Recently, while reading an oral history of Saturday Night Live, I happened upon a fact I’d long since forgotten.
You probably recall that Betty White became the oldest person to host the late night comedy mainstay when she did so last year at the age of 88. She surpassed the previous mark set back in 1977 by another white-haired octogenarian: Miskel Spillman.
If that name doesn’t ring a bell it’s because Spillman wasn’t a famous actor, musician, athlete or politician like your typical SNL host. In fact, she wasn’t famous at all. Rather, she was a grinning grandmother from New Orleans who made her way into the venerable hosting spot by winning the first (and ultimately only) SNL Anyone Can Host contest.
The contest rules were simple: submit a single postcard containing 25-words or less on why you should be chosen. Spillman’s entry read, in part:
“I need one more cheap thrill since my doctor told me I only have another 25 years left.”
For that, Spillman beat out more than 150,000 other entrants and won the right to join four other finalists (a group that included then–South Dakota Governor Richard Kneip) on the November 19th broadcast to plead her case. After the first four introduced themselves to the viewing audience with simple, unfunny greetings (“I'm Dave, the unemployed guy from Oregon.” “I'm Deb Blair, mother of three from Peoria”), Spillman won the hearts of the audience by exclaiming: “I'm Miskel Spillman. I'm old.”
After being crowned the winner, Spillman returned on December 17th to fulfill her hosting duties.
One of the most memorable bits came right away, with the show’s opening sketch revolving around the revelation that John Belushi had paid a pre-show visit to Spillman’s dressing room to offer a certain herbal relaxation aid to the nervous star-to-be. From Spillman's monologue:
Wow! This is really weird! There's so much happening. But it almost seems like everything's in slow motion. I mean, am I making sense? Or am I blowing it? I don't know, I can't tell. The producer, a nice young man, told me to just flow with it and have a good time. But I didn't really know what he meant until Belushi visited me in my dressing room. And the colors. Wow!
If you’re a Netflix Streaming customer, you can check out both episodes in which Spillman appears (Season 3, Episodes 6 & 8).