‘SNL’s Original Not Ready for Primetime Players, Ranked

Nearly every cast member broke out in Season One, but who won the year?
‘SNL’s Original Not Ready for Primetime Players, Ranked

Before Saturday Night launched in October 1975, no one had ever heard of virtual unknowns John Belushi, Gilda Radner or Chevy Chase. Six months later, all of them were among the biggest comedy stars in the country. Few shows have sent comics skyrocketing more than the original Saturday Night, but which of the show’s initial stars shone brightest? Here is our ranking of the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players, based solely on the impact they made in that remarkable first season.   

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George Coe

George Who? Ranking Mr. Coe last was the easiest call on this list, considering he was only credited as a cast member for the very first show. The guy didn’t even get a picture!

A Broadway veteran and a full 20 years older than John Belushi, Coe was hired to play older parts before Lorne Michaels decided the younger cast could handle those roles. Coe popped up here and there in the first season before being shown the door.

Michael O’Donoghue

Oh, the indignity — O’Donoghue was even listed after Coe in the credits! But O’Donoghue the performer made a much bigger impact on Saturday Night. In fact, he co-starred with Belushi in the show’s first-ever sketch. 

Despite the opportunity to make a good first impression, O’Donoghue was only listed as a cast member through the November 8th episode. No matter — as the first season’s head writer, O’Donoghue had other ways of making his presence felt, including some for which he would later have to apologize

Garrett Morris

Where do we start with Morris? How about a writing staff that had no idea how to write for a Black comic? O’Donoghue “was a racist motherfucker,” Morris told the Hollywood Reporter. “I suggested I could play in this skit, a doctor. He had the nerve to tell me, ‘Garrett, people would be thrown by a Black doctor.’”

But Morris puts some of the blame for his lack of stage time that first season on himself, too. While he had some improv training, it was more grounded in cultural issues than comedy. “When John Belushi and Gilda Radner got into Saturday Night Live, they had a comedy range from one to a hundred,” he told Maya Rudolph. “My range was from ‘Hate Whitey’ to ‘Kill Whitey.’” (He’s not kidding — see his favorite scene below.)

Laraine Newman

Newman scored in the first season but was held back by personal problems. “I came there with a drug habit,” she admitted in Live From New York: The Complete, Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live. “It was also a very lonely time for me. I was pretty young, I didn’t know that many people in New York, I was terribly homesick and I was frustrated by the amount of airtime I was getting. … Drugs were very available. That’s how I coped.”

Jane Curtin

Curtin was the resident grown-up in the room, sent out by NBC on the show’s initial publicity tours because they knew she “wouldn’t throw my food.” (The same couldn’t be said definitively of Belushi.) She was the only cast member who didn’t regularly participate in the show’s after-party debauchery. Of the show’s female cast members, “Jane was always kind of centered,” observed Lily Tomlin. “And ironically, she’s the one that’s had the biggest career. She was always very anchored. I was always impressed with Jane.” 

John Belushi

Belushi would eventually dominate the show and ascend to movie superstardom, but he wasn’t Saturday Night’s biggest star out of the gate — and he hated that. Sure, Belushi headlined the show’s first-ever sketch, but it was Chevy Chase who got to deliver the “Live from New York! It’s Saturday Night!”

“In the first three shows, John was the opening scene of the first show, and I don’t think he had a good scene again for three shows,” his wife Judith Belushi has said. “It took a while. It was slow to grow.” Belushi finally broke through with his samurai sketches, even though writer Alan Zweibel gave him no dialogue beyond “John indicates in his gibberish.”

Dan Aykroyd

Season One Aykroyd may not have created characters as memorable as Belushi’s Samurai, but like Phil Hartman in later years, he was the glue that held the show together. Aykroyd was a comic chameleon, slipping effortlessly into the skin of a fast-talking commercial pitchman, Presidential hopeful Jimmy Carter or talk show legend Tom Snyder. 

The rest of the cast knew what they had in Aykroyd. “There’s more talent in Danny Aykroyd’s right hand than in my entire body,” said Chevy Chase in a rare moment of modesty.

Chevy Chase

But what did Chase have to be modest about? He was the undisputed breakout star of the show’s first season, in large part because he announced his name at the top of every Weekend Update: “I’m Chevy Chase and you’re not.”

Chase also campaigned (successfully) to open every show with a ridiculous pratfall. Like repeating his name week after week, inserting himself into the top of every show ensured that the audience would know who he was. After the show’s fifth episode, New York Magazine came out with a Saturday Night cover story that featured only Chase on the cover. “Chevy kind of jumped ahead of the pack, so to speak,” writer Rosie Shuster has explained. “And that started a kind of resentment on the part of some people, particularly John.”

Gilda Radner

But while Chase’s face became most associated with that first season, Radner stole the spotlight just the same. Unlike Chase, who always played a version of himself, Radner introduced characters that endured, like the eternally confused Emily Litella. 

Radner was the first one cast on Saturday Night for a reason, both an ensemble player and breakout star. In the first season, she did a running gag where she had a crush on host Elliott Gould throughout an entire episode, culminating with their marriage at show’s end. That episode would win Saturday Night’s first Emmy. 

When Candice Bergen hosted and almost botched a Land Shark sketch by forgetting a line, “Gilda, of course, handled it beautifully,” Bergen said. “Gilda was so great. She was such an angel, and so gifted, so sweet. Everybody bonded with Gilda because she was irresistible.”

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