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October 11, 2014

“Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!” (and finger-eating wolverines)


On October 11, 1975, at 11:30pm Eastern Time, a new TV comedy show debuted on the NBC network.

It opened with a wacky skit featuring three comic actors who were virtually unknown at the time.

In the skit, a frumpy-looking East European immigrant with a heavy accent is being tutored on how to speak proper English by a well-dressed teacher.

They are sitting in comfortable chairs next to each other in a small room.

The teacher starts a repeat-after-me type lesson with an unusual language exercise about wolverines…

       TEACHER: “Let us begin. Repeat after me. I would like...”

       IMMIGRANT: (With a noticeable accent.) “I wude like...”

       TEACHER: “...to feed your fingertips...”

       IMMIGRANT: “...to feed yur fingerteeps...”

       TEACHER: “...to the wolverines.”

       IMMIGRANT: “...to de woolvur-eenes.”

After a couple more odd exercises about wolverines and badgers (or, “woolvur-eenes” and “bed-jurs” as the immigrant pronounces them), the teacher suddenly gasps, clutches his chest and falls to the floor, apparently dead from a heart attack.

The European immigrant looks confused for a moment.

Then he gasps, clutches his chest and falls to the floor, copying the professor.

Next, a Stage Manager walks into the scene, smiles into the camera and says, for the very first time, what would soon be a well-known line:

       “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!”

The three not-yet-famous comedians in the skit were: John Belushi a former Second City improv performer who went on to become one of the most beloved comic actors in the world prior to his tragic death in 1982 from an apparent drug overdose; Michael O'Donoghue, a former National Lampoon magazine writer picked as head writer for the new show (who died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1994 at age 54); and, the fortunately still living comic legend, Chevy Chase, who was best known at the time as a cast member of the National Lampoon Radio Hour.

All three were among the amazingly talented group of original cast members of the show, which was officially titled NBC’s Saturday Night when it started airing in 1975, but soon came to be called Saturday Night Live, or SNL for short.

The revolving, evolving group of comic actors who performed comedy sketches on NBC’s new Saturday Night series were collectively dubbed the “Not Ready for Prime Time Players.”

The voice heard after Chevy Chase on the historic first episode was that of longtime television show announcer Don Pardo, reading the names of the performers who would be appearing (a function he continued on SNL until his death in August 2014). The first host was my favorite curmudgeon, the great George Carlin (1937-2008).

I was watching the premiere of SNL that night and watched the show almost every weekend for nearly 20 years. Nowadays, I record the show on DVR and watch the opening long enough to hear the famed line “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!”

I check out who the guest host and musical guest will be. Then I usually fast forward a lot, though skits that rarely strike me as funny as anything done by the early “Not Ready for Prime Time Players.” I often have no idea who the guest hosts or musical performers are and don’t understand most of the jokes that include current pop culture references.

Yep, I’m nearly as old as John Belushi would have been if he’d survived his oversized lust for life and I’m nearly as much of a curmudgeon as George Carlin. I miss them both.

Of course, there are some things I do like about the modern world. For example, I can now rewatch old episodes of Saturday Night Live any time I want as streaming video on my iPad.

And whenever I get nostalgic and rewatch the opening skit that turned the lines “I would like to feed your fingertips to the wolverines” and “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night” into catchphrases, it still cracks me up.

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