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The Surprising Story Behind Saturday Night Live’s Most Famous Line

3 minute read

By now, Saturday Night Live—which kicks off its 40th season on Sept. 27 — is an institution. But when the show first started, it wasn’t even Saturday Night Live. When Chevy Chase uttered its famous catchphrase for the first time, live from New York it was literally Saturday Night—as in, the show was called Saturday Night. Hence, the wording.

The reason? There was another show premiering on ABC that season with a strangely similar name: Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell.

That show also debuted in 1975. It was also a variety show, though more focused on music—its premiere introduced the U.S. to the Bay City Rollers—than on comedy. And it was, at least based on TIME’s coverage that fall, the more noteworthy of the two. Describing a taping, with its “atmosphere as neon as a Hollywood première in the ’20s,” TIME heralded the show as something new: It was a “latter-day vaudeville” and the first live TV variety show since Ed Sullivan’s, with big names involved and a massive publicity push, plus “ill wishes hurled at it by Cosell haters and rival NBC and CBS offices.”

Of course, we know how this story ends. Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell has largely been forgotten; as for Saturday Night Live, well, it’s starting its 40th season.

The difference was clear from the start. The show then known as NBC’s Saturday Night was, TIME proclaimed, “the season’s surprise hit.” Dick Ebersol, the network exec who put the show together, said at the time that Saturday Night was NBC’s biggest hit among advertisers since the early ’50s, despite a cast of “mostly unknowns.” Though not every sketch worked, TIME said, the success was deserved:

SN’s most endearing and human quality is its unevenness. Guest hosts participate in the sketches themselves and some write their own jokes too. Carlin set the pace on his, the first show, with a line that would make prime-time programmers blanch: “God can’t be perfect; everything he makes dies.” By the time Lily Tomlin came on to host the fifth show, SN had a cult following. She made it a smash, her double-edged style and swift undercuts setting off SN‘s frenzied variety. Suddenly, everyone wanted to act as host: Richard Pryor, Elliott Gould, Buck Henry, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, the British satirists, and this week Dick Cavett. The writers, of course, want someone a little different: King Olav of Norway, Patty Hearst (“but we don’t want to blow her defense”), Ernest and Julio Gallo with Cesar Chavez as their guest.

ABC’s Saturday Night Live was cancelled within a few months, and it wasn’t long before NBC nabbed the name.

Read the full review of the first season of SNL here, in TIME’s archives: Flakiest Night of the Week

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Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com