The legendary late-night TV comedy show, Saturday Night Live, can boast a number of achievements during its long run as the only show to watch on Saturday night. That said, it nearly added the extraordinary accolade of reuniting The Beatles to its long list of merit-worthy musical moments, after a long-running gag almost got the Fab Four back together.
The joke, which almost saw John Lennon and Paul McCartney make their way down to the famous studios at 30 Rock—and did actually manage to snag George Harrison—saw the producer of the show, Lorne Michaels, make a tongue-in-cheek plea to the band to reunite for their fans… and it very nearly worked.
In the iconic first series of Saturday Night Live—America’s home of alternative weekend hilarity—the show’s legendary leader, Michaels, set himself a fairly big challenge to really launch the show: to reunite The Beatles. He started as any SNL act would, with an unflinching piece directly to the camera that not only poked fun at the band, but also hinted at the chaotic comedy that was in store for the four decades to come.
Whether Michaels was performing with the real intent of reuniting the most enigmatic songwriting partnership to have ever existed in Lennon and McCartney, or he was just doing a sketch for a few laughs, Michaels shared the sentiment of a nation as he tried to bring the group back together only a few years after their world-famous disbandment.
At this time, The Beatles were still fresh in the memory of the public and, despite having seen all four members of the group finding solo success and excelling on their own merits, the desire to see the Fab Four together at once was still too much to not indulge. It was something Michaels was well aware of, realising that if nothing else he would have a funny bit for the show.
The initial plea saw the producer looking down the barrel of the lens, stating: “In my book, The Beatles are the best thing that ever happened to music. It goes even deeper than that — you’re not just a musical group, you’re a part of us. We grew up with you.” It’s all fairly standard stuff and likely something John, Paul, George and Ringo had spent much of the decade hearing.
“Now, we’ve heard and read a lot about personality and legal conflicts that might prevent you guys from reuniting,” says Michaels with a twinkle in his eye. “That’s something which is none of my business. That’s a personal problem. You guys will have to handle that. But it’s also been said that no one has yet to come up with enough money to satisfy you. Well, if it’s money you want, there’s no problem here.”
As the audience in the studio gasped, mirroring all those watching at home, the thought of NBC dropping mega-bucks to reunite the band was a tantalising reality. “The National Broadcasting Company has authorised me to offer you this cheque to be on our show. A certified cheque for $3,000.” It now becomes a little clearer that Michaels was always playing a joke.
The producer continues with the sketch and explains how all the band need to do is sing three songs: “‘She Loves You,’ yeah, yeah, yeah – that’s $1,000 right there. You know the words. It’ll be easy. Like I said, this is made out to ‘The Beatles.’ You divide it any way you want. If you want to give Ringo [Starr] less, that’s up to you. I’d rather not get involved.”
Little did the producer know that while Michaels entertained the audience in the studio with his skit, as well as the millions of folks watching at home who were likely laughing away with them—John Lennon and Paul McCartney were watching the show together in John’s apartment in the Dakota building just minutes away from the studio. What’s more? They were actually considering going down.
Lennon said in 1980 when speaking with David Sheff for Playboy, “Paul 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. He and I were just sitting there watching the show, and we went, ‘Ha ha, wouldn’t it be funny if we went down?’ But we didn’t.”
Paul McCartney would later confirm the story, saying: “John said, ‘We should go down, just you and me. There’s only two of us so we’ll take half the money.’ And for a second. But It would have been work, and we were having a night off, so we elected not to go. It was a nice idea – we nearly did it.”
Sadly, Lennon and McCartney would never perform together again with the day after the show being the last time the pair came face to face before Lennon’s tragic murder in 1980.
In 1976, and a few weeks after Michaels’ original offer, he returned to keep the joke moving. Michaels said with another piece to camera: “I was able to convince NBC to sweeten the pot. John, Paul, George and Ringo—we are now prepared to up the original offer to $3,200.” Still, even with such a gigantic increase on the offer, The Beatles remained quiet for months. Until the Quiet Beatle himself, the late, great George Harrison would break the silence and book himself a car to Studio 8H.
Harrison had been enjoying a wild ride since the release of his solo album All Things Must Pass. Having struggled for so many years in the shadow of Lennon and McCartney, the guitarist now had the room to manoeuvre his songs into the anthemic masterpieces they are. In 1976, Harrison was arguably the most successful of the four members of the band and his solo musical guest spot alongside Paul Simon proved it.
Singing ‘Homeward Bound’ and ‘Here Comes The Sun’ as duets was a marvellous moment for all who witnessed it but perhaps George’s best performance of the night came in the skits. Not normally one to fool about, Harrison had clearly been let in on the cheque joke and was more than ready to poke fun at himself and the rest of the band.
Arriving with his guitar and an open hand poised for the weight of the ‘handsome’ $3,200 cheque. Yet he was met (as part of a skit it must be emphasised) by Michaels with a disappointing revelation. “See, I thought you would understand that it was $3,000 for four people, and it would just be $750 for each of you,” Michaels told Harrison backstage with the audience watching on monitors. “As far as I’m concerned, you can have the full $3,000.”
“That’s pretty chintzy,” George Harrison replied as he then limped off for his performances alongside Paul Simon. It’s a fair assessment given the TV gold the joke had given the audience more importantly what it almost gave them. While silly gags are par for the course at SNL, one joke would almost reunite The Beatles and it’s one we will happily watch again and again.