Saturday Night Live With Howard Cosell

The idea was to replicate the format of The Ed Sullivan Show, only to do it on Saturday nights with Howard Cosell. And right there you had at least two fatal errors. Saturday night isn’t the night that the family gathers around the TV after supper, the way they did for years to watch Ed. And Howard Cosell was many things — including, people forget, a man who brought a new honesty and maturity to sportscasting — but he wasn’t Ed Sullivan. Cosell wasn’t warm and friendly, and he lacked Ed’s credibility as an endorser of talented people.

And there may have been a third fatal error (maybe the Sullivan show had left the airways because the format had gotten stale and antiquated) and perhaps even a fourth (exec producer Roone Arledge was proficient in sports and news, not entertainment). The end result was a show that only had two things in common with Ed’s old show: It was done in the same studio and it was cancelled.

Ed had been cancelled after 23 years. “Humble Howard,” as some called him, was axed after four months. (Most histories say three.) The top ticket above is to the dress rehearsal of the first episode which aired September 20, 1975 and which tried to capture some of the excitement Ed had achieved by booking The Beatles. What the Cosell show had was an audience packed with screaming teenage girls and, on stage, The Bay City Rollers. Not quite the same thing. The other ticket above is for the next-to-last broadcast, the last being on January 17, 1976.

The whole effort is probably best remembered by its connection to another show that debuted less than a month later. Over at NBC, producer Lorne Michaels had wanted to call his new late night show Saturday Night Live but the name was taken so he settled for NBC Saturday Night. After the Cosell program went off, Michaels’ show took custody of the name as of its 3/26/77 broadcast.

Also, the Cosell series had a small regular comedy troupe of three performers — Bill Murray, Brian-Doyle Murray and Christopher Guest — who were billed as “The Prime Time Players.” It inspired the name of the comedy squadron on Michaels’ show, The Not-Ready-For-Primetime Players. And of course, all three men — Guest and the two Murray brothers — wound up in the cast of the NBC late night series at different times.

My most vivid memory of Saturday Night Live With Howard Cosell is that one evening, Howard waded out into the audience to do a brief interview with two men who’d been invited to be there. They were Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the creators of Superman, who were then waging a public campaign to pressure DC Comics to come across with pensions and other financial assistance. The spot gave their cause a nice bit of publicity and it probably helped a little to shame DC into doing the right thing. So Howard, as dislikeable as he could be at times, did something nice. And it would have been even nicer if he hadn’t kept referring to Joe Shuster as “John.”