'SNL': at 25, still forever young; From Belushi to Piscopo to Oteri, 'Saturday Night Live' has earned its place in pop culture.; TELEVISION


"Saturday Night Live" is old enough to have offered the Beatles -- all four of them -- the perfectly ridiculous sum of $3,000 to reunite for a one-night stand. Yet it's young enough to attract a new generation of viewers who know next to nothing about John Lennon.

"A pop-culture institution," says NBC, and that's no joke. "SNL," born Oct. 11, 1975, during Gerald Ford's presidency, enters its 25th season with nothing -- and everything -- to prove. It is the most analyzed, criticized, scrutinized show in television history. The most influential, too, whether you liked Joe Piscopo or not.

Tonight, it gets a head start on its silver season with a special that airs from 9 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. on NBC.

"SNL" creator Lorne Michaels was just 30 when he first led the show into battle. NBC's brass braced for the apocalypse.

"The network was worried about the impact on the affiliates and whether the show would be perceived as too radical," Michaels remembered in the book "Saturday Night Live: The First 20 Years." "But then on Monday the reviews and ratings came out (both were positive), and Western civilization as we know it didn't end."

"SNL's" early years have long been legendary, even though more than a few of those shows weren't classics or even all that good.

The renowned "SNL" cast of the 1970s -- led by John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase, Jane Curtin and Bill Murray -- left en masse after the 1979-80 season. Big-money movies beckoned, a history that has repeated itself throughout the show's life span. Michaels departed as well, before returning several years later after some serious ups and downs.

The show lately has benefited from a long-established cast and better use of women cast members than at any time since the '70s. Molly Shannon, Cheri Oteri and Ana Gasteyer are on equal footing with Will Ferrell, Darrell Hammond, Chris Kattan and Tim Meadows.

Whatever its duration, "SNL's" legacy is iron-clad. Its catch phrases, characters, lampoonings and starmaking prowess are unequaled and likely unsurpassable.

"I don't think in terms of the show's history that the first year was necessarily the best," Michaels has said. "But it was new, and you can't ever be new again."

Tonight's live anniversary show will ring in the old anew, possibly giving us the TV event of the season at its very start.

Pub Date: 09/26/99

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