Create a free profile to get unlimited access to exclusive show news, updates, and more!
Why the First Saturday Night Live Cast Were Called The Not Ready for Prime Time Players
Gilda Radner was the first person ever to be cast on Saturday Night Live—which had a different name in Season 1, by the way.
On October 11, 1975, a new late-night comedy show premiered on NBC.
It kicked off much like the nearly 1000 Saturday Night Live episodes that have aired in the time slot since: With a cold open sketch. Titled “The Wolverines,” the scene starred a young comedian and musician named John Belushi opposite the new show’s head writer, Michael O’Donoghue. At its conclusion, another performer named Chevy Chase walked onstage, looked into the camera, and said, “Live from New York, it’s Saturday night!”
So began the very first episode of Saturday Night Live—which wasn't the show's title at the time. SNL was originally titled NBC’s Saturday Night, because there was already a show on ABC called Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell (NBC would switch the name to what we know now in 1977). While SNL’s inaugural season was an experiment in live comedy, it formed the basis for what’s become an institution—and its success was propelled by its young, mostly-unknown cast.
Like the hundreds of cast members that came after them, from Eddie Murphy to Amy Poehler to Pete Davidson, SNL ignited these performers' careers. Regardless of what happened offscreen in the years after they departed the show, they'll forever be the cast that started it all.
So who was in the original cast of the first Saturday Night Live? Below, read about the trailblazing group of actors known as the Not Ready for Prime Time Players: Gilda Radner, Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase, Garrett Morris, Jane Curtin, John Belushi, and Laraine Newman.
Why was the original cast of Saturday Night Live called the Not Ready for Prime Time Players?
For the first three seasons, the original cast of SNL was known as the “Not Ready for Prime Time Players.” The name was a direct reference to their main competition, Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell.
ABC's program, which ran for only 18 episodes, was sports announcer Cosell’s stab at the comedy format. Its own rotating group of performers were called the “Prime Time Players." That cast included Bill Murray, who’d go on to join NBC’s Saturday Night Live cast in 1977, and This Is Spinal Tap actor-director Christopher Guest, who eventually became an SNL season 10 cast member.
The first Saturday Night Live cast, 1975-1976
Gilda Radner, the very first cast member of SNL
Gilda Radner was the first Saturday Night Live performer ever cast. Scouted by the show's creator and executive producer Lorne Michaels, who was familiar with her work in the Toronto branch of improv school The Second City, Radner's iconic characters included Roseanne Rosannadanna, Baba Wawa, and Emily Litella.
“I felt there was a remarkable quality to her, a goodness which came through whatever she was doing,'' Michaels told the New York Times.
Radner, who won a 1978 Emmy for her work on the show, left SNL in 1980. In the years before her death from cancer in 1989, she went on to act in several films, including three with her husband Gene Wilder: Hanky Panky, The Woman in Red, and Haunted Honeymoon. .
Five-Timers Club member Emma Stone is among the many performers who cite Radner as an inspiration. Stone paid tribute to Radner's Roseanne Rosannadanna in SNL's 40th anniversary episode in a "Weekend Update" alongside Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Jane Curtin.
Like Radner, Dan Aykroyd performed with The Second City Toronto in the years before SNL. The native Canadian went on be a Mainstage cast member of The Second City Chicago, where he befriended his future fellow Blues Brother John Belushi.
First meeting Lorne Michaels as a teenager on the Canadian comedy scene, Aykroyd was the youngest of the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players. Aykroyd won a 1977 Emmy for his work on SNL before leaving the show in 1979.
Chevy Chase had written for National Lampoon and comedy duo the Smothers Brothers before becoming a Not Ready for Prime Time Player. According to Chase’s website, Lorne Michaels hired Chase after seeing him in the 1974 movie The Groove Tube. While hired as a writer, Chase quickly became one of SNL’s onscreen stars.
“He certainly got the show off to a great start,” James Andrew Miller, co-author of the book Live from New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live, said in a 2003 interview. As the first "Weekend Update" anchor, said Miller, “during the first five or six weeks of the show, Chevy was the only one who got to say his name: ‘I’m Chevy Chase and you’re not.’” Though Chase left SNL midway through Season 2, he won three Emmys for his work during his brief tenure, such as his "impression" of President Ford, and the "Landshark."
The eldest of the original cast and Saturday Night Live’s first Black cast member, Garrett Morris’s pre-SNL experience involved more singing than acting: Trained at Julliard, he’d performed on Broadway and with notable artists like the Harry Belafonte Folk Singers. On the podcast Fly on the Wall with Dana Carvey and David Spade, Morris said that Lorne Michaels hired him on the strength of a play he’d written.
Morris, who was a cast member in SNL's first five seasons, subsequently appeared in shows like Two Broke Girls and The Jamie Foxx Show.
Like most of the Not Ready for Prime Time Players, Curtin was already performing comedy on stage when she joined NBC's Saturday Night. Curtin would become the first woman anchor on "Weekend Update"; she also famously played an alien striving to be a normal American in the Coneheads sketches, which led to a 1993 Coneheads film.
A rising star in Chicago's Second City comedy scene, Belushi took his comedy from the stage to the small screen alongside friends Aykroyd and Chase. Belushi made an enormous impact on the show as a cast member for SNL's first four seasons, but was best known for being one half of The Blues Brothers, and his Olympia Restaurant "Cheeseburger, cheeseburger" character.
Belushi died on March 5, 1982. "He was one of the most intrinsically funny men I have ever known,'' Chevy Chase was quoted as saying in Belushi's New York Times obituary. ''I count myself lucky to have known him. We will all miss him.''
Prior to joining the cast, Laraine Newman was a founding member of L.A.'s Groundlings comedy troupe, which honed the skills of subsequent SNL cast members including Will Ferrell, Maya Rudolph and Kristen Wiig. Buzz about the group, and Newman, got Lorne Michaels' attention, leading to Newman coming on as a Not Ready for Prime Time Player and staying on for five seasons.
Newman's two kids are in the family business, too: Spike Einbender is a comedian and performer, and Hannah Einbinder is a standup comic and an Emmy-nominated star of the series Hacks.
Who was the first Host of Saturday Night Live?
Unlike today's SNL, the premiere episode featured two musical guests: Billy Preston and Janis Ian.