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This ‘SNL’ Mardi Gras Special Was the Biggest Disaster in the Show’s History

This ‘SNL’ Mardi Gras Special Was the Biggest Disaster in the Show’s History

A live comedy show from 15 different crowded locations surrounded by unruly drunks and topless partiers? What could go wrong? When Saturday Night Live decided to do a primetime special from Mardi Gras in 1977, the answer was “pretty much everything.” 

Director Dave Wilson told Lorne Michaels he was crazy for even trying it, according to Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live. But Michaels wanted to go for it, bozos urinating from the balconies about Bourbon Street be damned. SNL would give it a go in prime time, with Buck Henry and Jane Curtin doing live commentary of the raucous Bacchus Parade, Randy Newman singing in a concert hall, and sketches featuring Penny Marshall, Cindy Williams, Henry Winkler, and Eric Idle from remote locations all over the city. 

Everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Here are 10 of my favorites…

Technical Difficulties

A daytime rehearsal took endless hours, complicated by cast members surrounded by drunken crowds. Fifteen cameras were set up at sites around New Orleans — this was the first clue that most of them weren’t working.

Yeah, That’s the Ticket

Shnockered fans overwhelmed Newman’s Theatre of the Performing Arts as soon as doors opened, tickets be damned. Utter chaos.

Human Target

Michael O’Donoghue climbed a tower to lead the crowd in his new Antler Dance, only to find he’d put himself on the perfect perch to be pelted with whiskey bottles and beer cans.

I Think I’m Gonna Hurl

As Aykroyd in Jimmy Carter costume prepared to open the show while sitting on an Andrew Jackson statue, the production van lost power — 10 minutes before the show was to go live. Electricity was restored, but not before Lorne threw up. 

You Can’t Go Home Again

New Orleans’ own Garrett Morris was scheduled to perform a song that got cut, leaving the city’s native son with zero presence in the show. “It was a very, very bad week for Garrett Morris, because that was his hometown,” says Buck Henry in oral history Live From New York. “He was severely pissed off. He wandered off.”

The Hangover Hustle

A few of Belushi’s parts were also cut for time, leading the hungover star to lock himself in his hotel room. “They wrote me out of the show! I’m not coming—I’ve got nothing to do!” When Belushi was finally convinced to emerge, he had to sprint several blocks to make the live show. 

Randy, You Got Another One?

Newman turned out to be the star of the show with four songs, mainly because his theater was one of the only places where the cameras were working.

Kind of a Drag

The Laverne and Shirley stars reported on a drag-queen ball, but lost communication with Michaels. Marshall was alone and staring into space when the segment went live. “You’re on, you’re on!” “Now?”

‘Mardi Gras Is French for ‘No Parade’’

Henry and Curtin were on a platform along the parade route, but the parade didn’t show up on schedule. In fact, it never arrived during the live show. With everything else going wrong, the show kept cutting back to the comics at the non-parade, with writers frantically handing them one-liners from off-camera to fill the time. Meanwhile, the surrounding crowd got drunker and found the SNL actors a perfect target for beads, cans, and whatever else happened to be lying around. Five police officers had been promised for security; one elderly cop was left alone to do the job. Curtin was subjected to drunken shouts of “Take your shirt off!” According to Saturday Night, she and Henry feared for their lives. 

Never Mind

Gilda Radner did a bit as Emily Litella talking to a riverboat pilot just off Jackson Square. As soon as the cameras cut to commercial, she was groped by a small group of liquored up partiers, with one sticking his head up her dress. Police intervened.

The debacle ended up costing about a million bucks, a fortune in 1977. NBC program chief Paul Klein nearly lost his job over the spectacle. As legend has it, Lorne Michaels was being considered for a job as chief of NBC’s late-night division. The Mardi Gras catastrophe killed that notion. “Oh, that was a disaster,” says Marshall about the show. “That was ridiculous.”


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