paid off, and there wasn't room in the budget. As such, two other cast members remained, six were released (including Rocket), and five new actors were brought in.
SNL returned in April, with Chevy Chase hosting the first episode. The episode was well-received, but it came during a writers' strike. While Chase had contributed enough writing to create a good script, the following week's hosts, Franken and Davis, were not producing material that Ebersol felt would make for a good show. Not wanting to lose the momentum gained from the previous week, he cancelled the episode and the rest that were planned for the season.
Second generation (seasons 7-10)Edit
Ebersol attempted to revamp the show with several format changes. The opening sketch was dropped for season 7, though it later returned at the request of fans. Weekend Update, which had been renamed Saturday Night NewsLine on the very last Doumanian episode only to revert to Weekend Update for Ebersol's first episode, became SNL Newsbreak (and later Saturday Night News for seasons 8-10).
Ebersol's primary tactic was to showcase Murphy and Piscopo, treating the other cast members as merely supporting cast. This approach began to crumble after only a season, when a snap decision by Ebersol caused a major rift. On the December 11, 1982 show, Nick Nolte was scheduled to host, be he dropped out. Needing a last-minute replacement, Ebersol placed Murphy in the host position. This immediately angered Piscopo, who had never been offered a chance at host. Also, rather than ending the sketch with the classic opening line, "Live from New York, it's Saturday Night!", Murphy said "Live from New York, it's the Eddie Murphy show!" This line angered much of the cast and crew.
Tensions remained into season 9, until Murphy left mid-season. He had filmed 48 Hours with Nolte the previous year, and with his new-found success, decided to depart the show. Piscopo, still unhappy with the show's direction, left at the end of the season. In an attempt to revamp the show again, Ebersol forced out cast members Brad Hall, Tim Kazurinsky, and Robin Duke; the latter two were original to Ebersol's new cast.
The new cast members, many of them established actors, did little to bolster the show for season 10. At the end of the season, in a move similar to Michaels a few years prior, Ebersol asked to put the show on hiatus, as well as moving toward more pre-taped content. NBC denied both requests, and like Michaels, Ebersol walked away from the show, with the remaining cast members and writers following suit.
Lorne Michaels returns (season 11)Edit
NBC initially decided to cancel the show, but decided to keep it going when they managed to secure Lorne Michaels' return. Following Ebersol's lead, Michaels put together a new cast of established stars, including Randy Quaid, Joan Cusack, Anthony Michael Hall, and Robert Downey, Jr.. He also reverted the news segment to Weekend Update. The season ultimately went poorly, and most of the cast left the show at the end of the season. The only actors to remain were Dennis Miller, who had become well known for his performance anchoring Weekend Update, A. Whitney Brown, Jon Lovitz, and Nora Dunn.
Third generation (seasons 12-20)Edit
Michaels hoped to fix his earlier mistake, and sought out new talent, much like the original founding of the show. Several cast members that would become staples entered in the next few seasons: Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman, Victoria Jackson, and Kevin Nealon in season 12; Mike Myers in season 14; and Rob Schneider, David Spade, Chris Farley, Chris Rock, Tim Meadows, and Adam Sandler in season 16. Schneider and Spade were writers who were promoted to cast member. Jim Downey was installed as head writer.
This time period saw several challenges- during season 13 there was both a fire near Studio 8H, as well as a writers' strike which cut the season short. On the May 12, 1990 episode, scheduled musical guest Sinead O'Connor and cast member Nora Dunn boycotted the show due to its being hosted by Andrew Dice Clay; Dunn was fired at the end of the season as a result. O'Connor made headlines the following season for tearing up a photo of Pope John Paul II at the end of her performance.
While lauded at first, the show began to decline after several seasons; seasons 19 and 20 are often referred to as the show's worst. Michaels said later the end of season 20 was the closest the show ever came to being cancelled. There were many short-lived cast additions in an attempt to boost the show, but ultimately, a big change was needed. At the end of season 20, most of the cast and writers were let go.
Fourth generation (seasons 21-25)Edit
Remaining from season 20 were Norm MacDonald, Mark McKinney, Tim Meadows, David Spade, and Molly Shannon. MacDonald had joined as a writer at the beginning of season 19 and was promoted to the cast halfway through the season; Shannon had joined the show in the middle of season 20.
Seeking new talent to fill out the cast for season 21, Michaels hired several actors who would become well-known: Will Ferrell, Darrell Hammond, David Koechner, and Cheri Oteri, among others (though Koechner only remained for one season). Chris Kattan and Colin Quinn were added mid-season, and Spade left at the end of the season. Ana Gasteyer and Tracy Morgan were added in season 22; Jimmy Fallon, Chris Parnell, and Horatio Sanz in season 24; and Rachel Dratch and Maya Rudolph in season 25.
A transition occurred after season 25. Original fourth-generation cast members Cheri Oteri and Colin Quinn and remaining third-generation cast member Tim Meadows all departed. This era is remembered primarily for cast members MacDonald, Meadows, Shannon, Ferrell, Hammond, Oteri, Kattan, Quinn, and Gasteyer.
There were several notable events during this period. The April 13, 1996 episode featured billionaire Steve Forbes and musical guest Rage Against The Machine. Angry about the pairing due to Forbes' politics, RATM hung upside-down flags from their amplifiers. They were removed by stagehands, and RATM was removed from the building following their performance. Partway through season 23, Norm MacDonald was pulled off of Weekend Update by NBC executive Don Ohlmeyer due to Ohlmeyer's taking offense to MacDonald's numerous O.J. Simpson jokes; this was against Lorne Michaels wishes and caused significant friction between him and the network. The September 11th terrorist attacks occurred right before the start of season 27.
Fifth generation (seasons 26-31)Edit
Remaining from 1995 were Will Ferrell, Darrell Hammond, Molly Shannon and Chris Kattan, with seven others who had joined in the interim. New for season 26 was Tina Fey, who was placed on Weekend update with Jimmy Fallon following the departure of previous anchor Colin Quinn. Aside from the change at Update, this era marked a change in tone, as Fey had replaced head writer Adam McKay the previous season.
Joining the cast during this period were Seth Meyers and Amy Poehler in season 27; Fred Armisen and Will Forte in season 28; Kenan Thompson in season 29; Jason Sudeikis in season 30; and Bill Hader, Andy Samberg, and Kristen Wiig in season 31.
Leaving the show during this period were Molly Shannon after season 26, Will Ferrell and Ana Gasteyer after season 27, Chris Kattan and Tracy Morgan after season 28, Jimmy Fallon after season 29 and Rachel Dratch, Tina Fey, Finesse Mitchell, Chris Parnell and Horatio Sanz after Season 31 .
This era of the show is primarily remembered for cast members Hammond, Fallon, Parnell, Sanz, Dratch, Rudolph, Fey, Poehler, Meyers, Armisen, and Forte, with the latter four remaining well into the following generation.
Season 29 also debuted a new set based upon Grand Central Station, which remains in-use.
Sixth generation (seasons 32-38)Edit
Season 32 began with a massive budget cut, leading to the dismissal of Parnell and Sanz before the start of the season; Fey and Dratch also left. No new members joined for season 32; Casey Wilson replaced Rudolph in mid-season 33; Bobby Moynihan, Abby Elliott, and Michaela Watkins in season 34; Nasim Pedrad and Jenny Slate in season 35; Vanessa Bayer, Paul Brittain, Jay Pharoah, and Taran Killam in season 36; Kate McKinnon halfway through season 37, replacing Brittain; and Aidy Bryant, Tim Robinson, and Cecily Strong in season 38. (Robinson, Watkins, and Slate all remained for only one season.)
Leaving the show during this period were Maya Rudolph mid-season 33; Amy Poehler in mid-season 34; Darrel Hammond and Casey Wilson after season 35; Will Forte after season 36. Paul Brittain left halfway through season 37; Andy Samberg, Kristen Wiig, and Abby Elliott left after season 37, and Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, and Jason Sudeikis after season 38.
This era is mostly remembered for cast members Armisen, Forte, Meyers, Thompson, Sudeikis, Hader, Samberg, Wiig, Moynihan, and Pedrad, as well as Hammond, Elliott, and Wilson in earlier seasons, and Bayer, Pharoah, Killiam, and McKinnon in later seasons.
Season 33 was heavily shortened due to a writers' strike.
Seventh generation (seasons 39-present)Edit
Season 39 marked the first time for several years in which a large number of new talent was added. Four members were gone from the previous season: Armisen, Hader, and Sudeikis had left, while relative newcomer Robinson was moved to the writing room. All three remaining featured players (McKinnon, Bryant, and Strong) were promoted to repertory status to replace the departing three repertory players.
For starters, the cast expanded slightly with six new featured players being brought in: Beck Bennett, John Milhiser, Kyle Mooney, Mike O'Brien, Noel Wells, and Brooks Wheelan. However, these weren't to be the only newcomers. Early in the season, Kenan Thompson went on-record complaining about the show's lack of black female actors, and publicly refused to dress in drag on the show. After a flurry of press and social media attention, the show brought in Sasheer Zamata, who started after Christmas break.
It was also known before the season began that Seth Meyers would be departing, to take over hosting Late Night. He remained until the show went on hiatus for coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympics in February, and it was announced that fellow head writer Colin Jost would join the show in his place when it resumed in March. As a result of all of this, the show ended up with five members from the previous season gone, and eight new members added to the cast.