For nearly four decades, Don Pardo's buoyant baritone helped kick off "Saturday Night Live," serving as a constant herald of humor even as the cast member names he announced neared 150 amid ever-changing lineups.
"SNL" begins its landmark 40th season Saturday without Pardo, but with a challenge that grows with age and stature: keeping an eye on the late night comedy staple's storied past while looking to the future.
There’s bound to be more scrutiny on “SNL” as the NBC show moves toward the anniversary celebration set for February. While reliving the various “good old days” of years past, “SNL” this season needs to create some future good old days for an audience that spans generations.
Even before the first declaration of "It's Saturday Night Live!" since Pardo's death last month at age 96, producer Lorne Michaels already has made some smart moves to set the stage for the show's new-old era. He's lined up the program’s longest-serving cast member, Darrell Hammond, an “SNL” fixture from 1995 to 2009, to take over for Pardo.
Michaels also has enlisted a couple of big-names-of-the-moment for the season opener: Host Chris Pratt, the 35-year-old star of the comedy sci-fi summer blockbuster "Guardians of the Galaxy," will be joined by 21-year-old pop singer Ariana Grande. Before his movie stardom, Pratt displayed his appealingly goofy every-dude charm on former "SNL" standout Amy Poehler's "Parks and Recreation."
From its 1975 debut with George Carlin as the first host, “SNL” always has been in transition, which is both a strength and a hurdle. Some turnovers have been bumpier than others: Last year, Michaels started the season without Fred Armisen, Bill Hader and Jason Sudeikis, and lost Seth Meyers to “Late Night” in February.
This season begins amid a major shakeup. Some Season 39 hires – Brooks Wheelan, Noel Wells and John Milhiser – are not returning and Nasim Pedrad is headed for the new Fox comedy “Mulaney.” Cecily Strong will remain a cast member, but will move out of the “Weekend Update” slot she shared with Meyers, and later Colin Jost. She’ll be replaced by Michael Che, who showed great promise during a brief run on “The Daily Show” and will become the segment’s first African-American anchor.
While all eyes will be on this season’s casting changes, all ears will be on Hammond. Despite his 14-year run, the master impressionist proved personally enigmatic, as he morphed into the likes of Bill Clinton, Sean Connery and Chris Matthews, among others. He even seamlessly subbed a handful of times for Pardo over the years. It’s hard for many fans to imagine Hammond’s normal speaking voice.
Even a veteran like Hammond needs to find his own voice as “SNL” sings out loud and proud this season, celebrating its legacy while daring to build upon it.
Jere Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.