Saturday Night Live: The Complete Second Season, 1976-1977 by Universal Studios

Saturday Night Live: The Complete Second Season, 1976-1977 by Universal Studios
Saturday Night Live: The Complete Second Season, 1976-1977 by Universal Studios (click images to enlarge)

Saturday Night Live: The Complete Second Season, 1976-1977 by Universal Studios

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For over three decades, Saturday Night Live has been the source of young comedic talent and helped to launch the careers of countless performers, making them household names. Still considered iconic for their live performances from Studio 8H in New York, the original cast of SNL (including Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner and John Belushi) set the tone for years to follow with their irreverent, edgy humor. They combined anti-establishment political satire with rock-and-roll attitude for a show that spoke to the youth of the 1970's, turning it into an instant sensation. Although only the second year on the air, the 1976-1977 season turned out to be the last for Chevy Chase, but the first for a young comedian named Bill Murray. The complete second season of SNL contains legendary musical performances by artists Joe Cocker, The Band, Brian Wilson, Paul Simon, George Harrison, Frank Zappa, Chuck Berry, The Kinks, Santana and Tom Waits and classic appearances by hosts Lily Tomlin, Norman Lear, Steve Martin, Dick Cavett, Jodie Foster, Candice Bergen, Ralph Nader, Fran Tarkenton, Sissy Spacek, Elliott Gould and Shelly Duvall.

Saturday Night Live's essential second season looms large in SNL's tumultuous history. Breakout star Chevy Chase departed after several episodes to pursue specials and a movie career. Mustachioed "new kid" Bill Murray's inauspicious beginning (he joined the cast in the Fran Tarkenton episode) was shaky enough to warrant pleading his case to viewers during the Broderick Crawford episode that he was, indeed, funny. He sealed the deal with his breakthrough sketch in the season finale, in which a husband transforms his shower into a lounge act, with guest appearances by his wife and even the man with whom she's having an affair. Another momentous episode marked Steve Martin's debut as host, ushering in Martin-mania. Joining John Belushi's Samurai in the pantheon of classic SNL characters are the Coneheads (Dan Aykroyd, Jane Curtin, and Larraine Newman), extraterrestrials struggling to assimilate ("We're from France"). Legendary National Lampoon writer Michael O'Donoghue introduced his sinister alter ego, Mr. Mike, in whose "Least-Loved Bedtime Stories" the Little Engine That Could has a heart attack, and Br'er Rabbit is skinned alive in a "random act of meaningless violence." Jane Curtin proves a formidable successor to Chevy Chase as anchor of "Weekend Update," but not before that now-infamous moment during the Tarkenton episode when, in a bid for "raw thrills" that will make viewers forget "sexy" Chevy Chase, tears open her blouse and proclaims, "Try these on for size, Connie Chung."

It is still thrilling to watch Saturday Night Live find its voice. Except for one brief appearance, the Muppet segments are out, as are Albert Brooks' short films, replaced by the New York slice-of-life entries by Gary Weiss. A couple of sketches, one featuring Lily Tomlin and Garret Morris and another with Sissy Spacek and John Belushi, are more dramatic playlets. And Eric Idle's first stint as host plays like a lost episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus with the sketches seamlessly flowing in to one another. But the series still fearlessly subverted television convention. Envelopes don't get pushed much more than the Christmas-episode holiday song "Let's Kill [death row inmate] Gary Gilmore for Christmas." Saturday Night Live is a topical show, and Earl Butz jokes don't play as well in the 21st century. But the musical segments endure, including the thrilling pairing of Paul Simon and George Harrison and an extended set by the Band. The hosts, as ever, are hit and miss. One of the season's high points is Simon, in an ill-fated attempt to shed his "Mr. Alienation" image, taking the stage in a turkey costume to sing "Still Crazy After All These Years." This set's bonus feature is a true rarity, the "Mardis Gras" special, an infamous primetime debacle in which the cast gamely copes with drunken crowds that pelt them with beads, and botched logistics (Penny Marshall must go on without Cindy Williams who is caught elsewhere in traffic). In their impact on comedy and pop culture, Saturday Night Live 's iconic first ensemble has been likened to the Beatles. Then, season 2 is Help! to season 1's A Hard Day's Night: still wildly funny, though not quite as exhilarating. --Donald Liebenson

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