'Saturday Night Live' celebrates legacy of laughs on 40th anniversary

  • The original “Not Ready for Prime-time Players” (L-R) Chevy Chase, Laraine Newman, John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Garrett Morris, Jane Curtin, Dan Aykroyd.
  • In this Oct. 11, 1975 photo released by NBC, Chevy Chase performs during the first ever “Weekend Update” sketch on “Saturday Night Live,” in New York. His catchphrase “I’m Chevy Chase and you’re not,” was an instant fan favorite.
  • (L-R) Chevy Chase as a doctor who makes housecalls, Laraine Newman, and Gilda Radner as ‘Babs’ during “National Uvula Association” commercial on May 29, 1976.
  • George Harrison and Paul Simon record songs for broadcast on “Saturday Night Live” with producer Lorne Michaels in New York on Nov. 19, 1976.
  • Comedian Dan Aykroyd with actresses Jane Curtin (left) and Laraine Newman (right) as The Coneheads in a sketch from “Saturday Night Live,” circa 1977. The popular extra-terrestrial characters eventually spawned their own film in 1993.
  • (L-R) Steve Martin, Bill Murray during the monologue on Nov. 4, 1978.
  • (L-R) Gilda Radner, Steve Martin, and Lorne Michaels during the “Restaurant” skit on Nov. 4, 1978.
  • (L-R) John Belushi as Samurai Futaba, Buck Henry as Mr. Dantley during “Samurai Optometrist” skit on Nov. 11, 1978.
  • This Nov. 18, 1978 photo released by NBC shows Dan Aykroyd as Elwood Blues, left, and John Belushi as Jake Blues, performing as the Blues Brothers on “Saturday Night Live,” in New York.
  • Dan Aykroyd and Steve Martin posing as the ‘two wild and crazy guys’, Georg and Yortuk, the Festrunk Brothers, a sketch from the television show “Saturday Night Live,” circa 1978.
  • “Saturday Night Live” producer Lorne Michaels on Oct. 13, 1979.
  • (L-R) Dan Aykroyd as President Richard Nixon, Bill Murray as David Eisenhower, Gilda Radner as Julie Nixon during the “Blind Ambition” skit on May 26, 1979.
  • (L-R) Gilda Radner as Kathy Gorly, Gilda Radner as Kathy Gorly, Bill Murray as Nick The Lounge Singer during “Nick at Trader Nick’s” skit on May 24, 1980.
  • James Brown during the musical performance of “Rapp Payback” on Dec. 13, 1980.
  • Eddie Murphy as Buckwheat during the “Buh-Weet Sings” skit on Oct. 10, 1981.
  • Musician Stevie Wonder, appearing as a guest, left, is mimicked by comedian Eddie Murphy, right, during a skit on the comedy variety television show Saturday Night Live in 1983.
  • Joe Piscopo as Frank Sinatra backstage on Jan. 29, 1983.
  • Julia Louis-Dreyfus during the “Saturday Night News” skit on March 19, 1983.
  • Robin Williams, center, takes time out from rehearsal at “Saturday Night Live” with cast members Eddie Murphy, left, and Joe Piscopo, Feb. 10, 1984.
  • (L-R) Martin Short as Ed Grimley and Ringo Starr as Unlucky Man during “The Unlucky Man” skit on Dec. 8, 1984.
  • (L-R) Jon Lovitz as The Master Thespian, John Lithgow as Baudelaire during a “Master Thespian” skit on Dec. 7, 1985.
  • Robert Downey Jr. as George Michael during “Entertainment Tonight” cold opening on Dec. 14, 1985.
  • Elvis Costello during the musical performance on “Saturday Night Live” on March 25, 1989. It was the iconic musician’s first returned to the show after being temporarily banned in 1977 after he stopped an appearance midway through to perform the controversial song “Radio, Radio,” which producers had asked him to not to sing.
  • (L-R) Patrick Swayze as Adrian, Chris Farley as Barney during the legendary “Chippendales Audition” skit.
  • (L-R) Mike Myers as Wayne Campbell, Dana Carvey as Garth Algar during a “Wayne’s World” skit on March 23, 1991. The sketch spawned a blockbuster movie version in 1992.
  • Dana Carvey as President George H.W on “Saturday Night Live” on Dec. 7, 1991.
  • Chris Rock as Nat X during the “The Dark Side” ’ skit on Nov. 10, 1990.
  • Kevin Nealon is seen next to Adam Sandler as Opera Man during “Weekend Update” on Dec. 12, 1992.
  • Singer Sinead O’Connor rips up a picture of Pope John Paul II October 3, 1992 on the TV show “Saturday Night Live.”
  • In this Oct. 4, 1997 photo released by NBC, Will Ferrell portrays Craig Buchanan, left, and Cheri Oteri portrays his cheering partner Arianna on “Saturday Night Live,” in New York.
  • (L-R) Chris Kattan as Doug Butabi, Cameron Diaz as Celeste, Will Ferrell as Steve Butabi during “The Roxbury Guys” skit on Sept. 26, 1998.
  • (L-R) John Goodman as Ted, Will Ferrell as Hank, Alec Baldwin as drunk salesman during the “Bull & Bear” skit on Dec. 12, 1998.
  • (L-R) Will Ferrell as Alex Trebek, Jimmy Fallon as French Stewart, Norm MacDonald as Burt Reynolds, Darrell Hammond as Sean Connery are seen during “Celebrity Jeopardy” on Oct. 23, 1999.
  • Fred Armisen as Prince and Maya Rudolph as Beyonce Knowles during the “Prince Show” skit on Feb. 14, 2004.
  • 
Tina Fey and Amy Poehler during “Weekend Update” on Nov. 12, 2005.
  • Andy Samberg and Justin Timberlake during “D*** in a Box” digital short on Dec. 16, 2006.
  • In this Sept. 13, 2008 photo released by NBC, Tina Fey portrays Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, left, and Amy Poehler as Sen. Hillary Clinton during a skit on “Saturday Night Live,” in New York.
  • (L-R) Bobby Moynihan, Kristin Wiig, Kenan Thompson, Abby Elliot are pictured during an episode of “Saturday Night Live” on Oct. 10, 2009.
  • Cecily Strong, Nasim Pedrad, Kenan Thompson, Fred Armisen, Kate McKinnon, Bill Hader, Vanessa Bayer, Seth Meyers, Bobby Moynihan and Jason Sudeikis during Stefon’s Farewell on May 18, 2013.
  • Studio 8H, home of “Saturday Night Live.”

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“Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!”

When soon-to-be superstar Chevy Chase uttered those words for the first time on October 11, 1975, few people knew it was the beginning of a comedy revolution. For the first time, the ’60s generation’s style of irreverent humor and unabashedly anti-authoritarian perspective had found a weekly home on American television.

That fall, audiences discovered a hip and hilarious cast of “Not Ready for Prime-Time Players” which included Chase, John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Laraine Newman, Garrett Morris, Jane Curtin, Dan Aykroyd and eventually the iconic Bill Murray. The show was helmed by a then-unknown 30-year-old producer named Lorne Michaels and it was actually called “NBC’s Saturday Night” because a rival show (hosted by sports broadcasting icon Howard Cosell) had its iconic name at the time.

Although the show’s audience was small at first, a series of breakout performances and memorable characters (like Belushi’s “Samurai” and Chase’s impression of a bumbling President Gerald Ford) helped the show quickly become an award-winning television phenomenon.

Forty years later an illustrious group of comedy stars owe their big breaks to Michaels and what has become a late night comedy institution – “Saturday Night Live.” Hollywood superstars like Kristen Wiig, Chris Rock, Tina Fey, Will Ferrell, Maya Rudolph, Mike Myers, Jimmy Fallon, Eddie Murphy and Adam Sandler are just a few of the performers who first gained national attention on the SNL stage. And there are countless other A-listers – like Robert Downey, Jr. and Julia Louis-Dreyfus – who had a minor impact as cast-members on the show, only to blossom in later years.

But the show has not just become a launching pad for new talent, it’s also become a real force in politics and society. Major politicians seeking to show they have a sense of humor routinely make cameo appearances on the show, as do musical acts and celebrities looking to capitalize on the SNL’s enduring legacy.

“Saturday Night Live” has had its up and downs, and was actually more than once on the brink of cancellation, and yet it has remained a quotable and quintessential mainstay in American life, arguably the most influential and beloved comedy series in American history.

“We don’t go on because we’re ready. We go on because it’s 11:30,” Michaels has famously said. Millions of Americans remain grateful that they still do. The 40th anniversary special airs Sunday night at 8 p.m. ET on NBC. 

For more feature photography, go to msnbc.com/photography

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