After 45 years as the pre-eminent American television comedy series, Saturday Night Live's classic format - cold opens, host monologues, musical guests, Weekend Update, etc. - has become something close to a sanctified religious ceremony among its fans. The rigid following of that format has made SNL an institution, and writers toil over how to make that rigid institution feel fresh almost half a century since the first episode aired on NBC.
Sometimes, SNL deviates from the comfortable hum of its traditional format, either out of a desire for creative invention or, like the 2020 Saturday Night Live From Home episodes connected to the COVID-19 quarantine, because of real-life issues beyond their control. The SNL at Home quarantine episodes are historic, but they aren't even the first time SNL has been produced outside of a traditional studio environment. These are all the most drastic deviations from SNL's classic format, listed in chronological order.
SNL Live From Mardi Gras
Airdate: February 20, 1977
The massive success of Saturday Night Live's first season created a very natural impulse within NBC: expand the brand with periodic specials and spinoffs. This is incredibly common today, with Weekend Update prime time specials and clip shows. But the first time the network tried to extend SNL's reach across its schedule was with the now-infamous Mardi Gras special. For this, NBC transported the Not Ready for Prime Time Players to New Orleans, to put on a live sketch-comedy show among the raucous debauchery of the famous festival. It proved to be as much of a disaster as it sounds.
It was SNL creator Lorne Michaels who first pitched the idea of a remotely produced episode to NBC executives. He told Vulture in 2019 that he "had a theory, since disproven, that you could do our kind of work against real architecture - so that, in a sense, the city became the sets.”
While that sounds interesting from an artistic standpoint, the idea of running a live comedy show in a city - especially one in the midst of a drunken rager - was a logistical nightmare. City infrastructure in shooting areas had to be augmented to ensure the crews had the power they needed, which meant locations had to be locked in before sketches were written. Police security details were requested, but officer attendance at rehearsals slowly started to dwindle. Writers struggled to come up with material for the peculiar surroundings. Camera equipment constantly broke down, preventing the producers from getting an accurate show runtime estimate. It was already falling apart.
Then, the night of the show came. In the event of severe technical difficulties, Michaels was depending on commentary from Buck Henry and Jane Curtain on the Bacchus Parade, which was the least demanding part of the entire evening thanks to its fixed location and relatively stable environment. Unfortunately, the crew got a call from the mayor's office at the last minute. The parade had been halted after a float hit a pedestrian.
With no parade, the stopgap segment fell apart, meaning any technical difficulties had no back-up. And there were certainly difficulties, among them a hostile, rowdy crowd that threw things, screamed, and even physically harassed cast members like Gilda Radner during sketches. SNL would never try such an ambitious remote special again.
The 'Anyone Can Host' Contest
Airdate: December 17, 1977
One of the most fundamental elements of the Saturday Night Live format is the guest host. In the early days of the show, the star power of the host was as much, if not more of a draw than the cast. By Season 3, though, the show itself was such a cultural phenomenon that it didn't matter nearly as much who that week's guest was. People would tune in regardless. Lorne Michaels tested this idea in season three, with the "Anyone Can Host" contest.
The only requirement for entry was a postcard with your reason for being the perfect host written on it in 25 words or less. More than 150,000 people entered the contest, which was eventually won by elderly Miskel Spillman of New Orleans, LA (surely a coincidence after the disastrous Mardi Gras special a year earlier). Spillman did a monologue, appeared in sketches, and generally did a pretty solid job of hosting considering her amateur status.
This episode is better remembered for totally different reasons, though, as it's also the show in which Elvis Costello enraged Lorne Michaels when he chose to play a different song than he was scheduled to perform on the show. Instead of performing "Less Than Zero," Costello launched into the as-yet-unreleased track "Radio, Radio," the lyrics of which were highly critical of the broadcasting industry. For his transgression, Costello was banned from SNL for almost 12 years. Costello was not even supposed to be the musical guest that night. The Sex Pistols were originally scheduled to perform, but were unable to secure travel to the United States.
- Video: YouTube
The 100th Episode
Airdate: March 15, 1980
For the auspicious occasion of SNL's 100th episode, no host was announced. Ray Charles, The Rolling Stones, and Desi Arnaz had already been combo hosts/musical guests at that point in the show's history. Also, episode 3 of season 1 featured no musical guest at all (but did have the famous John Belushi performance of Joe Cocker's "With a Little Help From My Friends"). But it wouldn't be until this Season 5 episode that there would be no announced host. For the special milestone, Lorne Michaels booked three musical guests: Paul Simon, James Taylor, and David Sanborn, plus cameos from former cast members John Belushi and Michael O'Donoghue. The cold open features the remaining original cast members around a crystal ball, attempting to summon the "memories" of cast members who have departed the show. Says former head writer O'Donoghue: "Since I left, the show really sucks rubber donkey lungs."
Who Shot C.R.?
Airdate: February 21, 1981
Despite its early reputation for being dangerous and culturally subversive, SNL is primarily a traditional sketch/variety show, with a melange of comedy and music not unlike predecessor series like The Ed Sullivan Show or Laugh-In. The variety aspect meant that segments weren't often related to each other with musical performance, sketches, and filmed pieces all mingling with each other without any connective tissue. That all changed for a historically significant episode of SNL in its tumultuous sixth season. Lorne Michaels had left, citing burnout, and the entire cast and writing team left with him. NBC, not wanting to let its late-night cash cow go, swore to carry on without SNL's creator. They hired Jean Doumanian, the show's former talent coordinator, to produce the show in his place. With Doumanian in charge and a new crop of actors replacing the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players, SNL sought to reinvent itself.
That meant changing up a format that was starting to show signs of age. One of the most brash attempts to reboot SNL that season was the "Who Shot C.R.?" parody, a running plot line through an entire episode which gently mocked the famous "Who Shot J.R.?" cliffhanger on the prime time TV soap opera Dallas. The episode was hosted by Dallas star Charlene Tilton with musical guests Todd Rundgren and Prince. In the show-long running storyline, new cast member Charles Rocket is seen flirting with Tilton, which causes other members of the ensemble to become jealous of all the attention he's getting. Rocket is shot late in the episode, but returns for the customary goodnights at the end of the show. When Tilton asks Rocket how it feels to have been shot, he says "Oh man, it's the first time I've ever been shot in my life. I'd like to know who the f*ck did it."
Rocket's utterance of an expletive on live broadcast TV caused not only a national controversy, but it also led to the dismissal of Doumanian, Rocket, and fellow cast members Gilbert Gottfried and Ann Risley. Former NBC Sports producer Dick Ebersol would take over SNL not long after, changing the course of the show once again.