Co-created by and starring Monty Python’s John Cleese, Fawlty Towers ran on the BBC for just two short seasons between 1975 and 1979. The classic sitcom followed the inept Basil Fawlty (Cleese) as he attempted to bring a touch of class to his dilapidated Torquay hotel, butting heads with his employees, wife, and guests along the way. Here are 13 facts about Fawlty Towers for those who know nothing.
1. BASIL FAWLTY WAS BASED ON A REAL PERSON.
While shooting Monty Python’s Flying Circus, John Cleese and the rest of the Monty Python team stayed at the Gleneagles Hotel in Torquay, where they were constantly berated by the eccentric hotel owner Donald Sinclair, whom Cleese once described as "the rudest man I’ve ever come across in my life." Sinclair, who was known for being in a perpetually high state of anxiety, apparently threw Eric Idle’s briefcase into the street as soon as the team arrived, claiming it could be a bomb. He chastised Terry Gilliam for holding his silverware incorrectly and knocked on Michael Palin’s door to ask whether he meant to put up his “Do Not Disturb” sign.
According to The Spectator, “He’d be furious if a teapot meant for four was placed on a table for two. He marched about in his dressing-gown berating guests for wanting hot water to heat a baby’s bottle, early alarm calls, late suppers, or if they requested a taxi. ‘Why?’ he’d howl incredulously, taking a step back, his jaw dropping. If you went out late he might yell after you, ‘And where do you think you’re going?’”
While others might have found Sinclair’s outbursts off-putting, Cleese was inspired. When he began working on ideas for a television show, Sinclair’s antics immediately popped back into his mind, and he decided to model Basil Fawlty and his wife Sybil after Sinclair and his wife Beatrice.
Fawlty Towers turned the Gleneagles Hotel into something of a landmark in Torquay. But though fans of the show would make pilgrimages to the Gleneagles, their patronage wasn’t enough to keep the little hotel in business. Earlier this year, the Gleneagles was demolished to make way for a new retirement home.
3. STUDIO EXECUTIVES HAD DOUBTS ABOUT THE SHOW.
InFawlty Towers: The Story of Britain's Favourite Sitcom, author Graham McCann wrote that BBC executives weren’t too enthusiastic about initial scripts for the show. “Several producers who had gained a glimpse of a script had pronounced themselves distinctly underwhelmed by the quality of its contents (‘Oh dear,’ one of them had been overheard lamenting about John Cleese in the BBC bar, ‘why did he ever leave Monty Python?’),” McCann wrote. “One executive had gone so far as to distribute a memo complaining: ‘This is a very boring situation and the script has nothing but very clichéd characters. I cannot see anything but a disaster if we go ahead with it.’”
4. IT WASN'T AN IMMEDIATE HIT.
Fawlty Towers didn’t make much of a splash when its first episode aired. The BBC did little to promote the show in the days leading up to its premiere (according to McCann, the only magazine coverage was a two-page article in Radio Times by a journalist who had not yet seen the show). McCann noted that the first episode pulled in a “decent” but not impressive audience: “1,868,500—compared with the 7,726,500 who watched the news on BBC1 and the 11,059,500 who tuned to Stanley Baxter on ITV.” After it aired, a number of periodicals dismissed the show harshly: According to The Sydney Morning Herald, “The Evening Standard complained that the plot was ‘thin and obvious’ while the Daily Mirror thundered—‘LONG JOHN IS SHORT ON JOKES.’”
5. IT WAS WRITTEN BY JOHN CLEESE AND CONNIE BOOTH.
John Cleese co-wrote all of Fawlty Towers with his then-wife, Connie Booth, who played hotel employee Polly Sherman in the show. Though the two were divorced between seasons one and two, they continued to collaborate on the series together. According to The Spectator, Cleese focused on Basil’s dialogue, while Booth crafted Sybil’s lines.
6. CLEESE SUPPLEMENTED HIS INCOME AT THE TIME BY APPEARING IN ADVERTISEMENTS.
Cleese and Booth were perfectionists who insisted on spending up to a month and a half writing each episode (scripts could run up to 135 pages, around twice the length of most television screenplays). In order to support this lengthy scriptwriting process, Cleese periodically appeared in ads. “I have to thank the advertising industry for making this possible," Cleese once explained. "Connie and I used to spend six weeks writing each episode and we didn’t make a lot of money out of it. I was able to subsidize my writing time by doing commercials. If it hadn’t been for the commercials, I wouldn’t have been able to afford to spend so much time on the script.”
7. THE MAJOR WAS CARY GRANT'S FORMER ROOMMATE.
Ballard Berkeley, who played the senile but lovable Major Gowen, had been working in show business for half a century when he was cast in Fawlty Towers. In addition to performing in movies and theater, Berkeley was close friends with Cary Grant, and even shared an apartment with the legendary actor back in their early days, when Grant still went by his real name, Archie Leach.
8. THE DIRECTOR OF SEASON TWO WENT ON TO DIRECT SPICE WORLD.
Bob Spiers, who was hired to direct season two of Fawlty Towers, began his television career in the 1960s, working as an assistant floor manager on shows like Doctor Who. After directing Fawlty Towers, he worked in film and television for several decades before being hired in 1997 to direct the Spice Girls in Spice World.
9. MANUEL WAS ACTUALLY BURNED DURING THE FIRE DRILL IN "THE GERMANS."
In the season one finale “The Germans,” Basil Fawlty struggles to organize a fire drill while, simultaneously, waiter Manuel—played by Andrew Sachs—manages to set an actual fire in the kitchen. While shooting, Sachs wore a jacket covered in smoke-producing chemicals, which ended up burning his arms so badly, they turned “plum red” according to McCann. The BBC ended up paying Sachs £700 (a little over $1000) in damages.
10. MANUEL LATER GOT HIT WITH A SAUCEPAN DURING "THE WEDDING PARTY."
“The Germans” wasn’t the only time Sachs suffered for his art: Earlier in the first season, in the episode “The Wedding Party,” Basil hit Manuel with a saucepan in a bit of classic physical comedy. In rehearsals, Cleese tried to lighten the blow, but in one take, he accidentally hit Sachs so hard the actor nearly passed out. McCann quoted Cleese as saying, “We’d been practicing all week with me hitting him with a saucepan ... and I don’t know why we didn’t get a rubber saucepan. And I was trying to hit Andrew a sort of sliding blow, but just as I started he straightened up, and I caught him a terrible one, and I’m afraid he had a headache for about two days.”
11. THE HOTEL SIGN WAS REARRANGED BY THE SHOW'S PRODUCTION ASSISTANT.
Each episode of Fawlty Towers begins with the hotel sign rearranged to spell comical phrases (“Farty Towels,” “Fatty Owls” and “Watery Fowls” for instance)—ostensibly a prank by a disgruntled paper boy. These were actually constructed by production assistant and crossword puzzle fanatic Iain McLean, who came up with a list of clever anagrams for the show.
12. IT HAS BEEN UNSUCCESSFULLY REMADE SEVERAL TIMES.
Anyone who has seen Fawlty Towers knows the appeal of the show lies not so much in its premise—which essentially boils down to a cranky hotel owner repeatedly getting angry—as in its clever writing, and the chemistry of its extremely funny cast. Nevertheless, Fawlty Towers has been remade repeatedly, with largely unsuccessful results. It was adapted in Germany as Zoom, and unsuccessfully remade at least four times in the United States, with Bea Arthur taking over the Basil Fawlty role in one version, and Tim Curry and a young Steve Carrell playing the Basil and Manuel parts in another.
13. FAWLTY TOWERS LIVE IS TOURING AUSTRALIA AND NEW ZEALAND THIS SUMMER.
Cleese has repeatedly sworn he'll never write new Fawlty Towers episodes without Connie Booth. And since Booth has expressed little interest in returning to the show after nearly four decades, it seems unlikely Fawlty Towers will ever return to TV. But that doesn't mean Cleese has bid a complete farewell to Basil Fawlty. This summer, a theatrical version of the show, adapted for the stage by Cleese, is set to go on tour.
Starring an all new cast, Fawlty Towers Live will make stops in Australia and New Zealand, though there's no word yet on whether the show will visit other countries. When asked why the show was premiering in Australia rather than England, Cleese replied, "The British press doesn't like me very much."
When I Love Lucy premiered on October 15, 1951, no one could have predicted that it would become one of television’s most beloved and enduring programs of all time. But a combination of innovative filming techniques, the dogged perfectionism of star Lucille Ball, top-notch writing, the “can do” attitude of the production staff, and the business savvy of Desi Arnaz, I Love Lucy topped the Nielsen ratings for four out of its six seasons and picked up a handful of Emmys along the way. And even though the show’s main stars couldn’t stay married to one another (Lucy and Desi divorced in 1960, after 20 years of marriage), they remained the best of friends. As Desi would proclaim until his dying day, “I Love Lucy was never just a title.”
1. CBS DIDN’T THINK AMERICANS WOULD BUY THAT LUCY WAS MARRIED TO A “FOREIGN” MAN.
When CBS approached Lucille Ball with the offer of turning her popular radio show My Favorite Husband into a television show, she was agreeable with one condition: that her real-life husband, Desi Arnaz, would be cast in the role of her spouse (played on the radio by Richard Denning). The network balked—there was no way that American viewers would accept average housewife Liz Cooper (her character’s name on the radio series) being married to a “foreign” man with an indecipherable accent. Never mind the fact that Lucy and Desi had been married more than a decade; such a “mixed” marriage was unbelievable.
2. LUCY AND DESI HAD TO TAKE THEIR SHOW ON THE ROAD TO CONVINCE THE NETWORK BRASS.
Arnaz had a successful career touring the country with his rhumba band, which was one of the reasons Lucille wanted him to get cast as her TV husband—to keep him off the road and close to home. In an effort to show the network (and potential sponsors) that they could work together as a comedy team, they crafted a sort of vaudevillian skit that was inserted into the middle of performances by the Desi Arnaz Orchestra during a tour in the summer of 1950. The audiences roared over Lucille’s antics and her interaction with Desi as she interrupted his band’s concert confusedly, cello in hand, thinking she had an audition scheduled. The “Professor” skit not only convinced the network powers that be that the couple could, in fact, be convincing as husband and wife—it also was such a hit that it was incorporated into episode six of I Love Lucy’s first season.
3. THE SHOW BROKE GROUND IN SEVERAL WAYS, SIMPLY BECAUSE THE ARNAZES WOULDN’T MOVE TO NEW YORK.
Lucille and Desi wanted to work in Los Angeles, near their home and their new baby daughter Lucie. But in 1951 the majority of television shows were broadcast from New York, and that’s where sponsor Philip Morris wanted their show to originate as well. In those days the U.S. wasn’t wired for television from coast-to-coast; shows broadcast live could only be transmitted so far. As a result, such shows were preserved on kinescopes (a movie camera aimed at a TV monitor that recorded the show in negligible quality) and shipped to distant stations.
Philip Morris objected to I Love Lucy being performed in California and the kinescopes sent to New York; their biggest cigarette market was up and down the east coast and they wanted the best TV picture quality for that area. Desi Arnaz suggested that the show be filmed with three cameras, like a stage play, which would provide the same quality picture for every market. But multi-cameras had never been used on a situation comedy before, and there were many obstacles involved, not the least of which was accommodating a live studio audience (Desi knew that Lucille worked best when she got immediate audience feedback).
Desi hired legendary cinematographer Karl Freund to help solve the dilemma, and along with writer-producer Jess Oppenheimer and director Marc Daniels, they built a set, and the necessary filming equipment was strategically placed. CBS balked at the additional expense involved in this undertaking, so Arnaz struck a deal: he and Lucille would take a large cut in their salaries and their company, Desilu Productions, would retain ownership of the films in exchange. The enduring high quality of the 35 millimeter film was part of the reason that I Love Lucy became so popular in rerun syndication, and Desilu’s 100 percent ownership of the series made Lucille and Desi the first millionaire TV stars.
4. ONLY LUCY WAS ALLOWED TO MAKE FUN OF RICKY’S FRACTURED ENGLISH.
After a few episodes were filmed, it became an unwritten rule that only Lucy would ever poke fun at her husband’s pronunciation problems. The writers had allowed other characters to make remarks, but in each case the “joke” was met with stony silence from the studio audience. For some reason, it seemed cruel when anyone other than Lucy “mucked” Ricky’s English.
5. SMOKING WAS REQUIRED ON-CAMERA.
I Love Lucy almost never made it to the air because CBS had trouble securing a sponsor for the show. Finally tobacco giant Philip Morris signed on at the 11th hour. As a result, lots of smoking was featured in each episode, and the name “Philip Morris” was worked into the dialogue whenever plausible. There was, however, one small problem: Lucille Ball was a Chesterfield girl. She eventually overcame this little hurdle by having a stagehand stuff any on-camera Philip Morris packs full of Chesterfield cigarettes.
6. WILLIAM FRAWLEY WAS FAR FROM THE FIRST CHOICE TO PLAY FRED MERTZ.
Lucille Ball was eager to have Gale Gordon, whom she’d worked with on her My Favorite Husband radio show, play crusty neighbor and landlord Fred Mertz. But Gordon, who had a steady gig at the time on the Our Miss Brooks radio program, asked for more money than Desilu had to offer. Character actor William Frawley knew Ball in passing (they’d met back in the 1940s) and phoned her personally when he read about her upcoming TV show in the trade papers to inquire if there might be a part for him. CBS and Philip Morris were wary of hiring Frawley, who had a reputation for being a heavy drinker. But Arnaz (no stranger to the bottle himself) thought that Frawley was just curmudgeonly enough to bring Fred Mertz to life. He met Frawley for lunch at Nickodell’s on Melrose Avenue and offered him the role with the proviso that if he missed work for any reason other than legitimate illness, he’d be written out of the show.
7. DORIS ZIFFEL WAS ALMOST ETHEL MERTZ.
Lucille had worked with Bea Benaderet in radio and wanted her to play Ethel Mertz. But Benaderet had just signed on to play Blanche Morton on the TV version of The Burns and Allen Show and was unavailable. Barbara Pepper was a personal friend of Ball’s, and the two had worked in films together, so she was the next serious consideration for the role. Pepper was the right age and body type to play Ethel, but she was also a known alcoholic and the network nixed her after Frawley was hired; two heavy drinkers in the main cast was too risky. I Love Lucy had already gone into early rehearsals by the time director Marc Daniels saw Vivian Vance performing in a play at the La Jolla Playhouse and recommended her to Arnaz. Pepper did play background characters on severalI Love Lucy episodes and would go on to land the role of Doris Ziffel on Green Acres.
8. THE “MERTZES” DESPISED ONE ANOTHER OFF-CAMERA.
Vivian Vance was 22 years younger than her TV husband and resented having such an “old poop” play her spouse. Frawley responded in kind, referring to her variously as “that sack of doorknobs” or just plain “b*tch.” But all that animosity was strictly behind the scenes and known mostly only to the series’ writers and directors. Frawley and Vance were savvy enough to not jeopardize their jobs on TV’s most successful show by openly airing their mutual hostility. Even co-workers like Keith Thibodeaux (Little Ricky, a.k.a. Richard Keith) and Roy Rowan (the show’s announcer), who were on the set daily, had no idea that things were less than cuddly between the two actors until years afterI Love Lucy ceased production.
9. DESI ARNAZ HAD LIFTS IN HIS SHOES (AND HIS LOVESEAT).
Arnaz listed his height as 5’11” in most official biographies, but those who worked with him knew that in reality he was 5’9” and wore four-inch lifts in his shoes. Lucille Ball stood 5’7” in her stocking feet, and when she wore heels she seemed to tower over her husband. Desi Arnaz Jr. would later explain to an interviewer that his father “was a Cuban with a Latin male’s pride,” which is why it was important to him to be taller than his wife. A dual-purpose, subtle additional cushion (undetectable by the viewing audience) was added to the Ricardos’ loveseat so that Ricky would be taller than Lucy while seated, and would also give him the extra boost needed to gracefully rise from a sitting position up onto his elevator shoes.
10. ARNAZ FLATLY REJECTED A SCENE THAT INVOLVED RICKY CHEATING ON HIS TAXES.
Desi Arnaz was an unabashed believer in the American Dream and was very patriotic when it came to his adopted homeland. Desi was 17 years old when Fulgencio Batista overthrew the Cuban government and the Arnaz family fled to Miami with little more than the clothes they were wearing. The family lived in a warehouse with some other refugees and Desi got a job cleaning birdcages for a man whole sold canaries to pet stores. As he said during his acceptance speech on Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Town in 1954, “From cleaning canary cages to this night in New York is a long ways. And I don’t think there’s any other country in the world that could give you that opportunity.” So when a scene in original script in the episode “Lucy Tells the Truth” called for Ricky to fudge some numbers on his income tax return, Arnaz refused to play it and asked the writers to remove it. He didn’t want the audience to think that Ricky would cheat the U.S. government.
11. THE CANDY LADY WAS A BIG DIPPER IN REAL LIFE.
“Job Switching” (often referred to as “The Candy Factory Episode”) has long been a fan favorite, particularly the scene where Lucy and Ethel are stuffing their faces and clothing with chocolates while trying to keep up with a speedy conveyor belt. The previous scene featured Lucy hand-dipping chocolates with a real-life dipper that stage manager Herb Browar found at See’s Candies on Santa Monica Boulevard.
Amanda Milligan had never seen I Love Lucy (she watched wrestling on Monday nights), but Browar hired her anyway; he thought her deadpan expression would make her the perfect straight woman for Lucille to react to. During rehearsals Lucille was worried that the scene just wasn’t going to be funny on film because Milligan seemed hesitant to hit her in the face as the script specified. When the cameras were rolling, Milligan hauled off and smacked Lucille so hard that Ball feared her nose had been broken. Despite her pain and ringing ears Ball didn’t call for a “cut” because she did not want to have to do another take! During a break in filming Lucille asked Milligan “So, how do you like working in show business?” An unsmiling Milligan, who’d spent eight hours per day for the past 30 years putting swirls on chocolates, replied, “I’ve never been so bored in my life.”
12. LUCILLE WAS TOO STRESSED TO APPRECIATE THE HUMOR IN ONE OF HER MOST POPULAR EPISODES.
Another fan favorite was, interestingly, not one of Ball’s favorite episodes. It wasn’t until “Lucy Does a TV Commercial” was voted tops in many viewer polls over the years that she acknowledged that it was a funny episode. During filming, she was too nervous and worried about messing up her lines (imagine having to say “Vitameatavegamin” that many times during a spiel) to appreciate the humor.
Ball was many things, including a great physical comedienne, but one thing she was not was an improviser or extemporaneous speaker. Every slurred word of her drunken Vitameatavegamin pitch was in the script. Lucille even came up with a backup plan, lest she forget her lines: she had script supervisor Maury Thompson made up and placed off-side in front of her podium holding up her lines (there were no cue cards on the I Love Lucy set), much like a real commercial setting.
By the way, that stuff Lucy was pouring onto the spoon was apple pectin.
13. BECAUSE THE SHOW WAS FILMED IN FRONT OF AN AUDIENCE, THEY HESITATED TO YELL “CUT” AND RESHOOT SCENES.
As a result, the occasional blooper was left in and sort of papered-over. One classic example occurred in “Redecorating the Mertz’s Apartment,” at the breakfast table when Lucy is musing aloud about how to repair both the Mertz’s marriage and their tacky apartment. See how Desi saves the scene after she mistakenly says “paint the furniture and reupholster the old furniture:”
14. LUCILLE’S PREGNANCY CREATED PANIC BEHIND THE SCENES.
During season two, Ball discovered that she was pregnant. While the Arnazes were overjoyed (Lucille had previously suffered three miscarriages before giving birth to daughter Lucie in July 1951), they were also concerned about the fate of their hit series. Other than the late 1940s sitcom Mary Kay and Johnny (which also starred a real-life married couple), a visibly pregnant female had never starred on a TV series. It would be impossible to conceal Lucille’s condition because, as Desi told the network, “she got as big as a house when she was carrying Lucie.”
Eventually, the network agreed to write Ball’s pregnancy into the show, and Desi hired a local Catholic priest, a minister, and a rabbi to sit in while each episode was filmed to determine whether there was anything objectionable. CBS deemed that the word “pregnant” was vulgar, so it was replaced with “expecting” (or, as Ricky pronounced it, “‘spectin’”). The scene at the Tropicana, where Lucy finally breaks the news to Ricky, was genuinely emotional for the actors, who both started crying and Desi had to be prompted “sing the baby song!” Director William Asher reshot that scene, but decided that the raw emotion in the original take made for a more poignant moment and used it.
15. LITTLE RICKY AND DESI ARNAZ JR. WERE BORN ON THE SAME DAY.
The Arnazes already knew that Lucille would give birth via Caesarian section when her time came (as that was how Lucie had been delivered), and Ball’s obstetrician regularly scheduled all his C-sections on Mondays. As luck would have it, I Love Lucy aired on Monday nights, so with the pregnancy episodes timed just so, Ball went to the hospital the same night that Lucy Ricardo did.
What the Arnazes did not know in advance, however, was the gender of their pending bundle of joy. I Love Lucy head writer Jess Oppenheimer had decided that the Ricardos would have a boy, so when Desi Arnaz Jr. was born, Desi Sr. joyfully called Jess to announce proudly, “Lucy followed your script! Ain’t she something?!” (By the way, a record-breaking 71.7 percent of American televisions were tuned in that Monday night to see the Ricardo baby, which topped the number of folks who watched Dwight D. Eisenhower get sworn in as President the following day.)
16. LUCILLE TRULY SUFFERED FOR THAT ICONIC GRAPE-STOMPING EPISODE.
“Lucy’s Italian Movie” faced a variety of obstacles. First was getting a vineyard to donate the necessary grapes for stomping. The company that ultimately agreed did so with the proviso that it must be mentioned in the script that foot-pressing was an outmoded method of making wine in Italy. Next was the local extra cast to wrestle Lucille in the grape vat; Teresa Tirelli didn’t speak any English and an interpreter had to explain the scene to her. Apparently something was lost in the translation because Tirelli didn’t grasp that this was supposed to be a filmed-from-the-waist-up fake fight and she literally held Lucille’s head under the grape mush until the star very nearly drowned. And even though the show was broadcast in black and white, Ball, Arnaz, and the production staff were sticklers for detail so a formula for a purplish/blue dye had to be worked out that would properly tint Lucille’s flesh and hair without irritating her skin or reacting with the chemicals used to keep her permed locks that famous henna color for that final scene.
17. LUCILLE EXASPERATED GUEST STAR HARPO MARX.
Ball was a long-time admirer of Harpo Marx, but when it came to actually working with him, she was unprepared for his “never the same way twice” approach to his comedy routines. In the Hollywood episode where she was required to mirror his moves, she insisted on incessant rehearsals to get the bit just right. But Harpo’s attitude was “I’ve done this bit for 35 years, why do I need so much rehearsal?” In the end, this was one of the few instances where the scene was re-shot several times after the studio audience had left and was later pieced together by editor Dann Cahn.
18. THE LONGEST LAUGH ON THE SHOW LASTED 65 SECONDS.
When Lucy hid dozens of eggs and then danced the tango with Ricky (resulting in the inevitable blouse full of scrambled yolks), the audience roared for so long that ultimately some of the laughter had to be edited out in the final film. Neither Ball nor Vance had used eggs during rehearsals so that their onscreen reactions would be more genuine when the shells cracked and the albumen slimed its way down their flesh.
19. ARNAZ REQUIRED AS MUCH REALISM AS POSSIBLE, NO MATTER THE COST OR DIFFICULTY.
No matter how wacky the situation, Arnaz tried hard to maintain some veracity, thinking that that the audience would believe it (and thus find it more humorous) if the actors believed it. So when a scene in “Pioneer Women” required an eight-foot-long loaf of bread to pop out of the oven, the producers found a New York bakery willing to bake one. (It was rye bread, by the way, and when filming was finished it was cut up and served to the audience.) Likewise, in “Deep Sea Fishing” when Ricky and Fred entered into a bet with Lucy and Ethel to see who could catch the biggest fish, two 100-plus pound tunas were purchased at San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, packed in ice into child-sized coffins and air-shipped to Hollywood.
20. THE “UH-OH” LADY HEARD IN THE STUDIO AUDIENCE WAS LUCILLE’S MOM.
Quite often when Lucy Ricardo was stepping into a precarious situation, a woman in the audience could be heard uttering “uh-oh.” That was Dede Ball, who attended every taping and tended to get wrapped up in the proceedings. I Love Lucy sound engineer Glen Glenn was the co-founder of Glen Glenn Sound, and in the 1960s and ‘70s his company was one of the leading providers of laugh tracks, or canned laughter, to TV sitcoms. Many of the yuks used in their recordings were culled from I Love Lucy and The Red Skelton Show, which is why Dede’s “uh-oh” could be heard years later on shows she’d never seen, much less been in attendance.
Additional Sources: A Book, by Desi ArnazThe Lucy Book, by Geoffrey Mark FidelmanMeet the Mertzes, by Ron Edelman and Audrey KupferbergThe “I Love Lucy” Book, by Bart AndrewsLucy & Ricky & Fred & Ethel: The Story of I Love Lucy, by Bart AndrewsLaughs, Luck….and Lucy, by Jess Oppenheimer
40 Things You Might Not Have Known About Saturday Night Live
BY mentalfloss .com
October 5, 2017
TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images
Live from New York … Saturday Night Live just kicked off its 43rd season with the dynamic duo of Ryan Gosling as host and Jay-Z as the episode's musical guest. In honor of its four-plus decades of comedic contributions, here are 40 things you might not have known about the legendary sketch show.
1. THE SHOW’S EXISTENCE IS PARTLY DUE TO JOHNNY CARSON’S DESIRE FOR MORE VACATION DAYS.
In 1974, Johnny Carson requested that NBC stop airing The Tonight Show reruns on the weekend. He wanted to save those reruns for the extra vacation days he was planning to take during weekdays. NBC wanted to fill those weekend slots, so they hired Lorne Michaels to develop a show.
2. GILDA RADNER WAS THE FIRST OFFICIAL CAST MEMBER.
The show was originally called NBC’s Saturday Night because there was already a show titled Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell on ABC. When Cosell's show ended in 1976, Michaels changed his show’s title to Saturday Night Live.
4. ANNOUNCER DON PARDO MADE A MISTAKE DURING THE SHOW’S PREMIERE EPISODE.
The show’s longtime announcer was supposed to say “Not Ready for Prime-Time Players.” Instead, he mixed up a few words, calling them the “Not for Ready Prime-Time Players.” Fortunately, it didn't stick.
5. CHEVY CHASE WAS HIRED AS A WRITER.
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Though he became one of the show’s breakout stars, Chevy Chase was originally hired as a writer—a job that came with a one-year contract. Which is how Chase got around having to sign a performer contract, and also why he was able to leave the show just a few episodes into the second season.
6. CHASE WAS THE FIRST PERSON TO DELIVER THE SHOW'S ICONIC INTRO LINE.
In the show’s first episode, Chase became the first cast member to deliver the show’s now-signature “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!” line.
7. RICHARD BELZER WARMED UP THE CROWD DURING SEASON ONE.
Though today’s audience knows him as the Law & Order franchise'sseries-jumping Sergeant John Munch, Richard Belzer got his start as a stand-up comedian. Belzer was SNL's warm-up comic in its first season, which led to a couple of appearances on the show, including a stint at the "Weekend Update" desk after Chevy Chase suffered a groin injury. Belzer has long contended that Lorne Michaels promised him a place in the cast but later reneged. “Lorne betrayed me and lied to me—which he denies—but I give you my word he said, ‘I'll work you into the show,’” Belzer told People Magazine in 1993.
8. CAST MEMBERS WERE ORIGINALLY PAID $750 PER WEEK.
In the show’s first season, cast members earned $750 per week. That figure rose to $2000 in season two and $4000 by season four.
In 1995, Oscar-winning writer-director Adam McKay (Anchorman, Step Brothers, The Big Short) unsuccessfully auditioned to become an SNL cast member. Being turned down for the gig was probably the best thing that could have happened to him: McKay was offered a writing gig instead, and eventually worked his way up to head writer for the latter half of his six years with the show.
11. JIM CARREY AUDITIONED TWICE, AND WAS REJECTED TWICE.
Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images
Hollywood’s original $20 Million Man was rejected twice by SNL. The first time was in 1980, when—citing burnout—Lorne Michaels asked to take a year off. He thought that the show would go on hiatus with him, but the network bumped associate producer Jean Doumanian into Michaels’s position to keep the show going. Her first order of business? Shake up the cast a bit. Carrey auditioned, but Doumanian hired Charlie Rocket instead. So he tried again, but again got a “no.” Michaels isn’t taking the blame for this oversight. In the book Live from New York, he says that “Jim Carrey never auditioned for me personally.” Carrey did eventually make his way onto the studio’s set; he guest hosted in 1996 and again in 2011 and 2014 (and made a quick cameo in 2003).
12. LAST ACTION HERO KILLED A HANS AND FRANZ MOVIE.
The idea for a Hans and Franz movie began—and ended—with Arnold Schwarzenegger, who suggested the idea to Kevin Nealon and Dana Carvey when he guest starred in a segment. In 2012, Nealon talked about the folded project with the Tampa Bay Times, admitting that: “Yes, we wrote a musical! Hans & Franz: The Girly Man Dilemma. I wrote it with Conan O'Brien, Robert Smigel, and Dana Carvey. Arnold Schwarzenegger was co-producing with us, and he was going to star in it. We got it written, sold it to Sony. But I think Arnold got cold feet.”
In a 2010 interview with The A.V. Club, Smigel said that the problem really came down to the box office bomb that was Last Action Hero, saying “That movie came out and it was a failure and I was told by his agent that Arnold decided [adopts Schwarzenegger voice], ‘I will never be myself in a movie again! It can’t be done, this is the proof. I can’t play myself in a movie, automatic failure.’”
13. ROBERT SMIGEL HAS WRITTEN A HANDFUL OF UNPRODUCED SNL MOVIES.
In that same interview with The A.V. Club, Smigel noted that “I’m guilty of writing probably as many SNL movies as anybody, but mine have never been made.” He’s not kidding. Among those stalled features is Da Movie version of Da Bears sketch, a.k.a. Bill Swerski’s Superfans, one of SNL’s longest-running sketches, which premiered on January 12, 1991 (with Joe Mantegna as the titular Swerski). When the opportunity arose to turn the sketch into a film, Smigel and Bob Odenkirk (who had created the original sketch with Smigel) jumped at the opportunity, with Smigel leaving his job as Conan’s head writer to work on the script.
But a bad year for SNL on the small screen spelled trouble for anyone involved with the show. “There was an awful article written in New York Magazine about the show and the network wanted to lay down the law,” recalled Smigel, which meant “no SNL movies.” But the script was not a total loss; in 2010, Smigel, Odenkirk, Mantegna, George Wendt, Mike Ditka and Richard Roeper (as narrator) staged a live reading of the script at Chicago’s Just for Laughs festival.
14. THE FESTRUNK BROTHERS WERE DEVELOPED AS TWO SEPARATE CHARACTERS.
The Festrunk brothers, also known as “Two Wild and Crazy Guys,” were based on separate characters that Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd had developed individually. When Martin hosted SNL in the 1970s, the two morphed their characters into a set of brothers.
15. GILBERT GOTTFRIED BEAT OUT PAUL REUBENS FOR A SPOT ON THE SHOW.
Paul Reubens, a.k.a. Pee-wee Herman, has a theory as to why Gilbert Gottfried got the SNL spot the two of them auditioned for in 1980: He believes that Gottfried was favored for being friends with one of the producers. “I was so bitter and angry,” Reubens told the San Francisco Chronicle. “I thought, ‘You better think about doing something to take this to the next level.” Which is how Pee-wee’s Playhouse came to be. “So I borrowed some money and produced this show. I went from this Saturday Night Live reject to having 60 people working for me.”
16. EDDIE MURPHY WAS DESPERATE TO BE CAST.
Christopher Polk/Getty Images
In an effort to be considered for the show, Eddie Murphy calledSNL talent coordinator Neil Levy every day for a week explaining how desperately he needed the job. Levy decided he’d give Murphy a job as an extra, but brought him in to audition as well. His audition went so well that he was given a contract right away.
17. IT’S PAT IS THE LEAST SUCCESSFUL SNL MOVIE.
In 1994, the film It’s Pat grossed a little over $60,000, making it the least successful film based on an SNL character. The most successful was 1992’s Wayne’s World, which made over $183 million worldwide.
18. CONAN O’BRIEN WASN’T A FAN OF WAYNE CAMPBELL.
Speaking of Wayne’s World: When Mike Myers was just starting out, he approached a few of the show’s writers, including Conan O’Brien, to ask what they thought about Wayne, the character he was developing. The group of writers informed him that he could do better, but Myers wrote the sketch anyway. O’Brien recalled thinking, “This poor kid is going to have to learn the hard way.” The sketch made it to air, but in the unpopular final slot. Obviously, it became a hit.
19. MINDY KALING RELUCTANTLY TURNED DOWN THE CHANCE TO WRITE FOR THE SHOW.
Saying “no” to SNL wasn’t really Kaling’s idea. But timing wasn’t on her side. In a2007 interview with The A.V. Club, she revealed that she had auditioned for SNL just a few months earlier (a year after The Office’s American debut). “They didn't offer me a part, but the audition went pretty well, and that night, they were like, ‘Do you want to come write for the show?’ [The Office creator] Greg [Daniels] used to write for SNL, and he had known that being on SNL was my great dream. He said, ‘Listen. If you get cast on the show, I'll let you break your contract and go do it, but if they ask you to write, I can't, because you have a job writing here, plus you're on the show. So I'm not going to let you leave the show so you can go be in New York.’ At that time, I missed New York so badly. I hated L.A. for a long time, and I wanted to leave it. I had these fantasies of going to SNL and falling in love with some writer on SNL, of getting married and living in New York. That was really heartbreaking to have to turn down, but then I got to guest-write in the spring.’”
20. JEFF ROSS WAS CONSIDERED AS A REPLACEMENT FOR COLIN QUINN ON “WEEKEND UPDATE.”
Tina Fey and Jimmy Fallon weren’t the only folks vying for Colin Quinn’s spot at the "Weekend Update" desk in 2000; comedian Jeff Ross was also in contention. But Fey had clout: three years' experience as a writer for the show and one season as head writer.
21. LARRY DAVID ABRUPTLY QUIT AS A WRITER. THEN PRETENDED HE HADN’T.
Larry David wrote for SNL in the 1980s, but was always struggling to get his sketches on the air. Five minutes before the show went live one Saturday night, David went up to then-producer Dick Ebersol and said, “I’ve had it. I quit.” Once he left, he realized how much money he had just cost himself, so he showed up to work on Monday as if the outburst never happened. He continued working there for the rest of the season, and that story was later used on a Seinfeld episode.
22. CHRIS PARNELL WAS FIRED. TWICE.
Quitting for a weekend is nothing compared to Chris Parnell, who wasfired from the show twice: once in 2001, then again in 2006. According to Parnell, the first time was “devastating” and had to do with his lack of confidence. He was asked back the following season, though. The second time, the show was making a $10 million budget cut, so he was dropped along with Horatio Sanz and Rachel Dratch.
23. NORA DUNN REFUSED TO SHARE A STAGE WITH ANDREW DICE CLAY.
When Andrew Dice Clay hosted the show in 1990, Nora Dunn wouldn’t appear, citing his misogynistic stand-up as the reason. Michaels claims that she reached out to the press before telling him about the decision. That was the beginning of the end of her SNL career. She has sincesaid, “Saturday Night Live is why I have a name, but it also has its own baggage.”
24. A FAKE PEEPERS SCRIPT MADE THE ROUNDS IN HOLLYWOOD.
If you’ve ever found yourself wondering what Chris Kattan has been up to since leaving SNL in 2003, you’re not alone. Los Angeles-based writer Justin Becker made a game out of the answer when he wrote a fake script in which he transformed Mr. Peepers, Kattan’s apple-eating, suspender-wearing monkey-man, into the sort of mythical creature Peter Sellers played in Being There. Becker attributed the script to Kattan himself (as C.L. Kattan) then began dropping copies of it around California. “I traveled all across the west coast planting these books like a demented Johnny Appleseed,”Becker toldSan Francisco Weekly. “Chris Kattan’s Wikipedia page says that 1000 books were put in stores, but I can neither confirm or deny that number.”
25. CHRIS FARLEY IDOLIZED JOHN BELUSHI.
He once found an old pair of Belushi’s pants in the wardrobe room and stole them.
26. MICHAELS THOUGHT SINEAD O’CONNOR'S CONTROVERSIAL PHOTO-RIPPING INCIDENT WAS BRAVE.
In one of the show's most notorious moments, Sinead O’Connor took the crew by surprise and ripped up a picture of the Pope at the end of a musical performance. Though many people still make a big deal about her supposedly being banned from the show, Michaels actually gives her credit. According to him, “I think it was the bravest thing she could do. She’d been a nun. To her the church symbolized everything that was bad about growing up in Ireland the way she grew up in Ireland, and so she was making a strong political statement.”
27. A SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE MOVIE ALMOST HAPPENED.
Given that each episode of Saturday Night Live is essentially a feature-length series of sketches, The Saturday Night Live Movie seems a bit redundant. But in 1990, a script with that very title was written, with some of the show’s strongest writing talents—Conan O’Brien, Robert Smigel, Al Franken, and Greg Daniels among them—attached as participants. But someone must have wised up to the fact that the cinematic medium offered nothing different for the concept, as few people even knew of the script’s existence until 2010.
28. JENNIFER ANISTON CLAIMS SHE WAS OFFERED A SPOT ON THE SHOW.
Though the story of whether or not Jennifer Aniston was ever really, truly offered a spot on SNL has been heavily questioned, it’s Aniston herself who started the rumor. While promoting Just Go With It on Oprah in 2011, Aniston’s co-star—and SNL alum—Adam Sandler recalled, “being on the ninth floor where Lorne Michaels’s office was, and seeing Jen come in,” back in the early 1990s. “I was like, ‘Oh, my God. There’s Aniston. Is she about to be on our show?’” But Aniston, who was getting ready to star on Friends, says she declined because, “It was a boys’ club. They thought I was making a huge mistake.”
29. KENAN THOMPSON WAS THE FIRST CAST MEMBER WHO WAS BORN AFTERSNL PREMIERED.
He was born on May 10, 1978.
30. AUBREY PLAZA WAS AN INTERN FOR THE SHOW.
A year before she landed the part of April Ludgate on Parks and Recreation, Aubrey Plaza was passed over for a spot on SNL’s roster. “I wanted to be on that show for as long as I could remember,” she toldThe Guardian in 2012. She started taking improv classes in high school and continued after she moved to New York. She even landed an internship with the show in 2005. She was passed over when she finally auditioned three years later, but was quickly offered a part in Judd Apatow’s Funny People.
Tina Feydescribed what SNL writers called “Sneaker Uppers” in her book Bossypants. The term applies to “when a famous person ‘sneaks up’ behind the actor who plays them and pretends to be mad about it” or “any time someone being parodied volunteers to come on the show and prove they’re ‘in on the joke.’”
32. THE BEATLES (OR AT LEAST HALF OF THEM) ALMOST REUNITED ON THE SHOW AS A GAG.
In 1976, six years after they had disbanded, The Beatles were offered $230 million by promoter Sid Bernstein to reunite—an offer they promptly declined. Shortly thereafter, Michaels made a live plea to the Fab Four to reunite as musical guests on SNL, stating that NBC had authorized him to offer them “a certified check for $3000.” In David Sheff’s book All We Are Saying, Lennon shared that they actually considered it: “Paul and I were together watching that show,” Lennon said. “He was visiting us at our place in the Dakota. We were watching it and almost went down to the studio, just as a gag. We nearly got into a cab, but we were actually too tired.”
33. CATHERINE O’HARA SIGNED ON AS A CAST MEMBER, BUT LEFT BEFORE THE SEASON EVEN BEGAN.
Dick Ebersol had a plan to poach as many SCTV cast members as he could, and was successful in persuading Catherine O’Hara to make the jump to SNL. She signed up to be a part of the 1981 season, but didn’t last long. “Maybe two [weeks],”she told the Toronto Sun of her short-lived SNL tenure.
While many reports state that she was scared off by an incident in which writer Michael O’Donoghue yelled at the show’s other writers, O’Hara simply says that she made a mistake in leaving SCTV in the first place. “I hung out with some nice people, tried to come up with some ideas ... but I never really felt involved,” she said of her decision to depart before the season even began. “I had to leave. I said I’d made a huge mistake. I'm not proud of that. I felt stupid doing it. But I had to come home. I couldn't not be with them.”
34. DURING THE 2007 WRITERS GUILD OF AMERICA STRIKE, SNL DIDN’T AIR—BUT THEY DID PUT ON A SHOW.
The castgathered at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater and put on the show anyway, recruiting Michael Cera to host. Amy Poehler explained, “We’re like cranky trained monkeys if we don’t get to perform.”
35. DARRELL HAMMOND HOLDS AN IMPORTANT SNL RECORD.
During his 14-year tenure, Darrell Hammond achieved the record for most times saying, “Live from New York, it’s Saturday night!” He has said it 70 times.
36. THE AUDIENCE VOTED TO BAN ANDY KAUFMAN FROM THE SHOW.
Andy Kaufman’s appearances on SNL were unpredictable and ahead of their time, beginning with SNL’s very first episode in 1975. Whether he was nervously lip-synching to theMighty Mouse theme or impersonating Elvis Presley, audiences had no idea what would come next. Eventually, Kaufman's stintwrestling women drew the ire of then-producer Dick Ebersol. In response, Kaufman proposed an audience vote to let him stay or force him off the show. Thefinal tally of viewers calling in to “Keep Andy” came in at 169,186, while 195,544 voted to “Dump Andy.” While it may very well have been another one of his audacious stunts, Kaufman never appeared on SNL again.
37. LORNE MICHAELS THOUGHT STEVEN SEAGAL WAS A JERK.
Hosting duties at SNL are an intensely collaborative process for cast members and the hosts themselves. Some, like those in the prestigious “Five-Timers Club,” work well with the cast and writers and are invited back, while others can’t seem to hack it. Steven Seagal fell into the latter category. While he didn’t pull any on-air stunts like Sinéad O’Connor, Seagal was unable to play nice behind the scenes. “He just wasn’t funny and he was very critical of the cast and the writing staff," Tim Meadows said in Live From New York. "He didn’t realize that you can’t tell somebody they’re stupid on Wednesday and expect them to continue writing for you on Saturday.” Michaels got in a jab at Seagal on a later show hosted by actor Nicolas Cage. When Cage lamented during hismonologue that the audience might think he’s the biggest jerk who’s ever been on the show,Michaels responded, “No, no. That would be Steven Seagal.”
38. DARRELL HAMMOND DOES A GREAT DON PARDO IMPERSONATION.
In 2013, Don Pardo got laryngitis before the show. Darrell Hammond filled in with his best Pardo impression. Pardo laterclaimed, “He did such a job that my sister-in-law in Newport, Rhode Island called up the following Sunday morning ... and said, ‘You were going back to your acting days! You sounded terrific!’” After Pardo passed away in 2014, Hammond wasnamed as his replacement.
39. ALEC BALDWIN HOLDS THE RECORD FOR HOSTING DUTIES.
Alec Baldwin has hosed Saturday Night Live a record 17 times since 1990 (that's not including his regular stints playing Donald Trump); Steve Martin has hosted 15 times since 1976.
40. THE SHOW HAS GOT SOME SERIOUS POLITICAL CLOUT.
Political sketches have long been one of SNL’s hallmarks—so much so that voters have admitted to being influenced to vote for a particular candidate based on watching the show. It’s a phenomenon that has become known as “The SNL Effect.”