The show's lone New Orleans native was shut out of the program. One of the city's hottest musical groups didn't even get to perform. A special guest star, sleep-deprived with no script, went blank on air. A cast member got caught in a "group grope." Its biggest star threatened to boycott the episode. Power outages threatened skits. And despite two key players poised to provide laugh-out-loud parade commentary throughout the episode, the parade never showed -- nearly causing a riot.
That's what you get for putting on during Mardi Gras: pure bedlam.
In 1977, (SNL) was in the middle of its second season, still riding a high with its four Emmys from the 1975-76 season. In what appears to be a fit of pure hubris, executive producer Lorne Michaels tried to build on the show's momentum with its first prime-time episode -- on a Sunday night, as part of NBC's "Big Event" 8 p.m. (EST) time slot. He'd do it in New Orleans, on the second weekend of Mardi Gras. It was the nation's craziest television show going up against the nation's craziest party, and the result was a disaster to some and a minor miracle to others. Perspective, 25 years later, is a funny thing.
"It was an experience, and Lorne even pulled it off," recalls Penny Marshall, then the co-star of ABC's popular sitcom Laverne and Shirley. Marshall and co-star Cindy Williams were in town as the co-grand marshals of the Endymion parade and were recruited as guest stars for SNL. "Shooting it live during Mardi Gras, it was amazing," Marshall says. "I don't think he'll be doing that again. It was insanity. It was a lot of fun."
Despite repeated requests over a two-month span, a spokesman for SNL said Michaels was too busy to be interviewed for this article. Others who appeared or worked on the show generally look back fondly at that "insanity," while some aren't quite so kind. Native New Orleanian Garrett Morris, whose tenure in the Not Ready for Prime Time Players cast (1975-80) was fraught with alienation and racism, felt completely snubbed. George Porter Jr., bassist of the Meters (now the funky Meters), is still tweaked that the chaos of the episode's production prevented the group from being allowed to perform. Roberts Batson, a New Orleanian who assisted Marshall during one segment, is still waiting for his check.
But if anyone wasn't surprised at what happened, it was musical guest Randy Newman, who is all too familiar with the madness that is New Orleans during Mardi Gras -- or New Orleans in general. "It's the reason I love it better than any other city," says Newman, who performed four songs on the show. "Things are not going to work. ... Particularly with Mardi Gras, I anticipated they'd run into problems. I knew they'd get some surprises. I told Lorne, 'Things aren't going to be like in New York.'
"[Michaels] said at one point one day that this was the only time in his life that he just went to bed," says Newman, now 58. "The logistics were so difficult. He just hid. It was the one time he was genuinely frightened for his job."
In Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live, co-authors Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad suggest the inspiration for the New Orleans episode was nearly magical. Michaels, a rising golden boy with NBC, wanted to shake things up with the show. It was cold in New York in January, the authors wrote, and what better way to heat up literally and figurative than to take the production down to Mardi Gras the following month? "Let's go get steeped in it!" Michaels reportedly said.
The timing was perfect, the authors continued, because NBC programming chief Paul Klein had a huge hole to fill on the network's "Big Event" Sunday-special slot during the crucial sweeps period in late February. Klein instantly green-lighted the idea, and Michaels was off and running.
While many of the cast and crew were excited about the idea, others were skeptical, according to Hill and Weingrad. The show's Emmy-winning director, Dave Wilson, had seen Mardi Gras at its urine-stained worst while trying to film a Perry Como special once, and warned that New Orleans during Mardi Gras "was a zoo, and a dangerous zoo at that."
Undaunted, Michaels sent down production-facilities expert Dan Sullivan to scout out the area and solicit help from then-Mayor Moon Landrieu. The mayor reportedly loved the idea; the city was blessed with a new Theater of the Performing Arts within the newly constructed Armstrong Park and had just finished other major renovations. It would be a great opportunity to change people's negative perceptions of Mardi Gras. Despite more reassurances from Landrieu, the book suggests, Michaels began to wonder what he had gotten himself into once his production crew started trying to set up.
Still, Michaels pressed on with an ambitious production. He knew Williams and Marshall would be in town for Endymion and planned to use them in one skit and to provide commentary from the gay Krewe of Apollo ball. He also knew Henry Winkler, who as Arthur Fonzarelli was the star of ABC's other mega-hit, Happy Days, would be in town as the king of the Bacchus parade. He'd pre-tape a segment with him for backup.
The episode grew in scope. Michaels and musical director Howard Shore chose Newman as the main musical guest and invited the Meters and the New Leviathan Oriental Foxtrot Orchestra. (SNL staff writer Michael O'Donoghue, Shore recalls, was a huge fan of New Leviathan.) All three artists and the SNL house band would be based inside the Theater of the Performing Arts, where Newman would perform with the New Orleans Symphony, which had Howard Shore's band mixed in. Popular recurring guest Buck Henry would be stationed with Not Ready for Prime Time player Jane Curtin at a reviewing grandstand at the corner of Bourbon and Canal streets, where they would provide wacky one-liners for the Bacchus parade as it rolled by. It would be a nice lampoon on the inane Thanksgiving Day parade banter that continues on TV to this day.
Elsewhere, other cast members would perform skits throughout the French Quarter along with the final guest star, Monty Python alum Eric Idle. (Monty Python was a huge influence on the Not Ready for Prime Time Players.) John Belushi, who since Chevy Chase had left immediately became the show's biggest star, would do Brando imitations from A Streetcar Named Desire and The Wild One (the latter as a "Killer Bee," a popular running gag for the cast). Dan Aykroyd would introduce the show by imitating then-President Jimmy Carter atop the Andrew Jackson statue in Jackson Square. Gilda Radner would perform her wildly popular Emily Litella character (a performance she would later regret), and so on.
Returning to his hometown, Garrett Morris had a great idea. "I wrote this song, called 'Walking Down Rampart Street,'" recalls Morris. He'd get Gary Weis, who did short films for the show, to make a video of Morris' anthemic tune, shooting Morris at various locations around the city.
As the show's only black cast member, and being a decade older than the others and having no ensemble-comedy experience, Morris was decidedly the cast's odd man out. He never fully realized his talent on SNL, despite showing promise with his singing -- he spent a decade with Harry Belafonte -- and his later bits as former Latin baseball player Chico Escuela ("Base-bowl beeen berry, berry good to me").
But here, he figured, he had an advantage as the show's only native New Orleanian. Raised by his grandmother in Gert Town, Morris attended Booker T. Washington High School and Xavier University. This would be his chance to shine, combining his singing talents with Weis' filmmaking and the city's sights. "But when I went to Lorne, I don't think he really appreciated what I was talking about," recalls Morris. "They had already formulated what they were going to do."
Still, to Morris' surprise, Michaels -- who had been one of his ardent supporters -- allowed the writers to completely shut him out of the show except for a background appearance in a parody of Jean Lafitte. "My first though was, 'I got to be in this one,'" says Morris, who turns 65 on Friday. "I'm from New Orleans. I wasn't in the show. I wasn't in it."
Maintaining an upbeat attitude, Morris brought the entire cast over to his aunt's house for a huge soul-food dinner. It would be one of the few times Morris made a welcome contribution to the show that season.
Even Morris had reservations about Michaels' ambitions for the show. "I was thinking, 'We don't know what the hell we're doing!'" he recalls. "I used to go to the Mardi Gras all the time, especially when Louis Armstrong was the king of Zulu, and there'd be doubloons hitting me in the head, a woman getting shot sticking her head out a window. It was like being in a sardine can. I had a feeling they were going to have more trouble than they thought they were."
Perhaps anticipating logistical problems, Michaels knew that when all else failed, he had the musicians lined up at the Theater for the Performing Arts, and he had Buck Henry and Jane Curtin ready to go when Bacchus rolled by on Canal Street. If a skit failed, if there was a power outage somewhere, he could always cut to them when he needed to.
He and Shore were thrilled to get one of their heroes (and a Michaels acquaintance) in Randy Newman. Michaels and Shore had already booked Newman once before, in the second show of the first season with Paul Simon hosting. Though he was a critically acclaimed songwriter at the time, Newman still was not exactly a household name. Later that year, he would be famous for his ironic satire of intolerance, the woefully misunderstood Top-40 hit "Short People" off the Little Criminals album. But in February, Newman was just a really good artist; his selection, according to Shore, was in keeping with Shore and Michaels' fondness for picking musicians whom they adored.
"You've got to remember that when we were booking the show then we were booking from our own record collection," says Shore, now 55, who recently composed the music for the blockbuster film, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. "Not like it is now. We weren't aware of pop artists in terms of charts or anything. We just booked people we liked."
The SNL house band was a stalwart unto itself, featuring pianist Paul Shaffer (David Letterman's longtime bandleader and straight man) as well as trumpeter Alan Rubin and saxophonists Tom "Bones" Malone and "Blue" Lou Marini (who all later starred with Belushi and Aykroyd in The Blues Brothers).
Even with all that musical firepower inside the theater, Shore, too, was a little apprehensive about the show. "We weren't that good at logistics," he concedes. "We had great ideas. But we weren't the real good technicians on how to get a show on. We knew what we wanted to put on. We'd put on something from multiple locations. But we maybe were not prepared enough for that. But we did get it on the air."
During the week of production, Michaels, Wilson and the rest of the crew worked feverishly to get the show ready. The writers worked on the skits, but along with the cast members had plenty of time to enjoy Mardi Gras. Everyone was put up in a hotel in the French Quarter -- no one interviewed for this article can recall where -- and several decided to take advantage of the trip. Belushi was well into a partying mode that would eventually end his life prematurely in 1982. For a Killer Bees sketch, Harley-Davidsons were rented out, and Belushi and Aykroyd -- part of an SNL male clique known as the Bully Boys -- rode around the Quarter hitting the bars. "He lived it," Newman recalls. "He wanted to go see everybody play."
According to the book Saturday Night, female cast members Gilda Radner, Laraine Newman and Jane Curtin were more content to stay inside, avoiding the storm of partying outside.
It was also a chance for the cast to see how popular the show was outside the confines of New York City. Despite the Emmys from the first season and the growing TV ratings, there was still this sense that the show was a cult hit. Even some New Orleanians who were rabid fans of the show thought they had some kind of best-kept secret. That was, until the cast showed up at the Lakeside Shopping Center and were mobbed by crowds fighting for autographs. Free beer was delivered to the cast by Dixie, the local media conducted countless interviews, parties were held. It could be argued that the Not Ready for Prime Time Players had to come to New Orleans to learn just how big they'd become. They would also learn how fleeting that fame would be in the midst of Carnival.
The show aired at 7 p.m. (CST) Sunday, Feb. 20, opening with Aykroyd doing his Jimmy Carter imitation on top of the Andrew Jackson statue. Michaels then cut to Randy Newman with the orchestra for his rendition of "Louisiana" off his most recent album, 1974's Good Old Boys. It would be the first of a surprising four numbers by Newman, who being safe inside the confines of the theater was one of the few reliable performers.
And though he was seasoned performer, like seemingly everyone else Newman was sweating bullets. (Michaels reportedly threw up before the show began.) "To tell you the truth, I was too busy being scared to wonder about the idea (of a prime-time SNL show at Mardi Gras)," Newman recalls. "They say once you get onstage, you'll be fine. But it was shaky while I was onstage. I remember looking at the clock and wondering, 'It's 7 o'clock in Chicago just like it is here, and they're watching Saturday Night Live!'"
Each time there was screw-up outside, it was back to the theater inside. Along with Newman's four songs, the New Leviathan Oriental Foxtrot Orchestra performed "Rebecca Came Back From Mecca" with George Schmidt on vocals.
The skits came flying in fairly typical hit-or-miss SNL fashion. Belushi, who had initially refused to go on ("They wrote me out of the show! ... I've got nothing to do!" he's quoted as saying in the book), ironically received the bulk of the attention. He knocked off his Brando imitation as well as an Al Hirt parody and the Bees skit. Aykroyd tossed in his popular Tom Snyder impersonation.
Michaels whipped out a pre-taped segment of Radner, as Barbara Walters (or "Baba Wawa") interviewing Winkler, and later cut to Radner, Laraine Newman and Penny Marshall in a Killer Bees skit. Radner also did her Emily Litella character interviewing someone near Café du Monde about the fuss about all the "liverboats." The skit fell flat, but things got worse when, according to the book, she was subsequently fondled by drunken bystanders in what is commonly referred to as a "group grope."
Dave Landry figured he scored the sweetest assignment. Then a stage manager with local NBC affiliate WDSU, Landry learned just a few days before that he would be working with Buck Henry and Jane Curtin at the grandstand to review the Bacchus parade.
It was an ultimate hands-on-deck situation; Landry recalls NBC pulling from the competing stations, including cameramen, to provide the necessary manpower.
"I was a fan the first few years," recalls Landry, now a WDSU producer. "I was in love with Jane Curtin. She was fine. Spending a couple of days with her was not tough duty for me. She was very nice. All of those people could not have been nicer. Buck Henry was delightful. Belushi was insane. He was a wild man. Rumor was he knew every bartender in the French Quarter by name after the five days he spent there. He was just a funny guy who was always on."
Landry's job was fairly simple, he recalls: cue Henry and Curtin for the cut-ins, letting them know how much time they had left, that sort of thing. He remembers hearing them improvise as writers Herb Sargent and Alan Zweibel wrote in a creative vacuum, struggling to come up with material to match the fact that the parade was not showing up.
While Landry's memory of those moments is upbeat -- "I think they were throwing beads at them; I don't think they were hurt" -- other accounts report that Henry and Curtin were growing increasingly nervous as the crowd grew more restless. When it became apparent the parade wasn't yet coming through, the crowd started pelting the pair with debris each time the show cut to them. According to the book, the mantra in the control booth of the evening became, "Where's the f--king parade?!?!?"
Finally, at one point, Curtin improvised. "Shall we just tell them, Buck? The parade never existed! Mardi Gras is just the French word meaning 'no parade.'"
As power outages occurred, skits bombed and the parade remained out of sight, Roberts Batson was at the Krewe of Apollo Ball inside the Hyatt Regency, waiting nervously for Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams to arrive for another segment. He'd already dodged one hairy moment, and now was preparing for another.
Earlier, with the SNL episode approaching, Batson had found himself smack dab in between NBC and the Krewe of Apollo. Michaels wanted to film the gay krewe's ball, but according to Batson, the krewe captain was reluctant.
"The Apollo captain, Roland Dobson (now deceased), didn't want it to be a joke at the expense of the club," says Batson, who was working at the Theater of the Performing Arts at the time. "The year before there had been a broadcast of the ball, and some people lost their jobs over it. Roland said he wanted to put boundaries of what they could do, and presented a list of words they couldn't use: gay, drag, homosexual, queer, queen, and so on."
Batson, who initially had hoped to provide the commentary, demurred when Michaels insisted on using Marshall and Williams, and agreed to help out. They needed his help; unfamiliar with debutantes of any gender or orientation, Marshall was perplexed. "I was saying, 'First, the debutantes come out,' and Penny said, 'Debutantes? I don't know from debutantes. I'm from the Bronx. I only know Sweet 16 parties.'"
Marshall had other reasons for being a little out of it. She was completely exhausted. She and Williams had taken a late-night flight from Los Angeles to New Orleans after rehearsing an episode of Laverne and Shirley earlier that Friday evening, and arrived in New Orleans at 6 a.m. Saturday morning, only to be greeted by Mayor Landrieu and an entourage. Williams, after being bounced from one hotel to another, crashed, and her assistant refused to wake her when Michaels called for a morning rehearsal.
Michaels then called Marshall, who'd just taken a sleeping pill. "Lorne says, 'Cindy's asleep, and her manager won't wake her,'" Marshall recalls. "He says, 'I don't need this. You have to do her sketches!' I said, 'I've just taken something to sleep. Do you hear me, Lorne? Does it sound like I'm coherent? I have enough problems of my own.'"
Michaels was relentless, and sent Belushi and Aykroyd to fetch her for the rehearsal. "They show up on motorcycles!" says Marshall, who'd been on the show previously with her then-husband Rob Reiner. "They came banging on the door. John had a broken leg. It was chaotic as it always was with that show."
Marshall then had to join Williams for an Endymion luncheon, followed by the parade, which wore them out even further. "I remember we were on this float. This guy comes up to us and he said, 'Do you know what a Wet Willie is?' I said, 'I don't know.' He stuck his finger in his mouth and poked my belly button! It was insane. I had never been to Mardi Gras and knew nothing about it except people drank and were saying 'doubloons, doubloons!' I thought they were saying 'balloons,' because I'm from New York. ... I think we had to go back to rehearsal after the parade because they were still working. ... Then I think I got some sleep."
On Sunday, she went to the Hyatt Regency for the Apollo ball segment preparation, and she learned about all the restrictions about what she could and couldn't say. "I'm like, OK, whatever. All I wanted to do was sleep. 'Can I take a nap now?'"
After appearing in the Killer Bees skit near Cafe du Monde, Marshall was whisked over to the Hyatt on a police motorcycle with a passenger car on the side. The cop, in a rush, hopped up on curb after curb as Marshall held on for dear life. By the time she got to the ball, Batson recalls, she was a mess.
"She was almost catatonic," he says. "She was so shaken up. I told her, 'Penny, if you go blank, just talk to me and we'll have a conversation and I'll help you with what you need.'"
Two more problems: Williams wasn't there. Neither was Weis, who'd gone up into the control booth to watch one of his films being shown. "I put on the earphone, and I hear Lorne saying, 'We're coming to you.' I say, 'Cindy's not here, and Gary's not here!' I had to borrow lipstick from one of the men. I think I was just sitting there, and I didn't know the camera started rolling. I guess they just came to me and I was just looking around, and they said, 'You're on.' I said, 'Hi!' I remember saying baby's breath. I said, 'Oh, look at them. ... that person. I had no idea what I was saying."
After a few half-hearted attempts, Marshall turned to Batson and said, "Well, Roberts, what do you think?"
Williams finally showed up, and they cut back to the ball for another quick take before trying to wrap the show up with another musical number. Williams planned to head for the wrap-up party afterward and hopped on another motorcycle, not realizing it was with a complete stranger not affiliated with the police or the show. "He could've taken me anywhere," she says. "I could've been dead somewhere in a swamp, but I didn't care. He took me [to the party]."
For his efforts, Batson says, he was promised something like $90, because he actually said something on air. He filled out the paperwork, but says he has yet to receive his payment. "Tell Lorne Michaels he now owes me $4 million," jokes Batson, now a historian of gay culture and a tour guide in New Orleans.
As the show was winding down, the Meters -- keyboardist Art Neville, drummer Zigaboo Modeliste, guitarist Leo Nocentelli, percussionist Cyril Neville and bassist George Porter Jr. -- were waiting for a cue that would never come. They had agreed to let New Leviathan go early in the show, on the provision that they would close out the show with the double-shot of Carnival favorites "Hey Pocky A-Way" and "Mardi Gras Mambo." But Porter sensed trouble.
"It was absolutely crazy," the bassist says. "It was total chaos. There was like so much stuff going on. They had contacted us maybe a week, two weeks out. I knew they wanted Fats Domino, and I knew they wanted Ernie K-Doe.
"I knew we were going to be the absolute last performers," Porter continues. "We were going to do two songs in a four-minute period before the house band played the 'chase' tune. But when they got back from Bourbon Street (where a Belushi skit was going over its scheduled length), it was absolutely too late. They barely had time to go to the commercial. I don't know why Randy Newman got four songs."
Coupled with the notion that the Meters never achieved massive mainstream acceptance even during their heyday of the 1970s, Porter's regret is even more palpable. After all, Newman's appearance certainly didn't hurt in setting up the release of Little Criminals and the hit "Short People."
"If we would've went on, we would've shook the joint," Porter says. "My feeling at the time was we got shit on. 'The big boys came to town and they screwed us.' I was pretty pissed. I was onstage waiting to play."
Michaels and Shore made it up to the band a year and a half later when they booked them for an SNL episode -- though by then Art Neville had temporarily left the band.
The fallout from the episode varied substantially. The few critics who offered reviews of the show were unimpressed. Times-Picayune writer David Cuthbert summed it up best: In many ways, it was a typical mixed bag of an SNL episode, he wrote, but added, "But this viewer was expecting something better than average. One had hoped the quality and content of the show would have approached the level of the concept. But while there was some funny stuff going on, this show did not rank among the better 'Saturday Nights.'"
Indeed, Michaels was concerned afterward. He could take pride in the fact the show went on at all, and that nobody was killed. He had taken a huge risk, tried something completely daring, and in many ways got away with it. Today, at 57, his place in TV history is secure, and he is again the executive producer of the biggest comedy-variety series on television. But according to the book Saturday Night, the New Orleans show meant Michaels no longer was a darling among NBC executives. The episode tanked in the ratings, losing out to an ABC TV-movie about a nympho housewife, and the final tab for the show hit $1 million (from a projected $750,000). It was a "Big Event" in price tag only. Any hopes of ever bringing SNL to prime time were drowned out by Carnival.
Except for the occasional special, SNL never appeared on prime time again and wouldn't again travel outside New York City. Even today, Michaels appears circumspect about the show, which he refuses to broadcast in syndication. According to one source, he is very concerned about his legacy and will not allow what he believes to be substandard episodes on the air -- even if this one made history.
Despite repeated requests for an interview with Michaels, SNL publicist Marc Liepis refused, saying that Michaels was too busy. Yet while being interviewed for the article, Marshall says she had discussed the article with Michaels, partly to see if he minded if she participated, and Michaels told her he knew nothing about it. Of the surviving cast alumni, Aykroyd, Curtin and Laraine Newman all declined comment. Also, Liepis refused to provide a duplicate videotape of the episode for research purposes, saying it wasn't standard practice.
Regardless, the SNL episode at Mardi Gras showed what can happen when two stormy paths cross. It was definitely live, and it was definitely Mardi Gras. Pure bedlam.
Musical director Howard Shore, for one, looks on the bright side: "We felt like we really accomplished something. It was the first time we had been on prime time. We did something pretty enormous, doing a comedy show in the middle of Mardi Gras. The fact that we got the show up and running and for 90 minutes, we were pretty proud.
"I think if it had been successful on those terms (ratings), there would have been more of them. Did it set us back? I don't know."