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Saturday Night Live: The Complete First Season review

Great comedy is a marathon, not a sprint.

You could win a couple of good arguments with Saturday Night Live: The Complete First Season. The first is that comedy is the sharpest way of capturing a moment in our social and political history. Saturday Night Live debuted in October 1975 when Gerald Ford was tripping over himself in the White House, and the rest of that nation was tripping over feminism, race issues, Patty Hearst and the growing power of television itself.

The second argument is that making great comedy is a marathon, not a sprint. Producer Lorne Michaels knew the ingredients he wanted - established comedians (George Carlin, Andy Kaufmann, Richard Pryor), sure-fire musical stars, plus a bunch of new-to-TV comic actors. It takes him a while to get the recipe right, but that's part of the joy of watching it evolve.

This is the show that launched the careers of the "Not Ready For Prime Time Players" - John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase, Jane Curtin, Gilda Radner, Laraine Newman and Garrett Morris. That it also launched their drug addictions and eating disorders doesn't yet show - for that, you would have to wait for season two.

There is genius here - Peter Cook and Dudley Moore's Birth of Christ sketch and Paul Simon's awkward banter with Art Garfunkel in an episode broadcast not long after their split. There is also tremendous courage - Carlin's anti-government rants, Loudon Wainwright III's song about upcoming bicentennial celebrations and Dick Cavett's intellectual monologue on anti-intellectualism stun with their passionate disdain of America's place in the world. "I was asked: Do you advocate the overthrow of the US Government by force or violence?" Cavett says. "I chose violence."

And yes, some of the comedy is awful, but chapter edits make it possible to skip the lame. Don't be too quick with the fast forward, though - an incredibly dire bee sketch in episode one becomes a killer running gag through the season.

By the end of the 24 episodes, there is a real sense that SNL has established itself as part of the popular culture. Even before that, guest hosts like Candice Bergen, Lily Tomlin and Elliott Gould appear genuinely thrilled to be allowed to play. Plus, you get to see them all young and before their teeth were capped, and the Late Show with David Letterman's Paul Shaffer with hair.