Why I Stopped Watching ‘Saturday Night Live’ — 45 Years Ago

Garry Berman
13 min readJan 22, 2024

Just about everything related to the world of art, music, or other forms of entertainment is subjective. A film can be hailed as a great artistic achievement by some, and a worthless waste of time by others. Millions of viewers might consider a comedy or TV sitcom to be hilarious, while being dismissed as unfunny, boring, or childish by millions of others.

Looking back to the late 1970s, I recall that I never really thought SNL was terribly funny, not even during its “golden age” or however many golden ages it is purported to have had. I was in high school when it began to catch on with the demographic of viewers to which high school and college kids belonged, and if I happened to be watching TV late on Saturday nights, I’d catch twenty or thirty minutes of the show. Even today, I occasionally take a look at what the show is up to, check out “Weekend Update,” and one or two other sketches. But my reason for ultimately rejecting SNL after those first few seasons is not what you might expect. And no, it doesn’t even have to do with having a good sense of humor or not (I do).

I could complain about how much of SNL’s comedy, especially in its early years, seemed to rely on the “let’s see how much we can get away with” mentality, resulting in countless sketches that seemed designed more to shock and offend viewers than anything else. Times have changed, to be sure, but no, I won’t address the program’s content here.

My reason for rejecting SNL, after realizing I just couldn’t take it anymore, can be found in just two words: cue cards.

What can be less funny than watching two or more actors standing on a stage for a comedy sketch, looking past each other to read cue cards just out of camera shot? To me, that isn’t comedy, it’s a televised eye exam.

The argument that has always been made to defend the practice goes like this (and which can be applied to SNL’s short-lived copycat program, Fridays from 1980-’82 on ABC): It’s a live show, the writers and cast have only one week in between broadcasts to get the material together and rehearse before performing it live, so last-minute changes in the scripts necessitate having everything ready on cards to help the cast through the newly written patches, presumably to avoid outright disaster on the air.

I’m not buying the argument.

And this problem with SNL has only gotten worse, as the show rolls along to its approaching 50th anniversary — and SONY’s upcoming feature film dramatization, SNL 1975. There were a number of cringe-worthy moments in sketches when we could see cast members like Garrett Morris (and later, the late Phil Hartman) actually pause during their dialogue to wait for the cue card guy to switch to the next card.

At least Joe Piscopo had the self-awareness to mock the use of reading cue cards on the show.

One rare exception in the program’s long history was that of Janeane Garofalo, who spent a mere six months as a cast member on the show in 1994–95. At first, she intended to memorize her lines for her sketches, but claims that during a rehearsal when she was having trouble recalling a line or two, a frustrated Al Franken blurted out, “Just read the f**king cards!”

Part of this syndrome reaches back to the beginning of the show’s history, and has continued with many subsequent comings and goings of its on-air stars. The original SNL cast was comprised mostly of comic actors from improv troupes like Second City — where, by definition, performers obviously have never needed to memorize scripts. But once they’re assigned written sketches to be strictly adhered to for a live network show, the inevitable result is a series of television sketches that are read aloud more than acted.

I offer a bit of television history to elaborate on why the necessity of cue cards is rather bogus:

Firstly, let’s consider when cue cards become such a staple on TV. In the late 1940s, most TV programs had little choice but to air live, as the networks would not begin using videotape to record and preserve their programs until the mid-1950s. Kinescopes were produced basically by pointing a film camera at a studio monitor as a program aired, thus preserving it on film to be physically copied and distributed to individual stations across the country slated to air the program.

We have the legendary comedian Ed Wynn to thank (or to blame) for the cue card, as he invented it while starring in one of the first comedy-variety programs on TV, beginning in 1949 — when he had already been a major comedy star for forty years.

Wynn with the Three Stooges as his guests in March, 1950.

To put it more accurately, Wynn co-invented the cue card with production assistant Barney McNulty. McNulty began his career at CBS as a studio usher and took on various odd jobs and thankless tasks around the studio that gave him an unmatched inside knowledge of its inner workings. Over time, he became an indispensable go-to guy for solving problems, big and small, that threatened the smooth running of various productions.

“Wynn had the concept of a cue system,” McNulty explained, “And what he needed was the order of his jokes. So, he needed you to have a card which would have a one-word description of what each joke was. So, he’d see ‘penguin’, he’d see ‘Broadway’, he’d see ‘flying boat,’ and he would know that’s the next joke he was gonna tell. Because he would put himself completely into telling the joke, and when it was over and got a laugh, now he had to know what the next point was. So, on Broadway, he did this. He had somebody in the orchestra pit do it for him, so that he always had control of his Broadway shows that way.” Ed wanted to have that same aid for himself on the TV show, and asked McNulty to help out.

There was one night in particular, not far into the first season, when the cards became even more important than usual in keeping the show running smoothly. Wynn was under the weather the day of the broadcast, and the medication he took was making his mind a tad cloudy. He found McNulty. “He came to me and said, ‘Barney, I’m sick, I’m full of pills, I can’t remember anything. Is it possible to put the whole show on cards?’ Well, I started thinking. So I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it.’ It took me until 3:30 or so, and I printed it, and got the whole show down. I printed everything. You know what? It worked. Because I was trained as a radio operator, I could write 90 characters a minute unendingly, and it was legible, so I could print pretty fast. I could grind the wordage out, and I didn’t have any qualms about doing the cards.” McNulty positioned himself in the orchestra pit with the stack of cards and helped Ed get through the show. It soon became the weekly routine. And it wasn’t long before other TV hosts were requesting McNulty’s services.

Wynn in a sketch with singer-comedian Virginia O’Brien.

One time, however, Wynn’s writers came to McNulty at the last minute with a substantial amount of new material. Unable to write up new cards in time, he placed blank cards among the pre-written cards to indicate to Ed where the new material was supposed to fit into the show. All agreed it would work, except that they forgot to tell Wynn of the idea. “So Ed comes barreling off to the wings in the middle of the show. And he says to [writer] Hal Kantor, ‘Hal, is Barney drunk? Everywhere I look — blank cards!’”

Milton Berle’s Texaco Star Theatre debuted a year before Wynn’s, and Berle’s antics on the air led to a tremendous jump in TV sales shortly after his show premiered. But the laughs onscreen belied a good deal of stress behind the scenes.

Uncle Miltie.

“It was murder,” Berle said. “It was a rat race…In those early TV days, it was very, very difficult getting new material every week. For the first year I was on, ’48 and ’49, I didn’t even have a writer. I just remembered what I did for the last twenty years, ’cause we couldn’t afford a writer.”

Jackie Gleason entered the world of TV comedy-variety on Cavalcade of Stars in 1950 (retitled The Jackie Gleason Show in ’52 when it moved from the DuMont network to CBS). The sketch-variety show was broadcast live in front of a theater audience. Of the many sketches and characters he made famous, The Honeymooners, of course, remains his enduring comedy legacy.

Gleason with Audrey Meadows.

After becoming a recurring sketch on the variety show, it became its own half-hour sitcom for the 1955–56 season (the Classic 39). That show was not aired live, but any mistakes made while filming in front of the audience were kept in. And, while his cast rehearsed as much as possible each week, Gleason frowned on rehearsing in order to keep the performances “fresh,” and instead relied on his photographic memory to learn the scripts, leaving his fellow cast members to rehearse with a stand-in.

“I came out of the theater, where everyone is rehearsal-happy,” Audrey Meadows explained, recalling her first week on Gleason’s show. “Everybody does but Jackie. We had a read-through of the script, and all week I kept wondering where Jackie was. Finally, when it came to airtime, I asked Art Carney, ‘When do we rehearse?’ Art answered, ‘Do you remember that first read-through? That was all the rehearsal you’ll get.’

“The next week, I told Jackie, ‘You may not like to rehearse, but the rest of us do. We are going to rehearse, and we will leave a blank spot on the floor and that blank spot will be you. So, when we go on the air Saturday night, you just get in your blank spots and say whatever you want.’ You know, he didn’t raise any objections.”

Some accounts claim Gleason was the only cast member who used cue cards in case his excellent — but not perfect — memory failed him. But in those few instances in which he found himself momentarily stuck, he also had the sharpness of mind to ad-lib his way out until he got back on track.

Your Show of Shows, starring Sid Caesar, was a weekly 90-minute comedy variety program premiering in 1950, and is regarded to this day as one of the most brilliant comedy shows of all time. Caesar’s writers and cast members created sketches that set the bar almost impossibly high for later generations of sketch shows to match. Some of the program’s parodies of popular films ran as long as twenty minutes straight.

Caesar with castmate Imogene Coca.

And, as Caesar said, “When we did it, there were no cue cards, no teleprompters. It was live, live, live.”

Caesar got to the heart of the matter regarding the use of cue cards and why they are detrimental to the essence of a comedy sketch.

“We never used cue cards on Your Show of Shows and I’ll tell you why not. Acting is through the eyes. If you’re looking at someone, you can see what they’re doing. You can feel what they’re doing. If you’re looking off at cue cards, you lose that connection.”

Truer words have never been spoken.

As network television grew both technologically and creatively, programs did not need to be broadcast live each week, although the same tight production schedules remained in place. Unfortunately, the comedy-variety program itself had become endangered along the way. One longtime survivor, The Carol Burnett Show, ran from 1968–1978. Burnett and her regular cast and guests carried on the sketch tradition established by Berle, Gleason, and Caesar nearly twenty years earlier.

Frequent guest Tim Conway, whose memorably hilarious appearances led to his eventual status as series regular, recalled the process in his book What’s So Funny? My Hilarious Life:

“The routine for doing The Carol Burnett Show was pretty simple. We had a sit-down reading on Monday, we’d rehearse on Tuesday, we’d learn the lines, and on Wednesday we had a run-through for the network and the staff. Thursday was for blocking, so we couldn’t do much rehearsing, and Friday night was the show. When you think of it, the whole thing was so quick. We had cue cards, but we didn’t use them in the sketches. Actually, I was on the show for years before I realized that the cards they held up were the script. Even though the show was filmed, Carol wanted it to have the feeling of a live performance.”

Which brings us to the issue whether SNL, after nearly 50 years, ever really needed to be “live” at all. Of course it didn’t. Airing live certainly wasn’t groundbreaking in any way. And, once a sketch begins, it hardly matters whether or not viewers are watching it live or on tape.

And is the possibility of seeing a cast member flub a line or two on live TV really worth sacrificing the overall quality of the performances?

SNL’s current cast.

One possible exception would be that of SNL’s ‘Weekend Update’ — beginning with Chevy Chase in 1975, and currently with Michael Che and Colin Jost. Conceding that a mock newscast works better when satirizing the news stories of that particular week (as did the British classic That Was the Week That Was, over a decade before SNL premiered), last-minute updates in the script are understandable. And, a sketch requiring the anchors to directly address the camera (and its accompanying cue cards) can look more natural, much as the bona fide network and cable news anchors do anyway (and we’re not overlooking the fact that each and every of the late-night TV hosts use cue cards for their news-of-the-day opening monologues and desk bits).

Colin Jost and Michael Che.

But as soon as a fellow Weekend Update “reporter” or guest character sits down next to one of the anchors, there we are again, watching two people sitting next to each other supposedly having a dialogue — not by facing each other, but by looking elsewhere at the off-camera cards.

The practice will no doubt continue indefinitely. But just keep in mind that it wasn’t always this way, and never needed to be, had SNL required its performers to actually memorize their lines — and, heaven forbid, improvise a line or two if something does go wrong live. But no, the rehearsals are also taped, and a 7-second delay is in place, so a “clean” version can be slipped into the broadcast, just in case of disaster.

So, I must accept the futility of my argument, but when the media hype shifts into high gear for both SNL 1975 and the big 50th anniversary celebrations of the show, I’ll pass, in favor of comedy programs in which the characters can actually look each other in the eye.

Until next time…

If you enjoyed this piece, please click the “follow” button and follow me on Medium (no charge) for more of my articles on popular culture, music, films, television, entertainment history, and just plain old history.

Please visit www.GarryBerman.com to read synopses and reviews of my books (including For the First Time on Television) and order them via the links to Amazon.com.

You can also become a member in the Medium Partner Program for a modest fee to help support my writing! https://garryberman.medium.com/membership

Read my previous articles about film and TV comedy history at the links below, and at the links below:

“Television Stars Who Went From Hits to Flops” | by Garry Berman | Medium

“More TV Stars Who Went From Hits to Flops” | by Garry Berman | Medium

“The First Person to be Censored on TV was…Eddie Cantor? https://garryberman.medium.com/eddie-cantor-the-first-person-to-be-censored-on-tv-78b56c68cae1

“A Tribute to Our Funniest Sitcom Moms” https://garryberman.medium.com/a-tribute-to-our-funniest-sitcom-moms-ed3f5757fe73

“Television’s Greatest Sitcom Dad?” https://garryberman.medium.com/televisions-greatest-sitcom-dad-ef2dab761525

“Mary Kay and Johnny: Television’s First Sitcom” https://garryberman.medium.com/mary-kay-and-johnny-televisions-first-sitcom-835fec303b5e

“Hal Roach Studios’ 20th Anniversary Party” | by Garry Berman | Dec, 2023 | Medium

“Celebrating 100 Years of The Little Rascals” | by Garry Berman | Medium

“Happy 90th Birthday, ‘Duck Soup’! | by Garry Berman | Medium

“Comedy 101: Reliable Gags Used by the Legends” | by Garry Berman | Medium

“Pie in Your Eye: A History of the Pie-in-the-face Gag” https://garryberman.medium.com/pie-in-your-eye-a-history-of-the-pie-in-the-face-gag-4dd8c31286a0

“The Funniest Decade”| by Garry Berman | Medium

“Breaking the Fourth Wall (in comedy)” https://garryberman.medium.com/breaking-the-fourth-wall-in-comedy-51edfa9f88f0

“Whatever Happened to Comedy Teams?” https://garryberman.medium.com/whatever-happened-to-comedy-teams-7e243b5c9d45

“Halloween with Abbott & Costello” https://garryberman.medium.com/halloween-with-abbott-costello-2d39a21bbbba

“Buck Privates: An Appreciation” https://garryberman.medium.com/buck-privates-an-appreciation-da7b7d645fab

“Stars For a Cause: The Navy Relief Show of 1942” https://garryberman.medium.com/stars-for-a-cause-the-navy-relief-show-of-march-1942-af2ff6edf8d9

“Retro Review: ‘Local Hero” at 40’ | by Garry Berman | Medium

Thank you for your time!

--

--

Garry Berman

Pop Culture historian, Freelance Writer, Author, specializing in American comedy history in films, radio, and TV. Beatles and jazz enthusiast, animal lover.