October 11, 2017

“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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October 07, 2017

“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness…”


Three years after Jack Kerouac coined the term “The Beat Generation” a group of Beat poets gathered at the Six Gallery on Fillmore Street in San Francisco for a poetry reading.

The date was October 7, 1955 and Kerouac was there.

So were local Beat celebrities Gary Snyder, Phil Lamantia, Michael McClure and a then virtually unknown poet named Allen Ginsberg.

In his novel, The Dharma Bums (published in 1958), Kerouac called it “the birth of the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance.” He then described this memorable scene:

“Everyone was there. It was a mad night. And I was the one who got things jumping by going around collecting dimes and quarters from the rather stiff audience standing around in the gallery and coming back with three huge gallon jugs of California Burgundy and getting them all piffed so that by eleven o'clock when Alvah Goldbook was reading his, wailing his poem ‘Wail’ drunk with arms outspread everybody was yelling ‘Go! Go! Go!’ (like a jam session).”

“Alvah Goldbook” was Kerouac’s humorous alias for the Ginsberg and “Wail” was the fictitious name he gave to Ginsberg’s poem “Howl” — which Ginsberg first read in public that October night.

“Howl” was a stylistically wild, groundbreaking poem that quickly became both famous and infamous.

The beginning of the long run-on sentence that makes up the first part of the poem is the most quoted bit:

“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,
       starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn
       looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection
       to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking
       in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating
       across the tops of cities contemplating jazz..."

“Howl” was instantly revered by the Beat crowd and eventually gained worldwide fame. But it had a rocky start in printed form.

In the poem, Ginsberg writes graphically about heterosexual and homosexual sex and about the use of illegal drugs — forbidden subjects in the uptight society of the 1950s.

When “Howl” was printed by a British book publisher in 1955, copies were seized as “pornography” by Customs officials.

In 1956, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, owner of the City Lights bookstore in San Francisco and a popular beat poet in his own right, published “Howl” in the U.S., in a small collection of Ginsberg’s poems titled Howl and Other Poems.

Copies of the book were soon seized by the San Francisco police and Ferlinghetti was arrested for publishing and selling an “obscene and indecent” book.

At the trial, Ferlinghetti was represented by the American Civil Liberties Union.

During the course of the trial, Judge Clayton W. Horn listened to nine literary experts testify about the book’s literary merits. In October 1957, he issued a carefully thought out ruling in favor of the defense.

Horn concluded that Howl and Other Poems met the current legal test of having redeeming social importance and was not “obscene.”

Thus, Ferlinghetti was found not guilty — and “Howl” and Ginsberg moved on to wider and everlasting fame.

Here are some of the other famous quotes and phrases linked to October 7:

• Former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz’s infamous comment about blacks wanting “good sex, ‘loose shoes’ and ‘a warm place’ when they use the toilet” was published in the October 7, 1976 issue of Rolling Stone magazine.

“Here is America struck by God Almighty in one of its vital organs, so that its greatest buildings are destroyed. Grace and gratitude to God.” - You may not remember those words, but if you were watching the news in 2001 you remember when Osama Bin Laden delivered them. They were the opening words in the videotaped statement he released on October 7, 2001, gloating about Al-Quaeda’s September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon building in Arlington, Virginia.

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