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NPR Arts & Life

At 41, 'Saturday Night Live' Enters Middle Age

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

"Saturday Night Live" begins its 41st season tonight. You might be planning to watch. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says the show has a long history as a comedy upstart turned showbiz institution, which often struggles to recapture its rebellious roots.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Back on October 11, 1975, no one knew that when they heard this...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

CHEVY CHASE: Live from New York, it's Saturday night.

DEGGANS: ...It would be the start of a comedy revolution. "Saturday Night Live" was born when NBC executives tapped a young Canadian producer named Lorne Michaels to replace Johnny Carson reruns on Saturdays. Michaels put together a live sketch-comedy series aimed at channeling the hip, defiant comedy voice of baby boomers. There was wild-man John Belushi, playing a samurai running a delicatessen...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Can I have a sandwich, please?

JOHN BELUSHI: (As Samurai Futaba) (Screaming).

DEGGANS: ...And Chevy Chase, the show's first breakout star, anchored a bit that survives today - the newscast satire Weekend Update.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

CHASE: (As News anchor) The post office announced today that it is going to issue a stamp commemorating prostitution in the United States. It's a 10-cent stamp, but if you want to lick it, it's a quarter.

(LAUGHTER)

DEGGANS: The show was an almost instant hit, but it had a relentless pace. All of the original cast and Lorne Michaels had left after five years. "Saturday Night Live" was nearly dead when producers gave more airtime to a young black comic who'd only had small parts in his first year on the show, Eddie Murphy. Here he is playing Stevie Wonder alongside buddy Joe Piscopo's Frank Sinatra.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

EDDIE MURPHY: (As Stevie Wonder) (Singing) I am dark and you are light.

JOE PISCOPO: (As Frank Sinatra) (Singing) You are blind as a bat, and I have sight. Side by side, you are my amigo. Negro, let's not fight.

DEGGANS: Murphy was lucky. "Saturday Night Live" underused many talents who had to leave to find stardom, including Chris Rock, Damon Wayans and Larry David. Many more performers first hit it big on "Saturday Night Live," from Bill Murray and Adam Sandler to Mike Myers, Jimmy Fallon, Kristen Wiig and Seth Meyers. And then there's Tina Fey. Hired in 1997 by Michaels, who'd returned many years earlier, she eventually became the show's head writer, shaking up a program known for being a boy's club. In 2008, she gave "SNL" another signature parody, joining Amy Poehler's Hillary Clinton to play vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

TINA FEY: (As Sarah Palin) You know, Hillary and I don't agree on everything.

AMY POEHLER: (As Hillary Clinton) Anything.

(LAUGHTER)

POEHLER: (As Hillary Clinton) I believe that diplomacy should be the cornerstone of any foreign policy.

FEY: (As Sarah Palin) And I can see Russia from my house.

(LAUGHTER)

DEGGANS: Palin never actually said that line, but it helped define Palin's persona in the same way that Darrell Hammond's impression of a stiff Al Gore and Will Ferrell's parody of a dimwitted George W. Bush helped cement their public images. Now, "Saturday Night Live" must stay relevant in an increasingly diverse country. New cast member Leslie Jones discovered how tricky that could be last year when joking about how her love life would be better in slavery.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

LESLIE JONES: Master would've hooked me up with the best brother on the plantation. And every nine months, I'd be in the corner having a super baby - Shaq, Kobe...

(LAUGHTER)

JONES: ...LeBron.

DEGGANS: The segment was heavily criticized as treating slavery too lightly. There's more controversial issues coming - a new presidential campaign, the Black Lives Matter movement and immigration. This is "Saturday Night Live's" biggest challenge - to distill the voice of satire for a new generation and challenge viewers on touchy subjects, even while remaining one of America's most enduring comedy institutions. I'm Eric Deggans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.