Brian and I rented Season 1 of Saturday Night Live over the weekend. (Ok, so maybe I surreptitiously added it to our Netflix Queue, and by ‘our’ Netflix Queue, I mean ‘the Netflix Queue that Brian lacks a password for and which only I update’. Just to clarify.) I have always enjoyed watching vintage SNL. I’ve always loved Gilda Radner, Lily Tomlin, Jane Curtain…come to think of it, maybe part of what I love is watching brilliant, hilarious women. So many wonderful female comedians got their start on that show. Sure, I also loved Chevy Chase and Steve Martin…but I couldn’t grow up to be like them. The women of early Saturday Night Live were inspiring because they were rough and tumble and edgy just like the men. They weren’t playing it for sex appeal, and even when the joke was on them, it was funny because of the characters they played, not simply because they were women. I recall disliking the show during the dark days of the early 1990s, when the cast had barely any women and most of the female characters were played by men in drag. There was something lost by not letting actual women in on the joke.

In any event, while my sister and I used to rent old episodes of SNL when we were growing up, after a long hiatus, it was rather jarring to see them again. It’s a little strange seeing legendary comedian John Belushi performing in low-rent, un-hilarious skits, back when he needed a paycheck and was willing to wear a Bee costume.  Saturday Night Live has certainly been through rough patches; even classic episodes have their share of drek.  But it was fascinating to catch a glimpse of the show’s primordial, formulative episodes.  There was a dark, disturbing and poorly written skit featuring Jim Henson’s Muppets, since it was in the days before The Muppet Show earned them a place in the Pantheon of children’s television. There were fake commercials and a raggedy-edged Nightly News sendup. If nothing else, at least the bad skits were short. There were also several monologues by guest host George Carlin, one of which was about how stupid religion is. “Religion,” he says, “is like a lift in your shoe. If you need it for awhile, and it makes you walk straight and feel better – fine. But you don’t need it forever, or you’ll become permanently disabled.”

This blew me away. I know George Carlin has always said whatever the hell he wanted; that’s part of his greatness. But still—can you imagine a comedian on a major Network taking on religion with such frankness? Perhaps I just don’t watch enough Saturday Night Live, or enough comedians on major networks. But it was pretty great.

My favorite part of the episode was the satirical advertisement for the “Triple-Trac”, a revolutionary 3-blade razor. A simple (and very familiar) animation simulated how the first blade lifted a hair, the second primed it for being cut and the third cut it. The very idea of a triple-bladed razor was clearly unbelievably ridiculous—to a 1975 audience. The tagline said, “The three-blade razor— designed for people who’ll believe anything”. I can’t say I didn’t wince at that. How far we’ve come.

 

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