The Radio Show That Became Saturday Night Live
Live from New York, it’s 1970s counterculture comedy! Recorded in New York! Starring John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Michael O’Donoghue, Bill Murray, and Gilda Radner! And it is not Saturday Night Live!
The “watershed event of sixties underground comedy” was the mash-up of two iconic comic institutions -- National Lampoon magazine and Second City, the improv training ground for a generation of stars. And their weird, funny-looking lovechild was the National Lampoon Radio Hour.
Broadcast on 600 radio stations, the show was a shooting star, burning white-hot before flaming out after only 13 months. Considering O’Donoghue and Belushi both served as the show’s creative directors, it’s probably a miracle that no one was arrested.
Assembling the show’s cast ten years later would have cost millions (and that just for the rehab). In addition to the future SNL stars, you can hear the voices of Christopher Guest, Richard Belzer, Billy Crystal, Brian Doyle-Murray, SCTV’s Joe Flaherty, and Harold Ramis. So yeah, Radner withstanding, it was definitely a boys’ club.
The show debuted in late 1973, promising (and pretty much delivering) “sixty minutes chock-full of mirth, merriment, and racial slurs.” 7-Up signed up as sponsors, no doubt hoping to reach America’s massive youth culture.
But 7-Up had no idea what it was getting into. Turns out it wanted no part of a show that began: “The National Lampoon Radio Hour is proud to present ‘The Impeachment of Richard M. Nixon,’ brought to you by the bottlers of 7-Up, the Uncola!”
Soon, the show’s staff referred to 7-Up as the Unsponsor.
But a lot of comedy gold was spun before we lost the show forever. Bill Murray and Guest developed a friendly-ish competition, maximizing both comics’ ability to create and improvise new characters. Check out Mel Brewer, a late-night radio DJ (Murray) interviewing unctuous Ron Fields, a music promoter pushing unlikely new artists (Guest):
And there were bits like Belushi’s Craig Baker, a 19-year-old, beer-guzzling undergrad at the University of Illinois who also doubles as a spiritual Perfect Master. That’s Guest again as the worshipful interviewer in an accent that wouldn’t fly in 2022.
The anarchy couldn’t last. The show self-destructed at the end of 1974 when Belushi and Doyle-Murray dedicated an entire episode to the death penalty, leading to nearly 400 stations dropping the show. When Lampoon publisher Matty Simmons complained about losing two-thirds of the show’s affiliates, Belushi could only smile.
“You know 400 stations, that’s the record.”
Simmons, realizing he’d never be able to pull back the reins on his chaotic comedy creators, decided to pull the plug on the whole thing.
Enter Lorne Michaels. Despite (or because of) the radio show’s notoriety, he signed up pretty much the whole dang crew for his new late night TV show. That proved to be a sock in the jaw for Simmons and the National Lampoon magazine, which had turned down TV opportunities under the assumption that its brand of edgy humor would never be allowed on the air. O’Donoghue in particular, who the magazine had fired over both outrageous salary demands and dangerously erratic behavior, proved the Lampoon wrong.
“If we thought it was funny or interesting or just weird, we’d put it on,” says producer Bob Tischler in the liner notes of the show’s CD box set. “The show never made any money for anybody. Besides we had other things to do. Many of us went on to do Saturday Night Live, some of us did SCTV, some of us made movies. And some of us are dead. Honk! Honk! Why, it’s Wobbles the Goose.”
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Top image: 4th Row Films