If one thing’s true about Saturday Night Live, it’s that it was never consistently great. We remember the sketches and performances that were great, and ideally forget the rest. That’s why every season people complain about how this cast isn’t as great as the one ten years ago—despite saying the exact same thing about that cast ten years ago. There are peaks and valleys, and sometimes there are more of one than the other for an extended period (we’d argue the show is currently in one of those down periods, and do in our reviews most Sundays). Even the early seasons, featuring the largely beloved original Not Ready for Prime Time Players, were generally hit-or-miss from sketch to sketch. It’s the nature of sketch comedy: when you have a new story every five minutes, with new characters, settings and scenarios, you’re never going to be able to please everybody all the time.
Still, that original ‘70s cast might have had a higher batting average than any one since. Certain performers are so great that they can salvage weak material, and that first cast was full of them. There’s a reason people still rave about Belushi and Radner and Murray and Aykroyd, and that’s because they’re among the most talented people to ever appear on any comedy show. When somebody as good as Laraine Newman doesn’t even make your first bench, you know your roster is deep. We’ve looked back into the past to break down the best of that original cast, and here are our conclusions.
The classic ‘70s SNL lineup that’s been so revered over the years featured eight performers. There were others who popped up occasionally over those early years—George Coe was brought on to play older characters, but made few appearances and was only credited on the first episode, and Harry Shearer was briefly a main cast member during the 1979-1980 season. There were also various writers who were featured cast members at various points during those early years, instead of full repertory members. Al Franken and Tom Davis were among them, primarily as the officially recognized comedy duo Franken & Davis. Any number of performers could’ve taken this slot—Paul Shaffer, Brian Doyle-Murray, Don Novello—but Franken and Davis get the nod because they made more of an impression than the rest of the writers during those early years.
The original head writer of SNL, and co-star of the show’s very first sketch (alongside John Belushi), Michael O’Donoghue is one of the most important figures in the show’s earliest days. His anarchic style and dark humor lent the show an edge that helped establish its counterculture reputation. He appeared sporadically on the show, most frequently as Mr. Mike, a vehicle for his corrosive, cynical approach to comedy, which gave him a greater visibility among viewers than other writers. If he had done more on-screen—and showed any interest in actually performing during his appearances, instead of just getting by on too-cool-for-school swagger—O’Donoghue would’ve been higher on this list.
Historically SNL has a bad reputation for treating its minority cast members with respect, and that all started with Garrett Morris. An experienced actor hired alongside an unproven cast of comedians and sketch performers, Morris felt like the show forced him into stereotypical roles; rewatching those early seasons today, it’s very easy to see why Morris would feel that way. His race was almost always central to every character he played—even when it wasn’t the race of the character, as with his Dominican baseball player Chico Escuella. Morris didn’t make quite as much of an impression as the other original Not Ready For Primetime Players because he wasn’t given the opportunity to, but he made the most of everything he was allowed to do.
Newman’s kind of the forgotten woman of the original cast, and didn’t do a lot of high profile work after leaving the show. That doesn’t diminish what she did in her five years on SNL, though. The LA native and Groundlings vet imbued characters like Sheri the Valley Girl with a specificity and a hint of an internal life often missing from the over-the-top caricatures the show normally prioritizes.
Seriously, we’re not downgrading Chase because of the miserable reputation he’s cultivated over the last 30 years. As pivotal as he was to the show’s success, he was only on it for a little over a season. His smug, superior delivery as the original Weekend Update host set the irreverent tone of the show’s early seasons. Even though he was barely there for a year, and hasn’t hosted in almost 20 years, he’ll always be linked with SNL as its first superstar.
Serious professional Jane Curtin was a grounding influence during the show’s early freewheeling days. She was an exemplary straight-woman during Weekend Update, which she cohosted with both Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray, and was the deadpan bedrock that John Belushi played off of during his manic commentaries. She was a crucial player in the ‘70s, especially in commercial parodies and any sketch requiring somebody to play a respectable member of society. She didn’t have many flashy roles, but she was a distaff precursor to people like Phil Hartman and Jason Sudeikis, and along with Aykroyd was the glue that held the show together during its first five seasons.
Bill Murray is one of the show’s greatest hosts, and almost everything he did during his three season stint as a regular was fantastic. It’s where he first revealed the deadpan, wise-cracking personality that would make him one of the most successful film comedians of all time. Nick Winters, the Lounge Singer, remains one of the most beloved characters in the show’s history, and his infamous on-air apology might be the most Bill Murray thing he’s ever done, combining his confidence and self-deprecation into a tidy three minute bit.
As one of the original Not Ready For Primetime Players, Gilda Radner was never afraid to get goofy, as evidenced by characters like Roseanne Rosannadanna, the Barbara Walters spoof “Baba Wawa” and Lisa Loopner, but her comedy also had a certain elegance to it. It’s why her dance with Steve Martin, a parody of Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse’s dance through Central Park, worked so beautifully, and it’s why she’ll be remembered as one of the show’s all-time greats.—Bonnie Stiernberg
Phil Hartman was famously called “the glue” that held the show together during his era. Dan Aykroyd was the original glue. Chevy Chase was the face, John Belushi was the heart and soul, but Aykroyd was the backbone. He was a fantastic lead when needed, but was just as good as a foil or partner for another cast member. He easily disappeared into characters, fully committing himself to everything he did. We won’t even start listing off his famous characters because that would take up the rest of this piece. Aykroyd might have been the most important member of that first cast, if only because it could have all collapsed without him.
Sometimes it feels like we talk about Belushi’s tragic death more than we do his talent, which is a shame, because it was immense. We expect whirlwind performances like The Samurai or his spot-on Joe Cocker impression from him, but Belushi could dial it back on occasion, making us laugh with a single word—one that happens to be the reason a sign that (slightly inaccurately) reads “Cheezborger, Cheezborger, Cheezborger. No Pepsi. Coke.” hangs in Chicago’s Billy Goat Tavern to this day.—BS
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.