When SNL Started and Startled

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This is Associated Press TV writer Frazier Moore watching television for KCRW and going back in time. Back to stumblebum President Jerry Ford. Back to killer bees and Samurai Hotel. Back to Emily Litella saying "Never mind." Back to 1975 and '76 as mocked every week by a brash new comedy called NBC's Saturday Night.

The first season of what not until the next year became Saturday Night Live has just been released in a DVD collection, and I have taken the complete, 24-show time strip. I commend it to you all.

Any viewer who has never seen Michael O'Donoghue impersonate a show-biz celebrity with 15-inch needles in his eyes, or heard the latest dispatch confirming Generalisimo Francisco Franco is still dead, will be richer for the experience.

But Saturday Night Live: The Complete First Season packs an even great pay-off for veteran fans like me, who back then greeted each show as nothing less than an event, and lived it right along with the performers who we nothing less than idolized. Count me among SNL hardliners whose reaction to any season past circa 1980 is: "They just don't make 'em like they used to."

Still, here's a chance to cut through three decades of fond remembrances (and through the, um, marijuana haze that might have clouded certain viewers' judgment at the time) for a clear-eyed reappraisal: Once and for all, just how good was that inaugural season?

Rest assured: These DVDs certify it was revolutionary.

And as for those original Not Ready for Prime Time Players? Three decades later, to watch Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi is to behold enduring genius. And the wondrous Gilda Radner shines as bright as ever.

On the other hand... could we really have adored Chevy Chase for his signature pratfalls and smarmy pronouncements that, "Live from New York, it's `Saturday Night'"? Sure, he was the show's breakout star. But with the clarity of hindsight, it's obvious he was just a budding version of what, in movies, he would soon unequivocally become: a one-note, insufferable ham.

Starting with the SNL premiere on October 11, 1975, with George Carlin as guest host, this collection lets us track a groundbreaking series in its pioneering infancy. But amazingly, by the fourth or fifth week, its format was set in stone -- fated never to change (at least, as of this past Saturday night).

Not that a consistent formula can guarantee consistent quality. Week to week that first season, the shows were wildly uneven -- same as any year since.

But if SNL has always been a hit-or-miss affair, my look back satisfies me that something special drove it: an unruly zeal to surprise its viewers along with making them laugh. It set out to defy the TV medium it had invaded.

And then, all too soon, it became just another component of the culture it spoofed. It was digested by TV.

So SNL lost its capacity to startle, abandoning that mission to repeat itself, catering to viewers' well-entrenched expectations. It began with a subversive streak. Then it calcified into comfortable habits.

For some of us, SNL: The Complete First Season will expose the series' dawning was maybe not as great as we might like to remember. But the impact of those early shows is greater than we could've imagined. Watching them now, it's clear why.

Watching television for KCRW, I'm Associated Press TV writer Frazier Moore--and you're not.