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A History of ‘Saturday Night Live’ Season Premieres

Saturday Night Live Logo
NBC Universal

On September 28, ‘Saturday Night Live’ premieres with host, and ‘SNL’ alum, Tina Fey kicking off the 39th season of the show.

Thirty-nine years is a long time for any program, especially a show written in only a week’s time and performed live for millions watching around the world. ‘Saturday Night Live’ is celebrated not only for its longevity but for the legendary list of talent that have graced the stage in Studio 8H and for the show’s characters and catchphrases that are now deeply ingrained in pop culture.

Before ‘SNL’ embarks on its 39th season, let’s take a look back at the season premiere episodes from previous years. Here is a history of ‘Saturday Night Live’ season premieres.

George Carlin SNL Debut
NBC Universal

Season 1

Date: October 11, 1975
Host: George Carlin
Musical Guests: Billy Preston and Janis Ian

The cold open to the show was John Belushi as a foreign man learning English. The teacher was played by veteran SNL writer Michael O’Donoghue. Following this skit, Chevy Chase appeared in a head set and barked “Live From New York, It’s Saturday Night!” for the very first time. Per his request, the host George Carlin had no involvement in any sketches. This was the only SNL episode where the host wasn’t involved in the sketches. Carlin appeared only to perform stand-up, introduce the two musical guests, and to say good night segment.

The episode also featured an Albert Brooks film, ‘The Impossible Truth,’ which Brooks himself appeared in and Paul Simon appeared to announce he was hosting the next week.

Season 2

Date: September 18, 1976
Host: Lily Tomlin
Musical Guests: James Taylor

This episode marks the final appearance of the characters from “The Land of Gorch.” The show ends with Paul Shaffer and Lily Tomlin performing the Antler Dance as the entire cast, crew, the characters from ‘The Land of Gorch’ sketch join in.

Season 3
Date: September 24, 1977
Host: Steve Martin
Musical Guests: Jackson Browne

The season premiere of season three of ‘SNL’ marks the first appearance of the Festrunk Brothers. It was also the debut appearance of Dan Aykroyd as the co-anchor of Weekend Update alongside Jane Curtin.

Season 4
Date: October 7, 1978
Host & Musical Guests: The Rolling Stones

The monologue is delivered by the then-Mayor of New York City Ed Koch, marking the first time the host did not give the monologue. The episode features a ‘Schiller’s Reel’ film called ‘Sushi by the Pool’ and featured Desi Arnaz, Jr., Carrie Fisher, and Steven Keats and a special guest Hal Holbrook. Two sketches featured the Rolling Stones members — the Tomorrow Show parody, in which Tom Snyder (portrayed by Dan Aykroyd) interviews Mick Jagger and the Olympia Cafe sketch which features Ron Wood and Charlie Watts. The episode also marks the debut of Bill Murray as co-anchor of Weekend Update, replacing Dan Aykroyd after one season.

Steve Martin SNL Parody
NBC Universal

Season 5
Date: October 13, 1979
Host: Steve Martin
Musical Guest: Blondie

Steve Martin hosts the SNL season premiere for the second time in three years. SNL writer Jim Downey and Paul Shaffer make guest appearances and Buck Henry appears in a commercial parody alongside host Steve Martin. Father Guido Sarducci makes his first appearance on Weekend Update to announce the start of the ‘Find the Popes in the Pizza’ contest, where viewers at home try to find all of the hidden popes in a photo.

Season 6
Date: November 15, 1980
Host: Elliott Gould
Musical Guest: Kid Creole & the Coconuts

The season six premiere of SNL begins what will be known as the “Dick Ebersole Era” of the show after creator Lorne Michaels left due to a dispute with the network. The cold opening showed all the new cast members in bed with Elliot Gould (a clever nod to Gould’s 1969 film ‘Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice’). Gould tries to settle their anxieties about replacing the old cast.

Season 7
Date: October 3, 1981
Host: No host
Musical Guest: Rod Stewart

This would be one of the handful of occurrences where there was no host of SNL, but oddly enough, it wouldn’t be the last season premiere without a host. In another shocking move, Dick Ebersol cut the popular opening line “Live from New York, It’s Saturday Night!” from the cold openings. He did it in an attempt to distance the show from its predecessors. On a few occasions, cold openings weren’t even shown and the monologues cut out entirely. These changes were obviously not permanent. Ebersol brought back the famous line and monologues for the eighth season. A short film by Yoko Ono was also shown and juggler Michael Davis made a guest appearance.

Season 8
Date: September 25, 1982
Host: Chevy Chase
Musical Guest: Queen

In an odd decision by Ebersol, the host of the episode Chevy Chase performed via satellite from Burbank, California. It would be the only time the host wasn’t actually in the studio. Queen performed ‘Crazy Little Thing Called Love’ and were introduced in a cameo by Danny DeVito. This was Queen’s final live performance in America with frontman Freddie Mercury. Movie reviewers Siskel & Ebert made guest appearances to give reviews of a few of the sketches.

Season 9
Date: October 8, 1983
Host: Brandon Tartikoff
Musical Guest: John Cougar Mellencamp

Brandon Tartikoff, an executive with NBC credited with turning around the network’s low prime time ratings, hosted the season nine premiere. Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert again made cameo appearances to critique the episode’s sketches.

Season 10
Date: October 6, 1984
Host: No host
Musical Guest: Thompson Twins

Once again, the SNL season kicks off without a host but a myriad of future comedy greats join the cast for season ten. Billy Crystal, Christopher Guest, Rich Hall, Martin Short and Pamela Stephenson’s join the cast with Harry Shearer rejoining after a four-year hiatus. Crystal, performing as Fernando, anchors Saturday Night News. Saturday Night News was the name given to the regular Weekend Update segment, another Ebersol move to replace the ideas and staples of the old Lorne Micheal’s show.

Saturday Night Live 1985 Cast
NBC Universal

Season 11
Date: November 9, 1985
Host: Madonna
Musical Guest: Simple Minds

Season eleven marks the return on SNL creator Lorne Michaels with a complete overhauled cast that included Joan Cusack, Nora Dunn, Robert Downey Jr., Anthony Michael Hall, Jon Lovitz, Dennis Miller, Randy Quaid, Terry Sweeney, Danitra Vance, and Damon Wayans. In the cold opening, Lorne Michaels and Brandon Tartikoff issue urine tests to all new cast members for drug use. It’s also the first appearance of ‘Limits of the Imagination’, a ‘Twilight Zone’ spoof and recurring skit throughout the season. Penn & Teller make a guest appearance to perform magic.

Season 12
Date: October 11, 1986
Host: Sigourney Weaver
Musical Guest: None

Despite plans to cancel SNL due to low ratings the previous season, producer Lorne Michaels convinced Brandon Tartikoff to give the show one last chance with an all new cast. Phil Hartman, Dana Carvey, Kevin Nealon, Victoria Jackson and Jan Hooks appear as new cast members. Madonna, the host of the premiere episode the previous season, appears in the cold opening and reads a fictitious statement from NBC executives regarding the 1985–1986 season. Executives want viewers to know the last season was “a dream—a horrible, horrible dream.”

Season 13
Date: October 17, 1987
Host: Steve Martin
Musical Guest: Sting

Martin hosts the first episode of the season once again. During production of the season premiere, a fire broke out near Studio 8H during dress rehearsal, and despite plans to cancel the show for the week, Martin pushed the cast to perform. This would be the only SNL episode ever without a dress rehearsal. Presidential candidate Bruce Babbitt appears on Weekend Update and Hans and Franz make their first appearance on the show.

Season 14
Date: October 8, 1988
Host: Tom Hanks
Musical Guest: Keith Richards

Tom Hanks hosts his first SNL premiere. Hanks would go on to host the show a total of seven times. SNL writer Jim Downey appears as Paul McElroy in the ‘First Citywide Change Bank’ sketches and Jeff Renaudo makes a cameo appearance in the ‘Bush-Dukakis Debate’ sketch as Dan Quayle. Downey, Conan O’Brien, and Bob Odenkirk, all writers on the show, appear in the background of various sketches.

Season 15
Date: September 30, 1989
Host: Bruce Willis
Musical Guest: Neil Young

While this is the first official show of the season, the fifteenth season of SNL actually kicked off a week prior, with a special anniversary special. While the season premiere isn’t very notable, the season itself is memorable for the in-cast turmoil towards the end of the season when cast member Nora Dunn boycotted the show because of the host, the controversial comedian Andrew Dice Clay.

Season 16
Date: September 29, 1990
Host: Kyle MacLachlan
Musical Guest: Sinéad O’Connor

The season sixteen ‘SNL’ premiere marks the first episode for comedy legends Chris Farley and Chris Rock. Sinéad O’Connor performs, without much controversy, but that will all change after her second ‘SNL’ performance the following season.

Jesse Jackson Green Eggs and Ham
NBC Universal / YouTube

Season 17
Date: September 28, 1991
Host: Michael Jordan
Musical Guest: Public Enemy

Basketball legend Michael Jordan tips off season 17 and George Wendt (Wendt is the uncle of future ‘SNL’ cast member Jason Sudeikis), Spike Lee and Jesse Jackson all make appearances. Jackson would read the Dr. Seuss classic Green Eggs and Ham.

Season 18
Date: September 26, 1992
Host: Nicolas Cage
Musical Guest: Bobby Brown

Bobby Brown performs ‘Humpin’ Around’ and ‘Good Enough’ and Jan Hooks (former cast member) and Cher (former co-star of host Nicolas Cage) make guest appearances.

Season 19
Date: September 25, 1993
Host: Charles Barkley
Musical Guest: Nirvana

Muggsy Bogues and RuPaul make cameo appearances to support host Charles Barkley. This would be the second time in three years an NBA star hosted the premiere episode of SNL. Grudge gods Nirvana perform ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ and ‘Rape Me’, the latter being an incredibly controversial song at the time.

Season 20
Date: September 24, 1994
Host: Steve Martin
Musical Guest: Eric Clapton

Much like in 1980–1981 and 1985–1986, NBC worried over SNL’s decline in ratings and initially decided that it would be the best time to pull the plug on the show once and for all. According to the special ‘Saturday Night Live in the ’90s: Pop Culture Nation’, Lorne Michaels credits season 20 as the closest he’s ever been to being fired and the show ending. The episode would be the first with Norm Macdonald anchoring Weekend Update and MLB stars Bobby Bonilla, Jack McDowell, Lenny Dykstra, Mo Vaughn, and Roger Clemens appeared in the ‘Super Sports Tours’ sketch.

Season 21
Date: September 30, 1995
Host: Mariel Hemingway
Musical Guest: Blues Traveler

Rumors once again swirled that SNL would be cancelled in the summer before season 21. The show survived and notable additions to the cast for the season premiere of SNL included Jim Breuer, Darrell Hammond, David Koechner, Cheri Oteri, Nancy Walls and a fella named Will Ferrell.

Season 22
Date: September 28, 1996
Host: Tom Hanks
Musical Guest: Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers

Tom Hanks returns to host again and the season 22 premiere episode marks the first appearance of Robert Smigel’s ‘Saturday TV Funhouse’ segment. The cartoon is the first installment of The Ambiguously Gay Duo, which originally debuted on the now-defunct sketch program The Dana Carvey Show earlier that year. This is also the first episode to feature Chris Kattan’s character Mr. Peepers.

Season 23
Date: September 27, 1997
Host: Sylvester Stallone
Musical Guest: Jamiroquai

Richard Jewell, the initial suspect in the 1996 Olympics bombing, makes a guest appearance on the show. In a highly publicized sketch, Jewell punches Janet Reno (played by Will Ferrell) in the stomach. Reno responds with “same time next week?” and Jewell agrees. Jewell also appeared alongside Norm Macdonald on Weekend Update.

Season 24
Date: September 26, 1998
Host: Cameron Diaz
Musical Guest: Smashing Pumpkins

Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd reprise their roles as The Festrunk Brothers for the first time in years during a sketch with the Butabi brothers. John Goodman made a cameo appearance as Linda Tripp during the cold open and Jimmy Fallon, Horatio Sanz and Chris Parnell’s join the cast. Jonathan Richman and Tommy Larkins, the duo who performed musical interludes in Diaz’s film ‘There’s Something About Mary’, made a cameo appearances after a sketch.

Season 25
Date: October 2, 1999
Host: Jerry Seinfeld
Musical Guest: David Bowie

In a pre-taped sketch that shows Jerry Seinfeld serving time in the Oswald Correctional Facility, following his jail time on the series finale of Seinfeld, ‘Oz’ cast members Dean Winters, Harold Perrineau, J. K. Simmons, and Lee Tergesen appear as their characters from the HBO prison drama.

Season 26
Date: October 7, 2000
Host: Rob Lowe
Musical Guest: Eminem

Ralph Nader, a Presidential candidate that year, made a cameo appearance during the monologue. Jimmy Fallon and Tina Fey debut as the new anchors of Weekend Update. Fey, the head writer of SNL at the time, made her debut on the show.

Saturday Night Live 9/11
NBC Universal

Season 27
Date: September 29, 2001
Host: Reese Witherspoon
Musical Guest: Alicia Keyes and Paul Simon

Easily the most emotional episode in SNL history, the season 27 premiere happened less than three weeks after the terrorist attacks of September 11. New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, along with members of the FDNY and NYPD, appear in the cold opening to encourage New York and Saturday Night Live to carry on in the face of adversity. To keep the moment light, Lorne Michaels asks the mayor “Can we be funny?”, to which Giuliani replied “Why start now?” Paul Simon also played the song ‘The Boxer’ during the cold opening.

Season 28
Date: October 5, 2002
Host: Matt Damon
Musical Guest: Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band

An uneventful opening to the twenty-eight season, Matt Damon hosted. Surprisingly, this was Damon’s first and only time on the show (except for a brief appearance in a Digital Short a few years later). This show also marked the first episodes for Will Forte and Fred Armisen.

Season 29
Date: October 4, 2003
Host: Jack Black
Musical Guest: John Mayer

Will Ferrell makes a cameo appearance in the monologue and Kyle Gass (the other half of Tenacious D with Jack Black) and Tyler James Williams made cameos in this episode. Finesse Mitchell and Kenan Thompson join the cast.

Season 30
Date: October 2, 2004
Host: Ben Affleck
Musical Guest: Nelly

Alec Baldwin makes a cameo during Ben Affleck’s monologue. Amy Poehler co-anchors Weekend Update for the first time in this episode alongside Tina Fey. James Gandolfini, in character as Tony Soprano, appeared in the Weekend Update segment.

Mike Myers Kanye West SNL
NBC Universal

Season 31
Date: October 1, 2005
Host: Steve Carell
Musical Guest: Kanye West

Former cast member Mike Myers made a special appearance in which he pokes fun at his and musical guest Kanye West’s joint appearance at A Concert for Hurricane Relief in which West claimed President Bush didn’t care about black people. This is also the first SNL episode broadcast in high definition.

Season 32
Date: September 30, 2006
Host: Dane Cook
Musical Guest: The Killers

Due budget cuts from the network, this is the first time since season twenty-three to have no featured players or new members of the repertory cast. Seth Meyers was the new Weekend Update anchor alongside Amy Poehler. Brian Williams cameos at the start of Weekend Update.

Season 33
Date: September 29, 2007
Host: Lebron James
Musical Guest: Kanye West

Maroon 5 lead singer Adam Levine and actor Jake Gyllenhaal appeared in a Digital Short called ‘Iran So Far’, a parody of the song “I Ran (So Far Away)” by A Flock of Seagulls.

Season 34
Date: September 13, 2008
Host: Michael Phelps
Musical Guest: Lil Wayne

Olympic swimming gold medalist Michael Phelps host the season 34 premiere and Tina Fey appeared as Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, alongside Amy Poehler as Hillary Clinton. The show scored its highest-rated premiere since the September 2001, just weeks after the 9/11 attacks. A month later, the SNL scored its highest ratings in over fortune years thanks to the real Sarah Palin making a cameo. The episode had 17 million viewers during its first half-hour.

Season 35
Date: September 26, 2009
Host: Megan Fox
Musical Guest: U2

A new opening sequence mentioning SNL’s 35 years on-air debuts with this season premiere. The episode made huge headlines thanks to a slip-up by new cast member Jenny Slate. During a skit titled ‘Biker Chick Chat’, Slate accidentally drops an F bomb instead of the terms “frigid’,” “frickin’” or “freakin’” like she’s been using throughout the sketch. Slate quickly holds her breath after realizing her mistake but it was too late. Slate would stay on for the rest of the season but was eventually let go.

Season 36
Date: September 25, 2010
Host: Amy Poehler
Musical Guest: Katy Perry

New York Governor David Paterson appeared in Weekend Update alongside Fred Armisen portraying of the NYC governor. Host Amy Poehler reprised her roles as Betty Caruso and Amber. The show included guest appearances by Justin Timberlake, Rachel Dratch, Jimmy Fallon, Tina Fey, Peter Sarsgaard, and Maya Rudolph.

Season 37
Date: September 24, 2011
Host: Alec Baldwin
Musical Guest: Radiohead

As of the broadcast, Baldwin attains the record of most frequent host, formerly shared between him and Steve Martin. Both had hosted sixteen times. Oddly enough, this was Baldwin’s first time hosting a season premiere. Baldwin and Martin are the only two men to host a season premiere, finale, and the Christmas episode.

Season 38
Date: September 15, 2012
Host: Seth MacFarlane
Musical Guest: Frank Ocean

In the opening monologue to season 38, Seth MacFarlane reprises his voices of Peter Griffin, Stewie Griffin, Brian Griffin, and Glenn Quagmire from ‘Family Guy’, and Roger Smith from American Dad. Starting that season, Jay Pharoah takes over impersonating President Barack Obama from Fred Armisen. SNL had received criticism of Armisen in the role as the President. Psy appears in the ‘Gangnam Style’ sketch while Bobby Moynihan’s does an impersonation of the pop superstar.

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