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“Saturday Night Live” and Richard Pryor: The untold story behind “SNL’s” edgiest sketch ever

Up until the mid-1970s, the networks had little interest in Saturday late-night shows. After the eleven o’clock news, the airwaves were a bone-yard for local affiliates, the final resting place for schlock movies from the 1950s and ’60s. NBC stations had the option of rerunning recent episodes of "The Tonight Show" to predictably tepid ratings, which did not please either the affiliates or Johnny Carson. When Carson pulled the weekend reruns, preferring to repackage them as “best of ” programs to air on weeknights so that he could enjoy some time off, NBC president Herbert Schlosser and vice president of late night programming Dick Ebersol tapped Lorne Michaels, a veteran of Rowan and Martin’s "Laugh-In," to create something edgy and new.

Johnny Carson dismissed "Saturday Night" as crude and sophomoric. He was right. That he considered the jibe a debilitating argument against the show only underscores how out of step “the lonesome hero of middle America” (as a 1970 Life magazine cover proclaimed him) had become. Crude and sophomoric was exactly what Saturday Night’s demographic craved.

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