4 Times ‘Saturday Night Live’ Was Almost Canceled
(This story has been edited to correct a timeline error in an earlier version.)
As Saturday Night Live marches on to its inevitable 50th anniversary, we should take a minute to consider just how unlikely that achievement is. How can any show survive for five entire decades, especially considering the multiple generations of viewers and changing TV habits that have occurred over that time?
Truth be told, SNL was on the brink of cancelation multiple times over the years, making the achievement that much more remarkable. Here are four times that Saturday Night Live almost died well before it got to the big five-oh…
Midway Through Season 1
On the one hand, Saturday Night (live, but not yet Live) was a cultural phenomenon right out of the gate, keeping college kids home on weekend nights and turning Chevy Chase into a bona-fide comedy superstar. But that doesn’t mean the show was safe from the NBC powers-that-be.
Why wouldn’t NBC want a hit show that appealed to young people? Let’s start with cost, as the show was running over budget to the tune of $100,000 an episode. Don Carswell, a network executive, was pulling out his hair over the expense, believing the show’s slowly growing ratings did not justify the cost. He “strongly suggested” that Dick Ebersol cancel the show, according to Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live.
NBC’s Research Department agreed. Viewer surveys after the first few shows concluded that Saturday Night was “terribly disjointed,” a show that left audiences “bombarded by a constant stream of short segments.” Commercial parodies got a negative response. Many older viewers thought the show was in poor taste (which was kind of the point). One affiliate GM removed the show from local airwaves after he got complaints at church. Only 148 of NBC’s 291 affiliates carried the show at first — a reason for lower ratings and an argument for pulling the plug.
As the season wore on and the show’s popularity snowballed, however, NBC execs backed off their calls for cancelation. For a few seasons, anyhow.
The Post-Lorne Michaels Season Six
What show could withstand losing Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris, Laraine Newman and Lorne Michaels? Even a cast of comedy all-stars would have had a hard time following that act — and SNL’s cast for its sixth season was not that.
“Whatever Happened to TV’s ‘Saturday Night Live’?” moaned The New York Times. New (and overmatched) producer Jean Doumanian was pummeled by executives, writers, cast members and the press. Once again, grumpy-ass executives inside NBC called for the show to end despite SNL being a huge 1970s success story.
Ratings perked up for one week when Murray returned to host, but the show’s cold open acknowledged the handwriting on the wall. Murray told the cast not to let the critical drubbing get them down. “Because it doesn’t matter,” he said. “You started from scratch. It takes a while to put a show like this together. Look, the ratings are good. But even if they went even higher, people would still say the old show was better. And maybe it was. But it just doesn’t matter! So maybe the show gets canceled. And you guys never get to do movies. Ever.” Bleak!
What saved SNL this time might have been fanboy Brandon Tartikoff. The NBC exec once dreamed of writing for the show, says Ebersol in his book From Saturday Night to Sunday Night: My Forty Years of Laughter, Tears and Touchdowns in TV. Tartikoff cared about creative television so he fired Doumanian and gave Ebersol one last chance to save it.
An Inside Job During Season Six
Ebersol took over for Doumanion and things looked up as he turned the show over to Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo. But there was still a powerful force at NBC intent on canceling the show: SNL head writer Michael O’Donogue.
“I’d make some good decisions, and some bad ones,” writes Ebersol. A bad one was taking Michael’s advice and bringing back Michael O’Donoghue to be the show’s head writer. The idea was to recreate the original show’s brilliance, but O’Donoghue had other ideas. “He openly proclaimed to me that his real fantasy was to ‘kill the show’ and give it a Viking funeral,” Ebersol explains in his book.
O’Donoghue’s plan was to lead the show into such distasteful waters that NBC would have no choice but to cancel it, meaning a show rooted in National Lampoon-style anarchy could go down in a blaze of comic glory. To drive home his point, he spray-painted the word DANGER on the wall, a manic act that scared Catherine O’Hara from joining the show. “Let’s all go down in the Viking Death Ship!”
Ebersol fired O’Donoghue shortly thereafter, foiling the writer’s plans for the show’s cancelation.
After Season 11
Season 10 was SNL’s best since the original cast left. But producer Ebersol was “tired of the grind,” and that year’s stars -- Billy Crystal, Martin Short, Christopher Guest -- had only agreed to perform for a year. There was little left to promise success in Season 11 -- until Lorne Michaels agreed to return.
Unfortunately, Michael’s new cast of comedy all-stars -- Robert Downey Jr., Anthony Michael Hall, Joan Cusack, and Randy Quaid -- fell flat on its face. “That was, I think, maybe the only year where at the end of the season, the show certainly was not guaranteed to come back,” remembers writer Carol Liefer in the oral history Live From New York. "It seemed genuinely in danger of being canceled.”
“Brandon calls me up in April and says, ‘I’m going to cancel Saturday Night Live,’” says comedy super-agent Bernie Brillstein. “I was happy to hear it -- you know, rather than see it suffer.”
But Brillstein’s wife protested. “You can’t let them bring Lorne back and then cancel it.” Brillstein had a change of heart and called Tartikoff to make one final plea. The NBC exec agreed to meet with Lorne to discuss a way forward.
“We all met, and that’s how it stayed on the air,” Brillstein says. “It was that close, it was canceled.”