Lorne Michaels Didn’t Think Steve Martin Was Serious Enough for ‘Saturday Night Live’

Well, excuuuuuse Martin
Lorne Michaels Didn’t Think Steve Martin Was Serious Enough for ‘Saturday Night Live’

The very first season of Saturday Night Live is memorable for many reasons, including its impressive array of guest hosts not normally seen on network television, names like George Carlin, Lily Tomlin and Richard Pryor. But there’s one conspicuous comedian missing from that first year, a man who is nearly as identified with the glorious first wave of SNL as Gilda Radner, John Belushi and Chevy Chase. Where the hell was Steve Martin?

“I was incredibly judgmental about who I would let on the show,” Lorne Michaels confessed to Playboy in 1992. “I stopped Steve Martin from being on the show during the first year because I didn’t take his act seriously. Here was this guy with an arrow on his head and doing balloon animals. It wasn’t my definition of the show. I wanted to distance us from that — for fear of not being taken seriously.”

“Serious” did not describe mid-1970s Steve Martin. In his book Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life, Martin described his counter-counterculture approach to comedy. “I cut my hair, shaved my beard and put on a suit,” he wrote. “I stripped the act of all political references, which felt like an act of defiance.” 

Hippie sensibilities gave way to banjo plunking and mangled magic tricks. He became 100 percent committed to “unbridled nonsense” and a “one-man vaudeville show turned fully toward the surreal.”

In other words, Martin was no Carlin. “Actually, there were a lot of comedians, without mentioning names, whom I was rejecting on the basis that they were wearing shirts with enormously large collars — which was nothing but snobbery, I suppose,” Michaels said. “We were all of a generation that, at that time, was tremendously unforgiving, just as political correctness is now. There was a kind of social correctness then. I resented it when Bob Hope made jokes about hippies. We were incredibly serious about what was ours.”

“Lorne was reluctant to have me on,” Martin acknowledges in the oral history Live From New York. “I was never reluctant. I wanted to be on the show from the first moment I saw it.” What was the problem, from Martin’s point-of-view? “In a strange way, I was new and old-fashioned at the same time. And maybe the irony of my performance hadn’t reached Lorne yet. I really don’t know.“

Of course, Michaels finally did ask Martin to host in the show’s second season, to which he responded, “Yes and yes.” When he finally took the stage in October 1976, Martin felt “powerful butterflies just prior to being introduced.” But years of performing on the road helped the comic deliver a sharp performance. The following Monday, he had a gig in Madison, Wisconsin and asked the promotor how many people were waiting to see him. The answer was 6,000, more than double his normal crowd. Martin was welcomed to the stage with “a roar of such intensity that I remember feeling both pleasure and fear.” 

SNL had delivered for Martin, big-time. 

But of course, Martin delivered for SNL as well — eight times during the show’s first five seasons with its original cast. In fact, asked Playboy, wasn’t Martin one of early SNL’s most successful hosts?

“The most successful,” Michaels replied. “Without question.”


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