The Most Famous Voice of Saturday Night

Don Pardo

Photo courtesy of NBC

The Most Famous Voice of Saturday Night
| published August 20, 2014 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

For the last segment of the NBC Nightly News on Tuesday, anchorman Brian Williams did something a little unusual. During the news show’s last commercial break, he left the glitzy, glass-and-LCD news set and quickly moved several floors up inside Rockefeller Center. For his last segment he stood in Studio 8H. Behind Williams, and over his left shoulder on stage, stood a solitary microphone on a metal stand.

That mic had been for decades the one used by a man named Don Pardo every Saturday night to introduce a roster of some of the most famous names in comedy.

For more than 35 years NBC’s Saturday Night Live has been the most popular venue for the cool generation, and that means it extended from middle Baby Boomers, through Generations X and Y, into the Millennials and beyond. In other words, SNL has the show most preferred by the youth hipsters (and the aging hipsters) of America very nearly since the comedy show’s inception.

Which always made that dry, booming voice of the SNL opening credits all the more anachronistic. Don Pardo was no Boomer, no Buster, no X’er, no Millennial. Pardo, announcer for that iconic comedy show from its first appearance on October 11, 1975, was of another generation—the one Tom Brokaw would dub The Greatest Generation.

Pardo died on Tuesday at age 96 in Tucson, Arizona. By the time of his death he had made that famous SNL voice opening more than 700 times.

Pardo worked in radio and television practically his entire life, and his stint as a house announcer at NBC lasted for an astonishing 70 years. His voice may have been one of the most familiar voices in all of television history, save for the reasonable argument that the voices of Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley, David Brinkley and a few others might surpass that of Pardo’s. Pardo was a sports announcer, a news announcer, a variety show announcer, and the voice of a dozen game shows—some famous, some not so famous.

Pardo was born Dominick George Pardo in 1918. He later dropped the Dominick since he never liked being called Nick or Nicky, and changed it instead to Dom. But Dom confused people more, who often called him Don by mistake. So he gave up trying to correct people and just accepted Don as being as close it he could get to his original name. At the tender age of 19 he took up theater while in college in Connecticut, and while working in various local and community theater groups for experience, he joined the troupe at the 20th Century Players, a team which did occasional work for an NBC radio station affiliate in Providence, Rhode Island. Within about one year his voice would take him out of that acting troupe and into the Big Time as a $30 a week announcer at WJAR radio.

Then, in 1944, on a chance visit to New York City to take a tour of the NBC studios with a friend, Pardo happened to thank someone in NBC management for letting them roam around the building. His voice was impressive enough in that short encounter that he was hired on the spot, and on June 15, 1944 Pardo went to work for the only network he would call home. His job: “staff announcer,” six p.m. to two a.m.—that is, the guy who made transitions from the radio show that just ended to the one that was about to start…live…into an open mic. He also read ad copy, live. And he read promotional bits, also live. Along the way, he learned the basics of broadcast engineering, and kept improving his voice, his diction, and his delivery.

TV, then in its infancy, crossed his path thanks to sports. Widely regarded as both experimental and exotic, if not downright foolish, the new invention of television was struggling to find its market and its place. Timing is everything, or so the saying goes, and Pardo happened to be in the right place at the right time when the network brass came looking for someone to help announce a few baseball games on TV. Pardo, who didn’t know the difference between a pop fly and a soda pop, was sent into the booth anyway. He winged it, ad-libbed, and otherwise pretended he knew something about baseball. Pardo only covered three games before being sent into other projects.

But TV grew quickly in the 1950s, and by the middle of that decade Pardo was busy with announcer duties on shows as varied as The Colgate Comedy Hour and The Price is Right. By the early 1960s it was his voice on Jeopardy, back then hosted by Art Fleming. The Pardo/Fleming team would last more than a decade, and by then Pardo's name was almost as well known among game show viewers as the names of the shows’ hosts. Pardo was also the voice of NBC when the world learned that President John F. Kennedy had been shot in Dallas.

Pardo might have gone the way of another, older generation of TV viewers—his looming, booming voice a relic of the golden age of glitz and game shows, of wheels and bells and buzzers and game winnings (“it’s a Caribbean Cruise!”). But Pardo, already 57 years old and probably thinking about retirement from the fickle business of TV, got his biggest break yet.

Seeking to find something to fill the late Saturday time slot then filled with reruns of The Tonight Show, Dick Ebersol and Lorne Micheals were completing development of a new type of comedy project—hip, edgy, loose, and aimed squarely at the very generation who thought Johnny Carson was too scripted and sidekick Ed McMahon too square. In 1974 and early 1975, drawing from a few cast members from previous forays into comedic radio projects by National Lampoon and other offbeat venues (such as Second City), Michaels assembled a cast which included Chevy Chase, John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Michael O’Donoghue, Laraine Newman, Jane Curtin and Garrett Morris. The next season the show would add Bill Murray.

That show was Saturday Night Live, and Pardo was given the job of announcing not merely the names of those cast members, but also the names of guest hosts and the names of musical performers. Which made Pardo’s voice all but the voice of absolute authority when it came to cool—a deity conferring status to others on Mount Olympus. Many SNL cast members said that the high point of their career was hearing, for that first time, Pardo call their name at the beginning of a new season.

Over the years Pardo would convey that signature status to more than 125 cast members, hundreds of guest hosts, and hundreds of music artists. Aside from that first season’s cast, other comics whose names were called by Pardo include Charles Rocket, Al Franken, Tom Davis, Eddie Murphy, Billy Crystal, Martin Short, Joan Cusack, Joe Piscopo, Robert Downey, Jr., Nora Dunn, John Lovitz, Dennis Miller, Chris Farley, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Phil Hartman, Chris Rock, Adam Sandler, Mike Myers, Will Ferrell, Jimmy Fallon, Tina Fey, Norm McDonald, Tracy Morgan, David Spade, and Kristen Wiig. Cast members in 1975 were paid $750 per week. The popularity of the show increased substantially over the years, and by 2001 Will Ferrell became the show’s highest paid cast member at $350,000 per year, or $17,500 per episode.

Pardo also got to introduce many famous hosts, including George Carlin (the first guest host), Christopher Walken, Tom Hanks, Alec Baldwin, Steve Martin, Ralph Nader, Candice Bergen, Betty White, Jim Carrey, John Goodman, George Harrison, and Jerry Seinfeld. (Trivia: Alec Baldwin has hosted the show the most times, with 16 appearances, which bested Steve Martin’s previous record of 15 total appearances.) Musically, the show was always inclusive but also cutting edge: Billy Joel, Elvis Costello, Randy Newman, Carly Simon, Rita Coolidge, James Taylor, The Kinks, Tom Waits, Paul Simon, Eddie Money, Meat Loaf, The Rolling Stones, Devo, Grateful Dead, Talking Heads, Blondie, Rick James, The Clash, Duran Duran, Men at Work, Stray Cats, Adam Ant, The Cars, Joe Jackson, Los Lobos, Fine Young Cannibals, Tom Petty, INXS, REM, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bon Jovi, Stone Temple Pilots, Snoop Doggy Dogg, Smashing Pumpkins, Foo Fighters, Sheryl Crow, Blink-182, Eminem, U2, Weezer, Creed, White Stripes, Beck, Maroon 5, Coldplay, and hundreds more. For many of those musical acts, hearing their names announced by Pardo was just as thrilling as it was for the cast members.

Pardo almost always did his introductions live, in the studio, at that mic at the edge of the stage (he briefly recorded them from his home in Arizona in 2006). He also did every show of every season except for parts of season seven, in 1981 and 82, when Bill Hanrahan filled in for Pardo. On a few rare occasions when Pardo was ailing or out sick, recent cast member Darrell Hammond (who is able to perform a near-perfect impersonation of Pardo’s voice) would fill in instead. For many viewers over the decades, SNL would not have been complete without Pardo’s signature voice to accompany those rapid-fire images of comics, guest stars and New York landmarks.

“It was always exciting,” Michaels told the New York Times, “Whatever montage we did to open the show, whatever pictures we used…it really didn’t come alive until you heard him say it.”

Pardo had already become such an institution at NBC in the 1960s that he was given something rarely offered by television networks—a lifetime contract. His long stint with Art Fleming and Jeopardy ended in 1975, when the original show ended. This happened to be great timing, since Michaels was well into development of SNL, and was actually seeking an announcer voice at that moment. Against the predominant school of thought at NBC that the opening voice over should reflect the edgy, hipster tone of the show, Michaels had a contrarian’s hunch that having that recognizable game-show voice of the 50s and 60s would create an ideal balance—just the sort of self-aware voice able to make the process of deconstructive TV humor that much more ironic, and funny. Plus, Pardo’s voice of authority would lend a touch of credibility to a show deemed risky.

What’s more ironic: Pardo, a bit nervous about the strange new comedy venue, actually flubbed the opening lines on the debut night of SNL. Some later thought he had done it on purpose, but as it turns out his nervous error was genuine. But Pardo’s iconic voice-over became as much a part of the show’s trademark value system as any other element, and he never flubbed an opening after that first night.

Pardo’s immensely warm, booming, and comforting voice will be missed by multiple generations of television viewers.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Tonight Show Debuts With Jimmy Fallon; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; February 18, 2014.

Big Bang Versus Big Bucks; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; February 6, 2014.