On Jan. 24, 1978, Russian spy satellite Kosmos 954 crashed into Canada’s Northwest Territories. Powered by a nuclear reactor, the satellite scattered radioactive debris over a 370-mile path through the frozen Canadian earth. On Jan. 28, 1978, Saturday Night Live writers Michael O’Donoghue and Tom Davis turned this potential nuclear disaster into one of the weirdest and most format-breaking sketches in SNL’s young history.

Indeed, the typically bizarre content essentially mutated SNL’s actual shape, spilling over through the entire second half of that night’s episode and resulting in the anarchic-minded writers’ essentially ripping the popular late-night show into pieces, right before the bewildered at-home audience’s eyes. This is the story of “Attack of the Atomic Lobsters.”

The saga begins during "Weekend Update" when co-anchor Jane Curtin delivers what appears to be a throwaway joke about the Russian satellite crash (although she gives the location in Nova Scotia rather than the actual far western site). Curtin explains that, while the government has stated there is no cause for alarm, the resulting radiation has spawned “lobsters as large as helicopters.” So far, so normal, in the “whistling past the graveyard” manner of Cold War comedy.

Things proceed as usual from there, with no hint of the nefarious plotting of Davis and O’Donoghue, with several sketches (including Bill Murray’s famously Star Wars-themed Nick the Lounge Singer sketch) lulling the audience into complacency, right up until host Robert Klein’s introduction of musical guest Bonnie Raitt’s second performance is interrupted by a worried-looking Curtin. Reading out a bulletin, Curtin informs viewers that Boston and Providence have fallen to the mutated lobsters, ominously noting that the teletype had cut out, midprinting. Klein jokes that New York’s Orthodox Jews have nothing to worry about since the whole kosher prohibition on shellfish goes both ways. The audience chuckles.

During Raitt’s performance of “Give It Up or Let Me Go,” with Klein on harmonica, however, it becomes clear that the crisis — or at least Saturday Night Live’s commitment to the bit — isn’t going away. A chyron scrolls at the top of the screen during the song, NBC News reporting that the lobsters have now reached New York and that the current death toll is estimated “in the millions.”

Still, after the commercial, things appear to be back to normal, as Curtin and Gilda Radner play two suburban housewives trying pot for the first time, the overlong sketch only coming to life once an inhuman, gurgling screech is heard offstage. Breaking character, the two actors call for producer Lorne Michaels and the stage manager for clarification, only for a bee-costumed John Belushi to emerge, speculating that the sound reminds him of the roar of a giant lobster. And, indeed, that’s what it turns out to be, as O’Donoghue and Davis’ long-gestating plan to destroy Saturday Night Live kicks into high gear.

Pitched following the 1978 crash, what would become “Attack of the Atomic Lobsters” was continually stonewalled by legendary SNL director Davey Wilson, who felt that the technical aspects of the piece — including stop-motion animation, proto-green screen chroma-key projection and elaborate model work — would be impossible to pull off. Wilson, a longtime TV veteran, was often seen as a roadblock to innovation in those early days, with one anecdote seeing a writer pitch an ambitious in-studio effect, only to ask, “OK, Davey, why won’t it work?” But O’Donoghue and Davis persisted and, a year later, atomic lobsters did indeed tear apart Rockefeller Center.

Not that the resulting carnage went off without a hitch. The dress rehearsal for the complicated segment was such a disaster that the notoriously hot-tempered O’Donoghue reportedly punted a folding chair up to the Studio 8H balcony, scattering the gathered rehearsal audience. During the actual broadcast, things were better, although a shot of troops firing weapons at the thin air where O’Donoghue’s precious lobsters should have been had the writer fuming once more.

Still, spending the entire last quarter of a live episode dismantling not just the format but the actual studio audience (most of whom gamely play along as the lobsters kill everyone in sight) is a big swing for a show that has always displayed a reluctance to deviate from the norm. With Klein reporting from home base, The War of the Worlds style, the studio devolves into smoky, bloody chaos. The band plays “Nearer My God to Thee,” echoing their forebears on the Titanic, while an increasingly frantic Klein dodges soldiers firing alarmingly loud blanks from their rifles, Radner and Curtin desperately urging him to flee and the decapitated, bee-suited body of Belushi hurled at his feet. (Klein’s joke, “He had his whole life ahead of him — at least two or three more years anyway,” plays a lot darker in retrospect.)

Finally, Klein stands alone, debris falling from the ceiling and pools of blood at his feet, until the camera shakes and cuts to static, only the audio of the lobsters' deafening, unearthly screeching filling viewers’ screens. Announcer Don Pardo attempts to ascertain Klein’s condition, but his voice is abruptly cut off as well. In the end, two other voices rise to assess the situation, the unseen Davis and O’Donoghue finally hitting upon the idea to devour the invaders with the help of enough boiling water to fill Central Park Pond, giant nutcrackers and “baked potatoes the size of boxcars.” (They initially stall arguing about an appropriate dessert before landing on “a sponge cake the size of a roller rink.”) All the while, the carnage the two had unleashed plays out through the obscuring static, the mutant crustaceans’ screeches never relenting, the complete lack of attendant audience laughter lending the whole enterprise an eerie queasiness that extends to a present-day re-watch.

O’Donoghue’s brilliance came yoked to raw destructive darkness that chafed every employer he ever had before his death in 1994. Places like National Lampoon and Saturday Night Live sought countercultural cred by breaking taboos and pushing boundaries, but, even there, “Mr. Mike”’s sensibilities were always about pushing things too far. On Saturday Night Live, O’Donoghue would burn through goodwill several times, under two different producers, each time ultimately storming off once the SNL machine had neutered his ideas once too often. (O’Donoghue notably produced a musical performance from Swedish group ABBA by having their Titanic-set performing venue sink under the waves and later pitched another elaborate sketch in which then-beleaguered NBC president Fred Silverman would be depicted as Hitler in his bunker.) “Attack of the Atomic Lobsters” was a perfect encapsulation of O’Donoghue’s desire to bring down from within even those institutions unwise enough to let him in the door.

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