How the Original ‘SNL’ Cast Tricked NBC With Phony Phone Calls
From its very first episode, Saturday Night Live found a way to piss off important people. George Carlin was the host, and while he started the show innocuously enough with a routine about the differences between football and baseball, he got more provocative as the night went on. Late in the show, he decided to weigh in on religion. While the bit seems pretty tame by today’s standards — why do people pray on Sunday, Carlin wondered, since that’s the day He rests? — it managed to prompt a call to the NBC switchboard from none other than the cardinal over at the Catholic Archdiocese of New York. NBC executive Dick Ebersol decided not to tell Lorne Michaels and ruin the afterglow of the first show, but he still had a problem.
How could Ebersol convince NBC to allow SNL to keep pushing boundaries if angry callers were going to rack up the complaints? In his book From Saturday Night to Sunday Night: My Forty Years of Laughter, Tears, and Touchdowns on TV, Ebersol discloses his creative solution. During the show, when members of the Not Ready for Primetime Players were in between sketches, Ebersol would have them sneak off into a room off the control room. There, the cast members, “often the amazing Gilda,” would make phony phone calls to the switchboard raving about how great the show was.
For skilled improvisers, this was an easy and amusing task. New voices? No problem. And if Gilda wanted to put in a good word about how much a delighted viewer loved, say, Gilda, why not? “They had fun with it,” insists Ebersol, “and it seemed to keep the stodgy executives who didn’t get the show at bay.”
But what about the cardinal? It’s one thing for NBC executives to dismiss elderly curmudgeons who don’t appreciate the Coneheads chugging mass quantities of beer and another to ignore the complaints of a prominent religious leader. Ebersol almost tried to tackle the situation head-on after that first show. “All hyped-up on adrenaline, and probably foolishly thinking I could solve the problem directly at 1:45 in the morning, I walked over to the back entrance of St. Patrick’s Cathedral,” he remembers. Ebersol approached the door to the cardinal’s private residence, hoping to talk some sense into the Catholic leader. Ebersol was about to press the doorbell when he decided that perhaps it was way too late at night (or too early in the morning) for such a conversation. He’d try again on Monday.
Except he didn’t have to. Turns out the original Catholic complaint to the NBC switchboard was just one more phony phone call.