The ‘SNL’ Episode That Steve Martin Considered the ‘Peak of Saturday Night’ and the ‘Peak of Me’

It was the night that bare breasts came this close to making their national TV debut
The ‘SNL’ Episode That Steve Martin Considered the ‘Peak of Saturday Night’ and the ‘Peak of Me’

Possibly the all-time best episode of Saturday Night Live lost out at the Emmys to a Steve Lawrence and Edie Gorme special. But that doesn’t stop writer Tom Davis (one half of the legendary SNL writing team Franken and Davis) from considering a 1978 episode hosted by Steve Martin to be the show’s pinnacle. “It was one of the few shows,” Davis says in his memoir 39 Years of Short-Term Memory Loss: The Early Days of SNL from Someone Who Was There, “where everybody went to the after-party happy.”

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What made the April 1978 episode such a classic? Start with Martin, who was hosting the show for the fifth time in two years. “He’d come to host the show and brought this ridiculous song he’d written, called ‘King Tut.’” said Davis. “It was silly and stupid—and wonderful.”

It also nearly made history as the world’s first on-purpose wardrobe malfunction. Lorne Michaels told his design team to go to town, and they created a lavish set full of gold and hieroglyphics. “The rehearsal with costumes was effortless, but as one of the Black chick singers came into the nexus, Jay Otley, our gentlemanly Standards and Practices guy, had wardrobe chief Franne Lee in tow, and he stopped the young woman. “Franne—look—you can clearly see her breasts.” (After a protest, they covered her up.)

That, says Davis, was the kind of show it was. 

The show was definitely a high for SNL music. In addition to ‘King Tut,’ that night’s show began with Paul Shaffer as rock promoter Don Kirshner introducing a new band that was “no longer an authentic blues act, but have managed to become a viable commercial product.” Enter the Blues Brothers, seen here wailing their second song of the show. 

There was this beautiful, wordless sketch featuring Martin and a radiant Gilda Radner. 

Maybe Davis loved the episode so much because his sketches played such a prominent role. One was inspired by an injury to fellow writer Don (Fr. Guido Sarducci) Novello, who’d broken his hip in a sketch the previous week. A pained Novello was hospitalized “flat on his back, with his leg in a cast suspended at a forty-degree angle by a rope and pulley with a large weight at the end,” Davis remembered. “Looking at Don in that hospital made me flash on how primitive this medical procedure would seem in the future.” And thus, “Theodoric of York, Medieval Barber” was born, a modern scientist who knew that maladies were caused by “an imbalance of bodily humors perhaps caused by a toad or a small dwarf living in her stomach.” 

The cure, of course, was leeches to let off a little blood. 

Every sketch of the night was a home run, a phenomenon that’s rarely been repeated. But it wasn’t just Davis who thought the episode represented an apex. Steve Martin, who caused ratings to jump by a million or more homes when he hosted, thought so too. In Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live,” he said of that night, “It was like the peak of Saturday Night. It was the peak of me.”

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