The untold truth of Saturday Night Live

Over the course of more than 40 years and 800 episodes, Saturday Night Live has been among the most prestigious and influential comedy shows in the history of American TV. It's produced countless catchphrases and iconic characters; dozens of movie and TV stars like Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy, Adam Sandler, and Will Ferrell; and one real-life senator (Al Franken). Remarkably, the show still airs as it happens. Perhaps more remarkably, it's still just as vital as it was when it revolutionized pop culture in the '70s. Here are some stories you may not know about SNL

Johnny Carson forced NBC to create it

In 1974, Johnny Carson was the biggest moneymaker on television. He brought NBC about $60 million a year, which earned him quite a bit of leverage when negotiating his Tonight Show contract. The show aired weeknights at 11:30 p.m., and back then, NBC filled the slot on Saturdays with a show called The Best of Carson. But when he told NBC he'd only make four new shows each week, Carson left NBC with a 90-minute hole in the Saturday night schedule.

The network decided to try out a late night variety show geared to a young, hip audience. To run it, executives tapped 30-year-old Canadian comedy writer Lorne Michaels, best known for his work on an Emmy-winning Lily Tomlin special. It took Michaels a year to work out the format and find a cast of seven sketch comedians, but in October 1975, the show was ready to go.

It had a different name

During the first season, the show wasn't called Saturday Night Live because the title was already in use. Sportscaster Howard Cosell (of all people) hosted an ABC primetime variety show with the name and, oddly enough, future SNL star Bill Murray was one of the stock players. But when that show was canceled, NBC snapped up the title, replacing the bland original: NBC's Saturday Night. That's why they say, "Live from New York, it's Saturday Night!"

And while the show's opening sequence now features the main cast and featured players' names read loudly and excitedly by Darrell Hammond (who replaced longtime announcer Don Pardo after his death in 2014), the SNL cast members weren't introduced individually during the first season. The obscure comedians were instead dubbed the "Not Ready for Primetime Players." But Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase, Jane Curtin, Gilda Radner, and the others, wouldn't stay anonymous for long.

It used to have Muppets

Nowadays, the show is pretty much all comedy with a couple musical performances thrown in. But in the early years, SNL was a true variety show. The Muppets were frequent guests on the late night circuit in the mid-'70s, so it only made sense to include them. But we're not talking about Kermit, Fozzie, and Miss Piggy here. Instead, Jim Henson and his cohorts created a whole slew of new, monstrous, adult-oriented creatures for a segment called "The Land of Gorch." It might have been the first and only time a Muppets project was not well-received. Considered not as fresh as SNL's manic sketch comedy, the segment ground each show to a halt. And due to Writers Guild rules, the sketches couldn't be written by Muppets writers—leaving SNL writers to do it, and they resented the puppets for taking up valuable airtime. The Muppets were gone after the first season.

The production schedule has remained the same

Here's the timetable for how an episode of SNL is produced:

Monday: The guest host arrives at 30 Rockefeller Center in New York City, where SNL is shot. They go to Michaels' office, where they talk to writers and cast members about their comedic strengths, impressions they can do, and other suggestions. Writers then pitch their ideas.

Tuesday: As a holdover from the show's cocaine-fueled days in the '70s, writers spend all day and night writing their sketches. The host and a cast member also shoot the short commercials to promote the episode. They're edited and put on the air within hours of being shot.

Wednesday: The table read is at 4 p.m. Every proposed sketch is included, so it usually takes at least three hours. Then producers and the head writers determine which sketches are good enough.

Thursday: At 6 a.m., set builders begin constructing sets at a shop in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. At 30 Rock, the crew firms up plans for costumes, wigs, and makeup. Any pre-taped video bits are recorded.

Friday: Rehearsals and rewrites.

Saturday: The sketch order is set and presented to a live audience at 8 p.m. Any last minute changes (or sketches that are cut) happen by 11:30 p.m., when the show goes live.

The audition process

SNL Talent scouts seek seasoned stand-up comedians or improv performers who might be a good fit for the show. Comedy hotbeds like the Groundings in Los Angeles or the Upright Citizens Brigade in New York often arrange showcases for top talent, and Michaels and/or producers, writers, and cast members attend. If they like what they see, they invite the performers to an audition on the SNL stage. Hopefuls have 10 minutes to do stand-up or present at least two original characters and celebrity impressions.

Some big names didn't make the cut

Getting on SNL has been a career goal for thousands of comedians and actors, but only a few make the cast each year. That makes for a long list of performers who auditioned, didn't make it, then went on to achieve fame and fortune anyway. Among them are Jim Carrey (who lost a spot in 1980 to Charles Rocket), 13-time host John Goodman (inched out by Joe Piscopo), Kevin Hart, Geena Davis, Paul Reubens (aka Pee-wee Herman), Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell (he and his wife, Nancy Walls, tried out in 1995—she got on, but Carell lost the spot to Will Ferrell), Aubrey Plaza (who was an intern for the show), Louis C.K., Marc Maron, Lisa Kudrow, Donald Glover, Kel Mitchell of Kenan and Kel (he lost out to his co-star, Kenan Thompson), and Zach Galifianakis (who was hired as a guest writer). Entertainment Weekly reports Jennifer Aniston was offered a slot on the show in the mid-'90s, but opted to do Friends instead.

It's tough to get screen time

With more than a dozen performers and at least that many writers in direct competition with each other to fill just about an hour of sketch time, somebody is going to get left out. In his book Gasping for Airtime, former cast member Jay Mohr says he was so desperate to get a sketch on the air in 1995, that he stole a routine by comedian Rick Shapiro and turned it into "O'Callahan & Son Pub." Shapiro successfully sued the show.

And while Larry David eventually went on to co-create Seinfeld and star in Curb Your Enthusiasm, he had an uneventful spell as an SNL writer in 1984. Back then, only one of his sketches made it to air: an odd piece called "Elevator Stool." In it, an architect (host Ed Begley Jr.) becomes frustrated that a client (Harry Shearer) wants to make sure that the elevators in the new building have stools for elevator operators. David later recycled the bit for an episode of Seinfeld.

Some hosts are better than others

It's obvious which guests SNL likes the most, because they're the ones who keep coming back. Steve Martin, Alec Baldwin, Jon Hamm, and Melissa McCarthy are a few who have meshed well with the program. On the other end of the spectrum, there are hosts who will likely never return because they were difficult to work with, obnoxious, or both. In a 1992 episode, host Nicolas Cage confides to Michaels that he fears he'll be the worst host in the show's history. "No," Michaels replies. "That would be Steven Seagal." Al Franken wrote that not-really-a-joke, but many SNL alumni, including David Spade, have named the martial arts actor the show's worst host.

But according to Michaels, the worst was probably early TV star Milton Berle, who guested in 1979 and disrupted the show with mugging, ad-libbing of old and tired jokes, and arranged beforehand to have the studio audience give him a standing ovation at the end. Tina Fey, however, didn't beat around the bush when she told Howard Stern who she thought was the worst: Paris Hilton.

Some people aren't welcome back

While many of the show's performers come from an improv comedy background, it's forbidden to improvise on SNL. The show has to be planned down to the second to account for each sketch, musical performance, and commercial break. But not every host and musical guest follows that rule, and many were subsequently banned. In 2003, Adrien Brody did an impromptu, borderline racist bit with a Jamaican accent while introducing reggae singer Sean Paul. In 1996, Rage Against the Machine asked for two upside-down American flags to be hung on the stage. When producers said no, the band hung them up anyway. Stagehands tore them down just seconds before they were supposed to perform, and their second song was canceled. And let's not forget Sinead O'Connor's infamous pope incident in 1992.

Some sketches don't make the reruns

Just because an SNL episode airs, it doesn't mean it stays that way forever. Producers often tinker with shows for reruns, often replacing a sketch that went poorly with a superior version recorded during dress rehearsal. That means some "lost" sketches only survive on DVD and streaming versions. One of them, "Butt County Dance Party," aired in 1976. In the sketch, a small-town sheriff (Dan Akroyd) hosts a TV dance show, and "winners" get to have their name run through a teletype machine to check for outstanding warrants. But when the machine malfunctioned, Akroyd tried to improvise and told everyone to keep dancing, although there was no music. NBC cut to random stock footage of car crashes, then pulled the sketch from reruns. In another instance from 1985, NBC president Brandon Tartikoff appeared in a sketch to collect urine samples from cast members for drug testing, but it was later deemed to be in poor taste. In the reruns, it's swapped out for an extra musical performance by Simple Minds.

When things got weird with Francis Ford Coppola

For decades, each episode of SNL has basically followed the same format: a bunch of standalone sketches, a couple of musical performances, and "Weekend Update." In 1986, that all went out the window–but just once. Acclaimed director Francis Ford Coppola was the host, and the through-line of the episode was that Coppola was "directing" the show. The credits were stylized like those of an art film and the music was provided by that night's musical guest, avant garde composer Philip Glass. Cheers star George Wendt delivered the opening monologue and appeared in sketches, while Coppola sat in a director's chair and interrupted the show every few minutes to critique performances. He also appeared in vignettes with Michaels and cast member Terry Sweeney to discuss innovative ways to save the showwhich NBC was thinking of canceling.

It spawned a ton of movies

Many of the most popular SNL characters have been spun off into feature films, but very few of them have been successful. The Blues Brothers is a comedy classic, and so is Wayne's World. And it's the $100 million-plus box office take of the latter that encouraged the production of more and more SNL movies. A Night at the Roxbury offered a look at the backstory and home life of those guys in the club who bobbed their heads (Will Ferrell and Chris Kattan). Coneheads was made almost 20 years after the sketch was popular. Superstar is about Molly Shannon's awkward schoolgirl character Mary Katherine Gallagher. And did you even know they made It's Pat or Stuart Saves His Family? How about The Ladies Man or MacGruber?

Short films have always been a big part of the show

Not every single aspect of the show is recorded live. Since the beginning, pre-taped segments like fake commercials or the animated TV Funhouse anthology preceded the digital shorts on today's SNL. In the '70s, comedian and filmmaker Albert Brooks rejected Michaels' offer to make him the show's permanent host and instead offered to create short films. Mockumentary master Christopher Guest also contributed short features as a cast member in the '80s. And the Lonely Island brought more than just Andy Samberg to SNL: they also brought comic rap videos like 2005's viral "Lazy Sunday."

No job is safe

In 1995, SNL cleaned house. In the wake of a blistering New York cover story titled "Saturday Night Dead," and as ratings rapidly fell, Michaels fired nearly everyone (including Adam Sandler and Chris Farley) except for David Spade and a few others. The next season, Michaels brought on new hires Will Ferrell, Molly Shannon, and Cheri Oteri. And in 1998, NBC executive Dick Ebersol (who helped create the show) fired "Weekend Update" anchor Norm MacDonald (reportedly due to his constant jokes about accused murderer O.J. Simpson—MacDonald had repeatedly said Simpson was guilty, and Ebersol happened to be one of Simpson's friends). More recently, standouts Taran Killam and Jay Pharaoh were both let go after six years on the show.