The Iconic Story of the 1976 ‘Saturday Night Live’ Backstage Seder

The ritual included fries from the 30 Rock deli, Bill Murray leading "Dayenu" and some not so bitter herbs.

In the nearly 50 years it’s been on air, ‘Saturday Night Live’ has seen some serious Jewish history go down. Original cast member and iconic Jewish comedian Gilda Radner may have been the first person to light a menorah on national TV in a 1977 episode of the show. Adam Sandler wrote his now-famous “Chanukah Song” for the show, and first performed it on Dec. 3, 1994 on Weekend Update. And countless iconic Jewish American comedians got their start on the show, from Maya Rudolph and Andy Samberg to current cast members Chloe Fineman and Sarah Sherman.

But today, I want to retell another piece of Jewish ‘SNL’ history that has been obscured by time. I’m going to tell you the story of the Studio 8H Passover seder, as remembered by original cast member Laraine Newman in 2008. Everybody grab a chair — just as long as it’s not Elijah’s — and listen up.

The year must’ve been 1976, and a group of ‘SNL’ staff were languishing in the green room. Laraine, Gilda Radner, writers Alan Zweibel, Al Franken and Marilyn Suzanne Miller, band member Paul Shaffer and his girlfriend Cathy (the only non-Jew in the room) were trapped while the excruciatingly long process of camera blocking was taking place in the studio. Suddenly, Alan Zweibel broke the silence, reminding everyone it was Passover in the most Passover-coded way possible. “Hey, isn’t it Pesaaaacccchhh?” Zweibel inquired. (Newman recalls him elongating the last syllable of the word, shredding his throat for a laugh.) Paul Shaffer affirmed that it was.

“There was silence in the room while all of us pondered this.  At least I think that’s what everyone was doing. That’s what I was doing,” Newman wrote for HuffPost. “It dawned on me that this was my first Passover away from home. There was actually no one around to compel me to celebrate it.”

That is, until Al Franken made a hilarious suggestion.

“Where would we get the food, Pastrami ‘n’ Things?” Franken laughed. Pastrami ‘n’ Things was a deli, with a fantastic name, I might add, in the lobby of 30 Rock frequented by the original ‘SNL’ cast members because of it’s fast delivery. (Tragically, it seems to no longer be open.) Everyone in the room loved the idea, so they ordered fries and I imagine some pastrami sandwiches to replace the typical Passover brisket. Then, they migrated into a larger conference room to accommodate the crowd of people, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, joining in on the seder.

“Paul Shaffer was our ‘abba’ (father) and it was right. What I wasn’t prepared for was how well he knew his stuff. It just seemed so antithetical to his hipness,” Newman explained. “Some of the swingin’ cats from the Saturday Night Live Band wandered in and I was flabbergasted when Alan ‘Mr. Fabulous’ Rubin (our trumpet player) recited Hebrew without missing a step.”

Other contributors to the seder included Shaffer’s girlfriend Cathy, who was cheered on as her boyfriend instructed her on how to recite the Four Questions, and Bill Murray, who improvised his own versions of “Dayenu” and “Let My People Go.”

Then, Shaffer went on leading the ceremony. Per Newman’s memory: “Holding a fry aloft and waving it Paul said; ‘I will now ask you to dip your French fry in the ketchup twice to signify the suffering of our people.’ The last part; ‘our people’ was sung in the Rabbinical style of vocal davening.”

Later, the group searched for the afikomen, though Laraine Newman doesn’t say what they used to represent the matzah. Rye bread from the deli? Some crackers they had lying around? I’ll always wonder. Al Franken and writer Tom Davis must’ve found it, because their prize was warming up the audience. “That was divine intervention, big time,” Newman noted, suggesting that maybe this moment is what led the pair to become the comedy duo of Franken & Davis.

“Wine and some, uh, not so bitter herbs” were also a part of the event, which led Laraine and Gilda to dance on top of the seder table singing “Hair” from the musical hair. I’ll let Laraine Newman finish out the story:

“The next day, Gilda and I wondered if we’d been as entertaining as we thought, but one thing was certain; all theatre companies become families and we’d just had our first family holiday together. Slap dash as it was, it was a seder unlike any other I’ve experienced before or since.”

Chag Pesach sameach! May you all have a Passover as meaningful and joyous as the seder in Studio 8H.

Evelyn Frick

Evelyn Frick (she/they) is a writer and associate editor at Hey Alma. She graduated from Vassar College in 2019 with a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature. In her spare time, she's a comedian and contributor for Reductress and The Onion.

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