How ‘Coneheads’ Went From ‘Pothead Sketch’ to ‘SNL’ Classic
On Jan. 15, 1977, Beldar, Prymaat and Connie -- better known to the world as the Coneheads -- made their debut on Saturday Night Live.
The strange aliens were the brainchild of SNL star Dan Aykroyd, who came up with the idea while getting high. “I had been looking at TV -- I guess I’d smoked a ‘J’ or something,” the comedian recalled in the book Live From New York: The Complete Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live. “I thought, ‘Everybody’s heads don’t really reach the top of the screen. Wouldn’t it be great if you added four inches to everybody?’”
"The production assistants used to play a game. We’d get the sketches and then it would be like, ‘Hmm, what drug were they on when they wrote this on?” added Robin Shlien, who worked on SNL at the time. “Like the Coneheads, that was a total pothead sketch -- the quintessential pothead sketch.”
Watch the Coneheads on 'Saturday Night Live'
Still, the characters didn’t begin life as the Conehead family. Originally, Aykroyd came up with a sketch called “The Pinhead Lawyers from France,” which had a similar visual, but lacked the alien plot. Saturday Night Live head honcho Lorne Michaels thought it would be in bad taste to make fun of people with deformities and the concept was shelved.
Later, Aykroyd and SNL writer Tom Davis came up with a sketch called “Blind Dates From Outer Space,” inspired by cheesy 1950s sci-fi films. It too would be abandoned before making it on screen, but the idea included distinctive alien voices which would later be revisited for the Coneheads.
A vacation to Easter Island -- known for its mysterious and ancient statues -- inspired Aykroyd to bring all of these elements together.
At Michaels' suggestion, the lawyer concept would be dropped for a more familial feel. “Lorne said, ‘Yeah, but what if they’re stuck in the suburbs and having to blend in?’ Which was the brilliant twist,” Aykroyd later explained to Maclean's.
The alien patriarch Beldar was modeled off of Aykroyd’s own father. “There is an outward kind of formality there,” he noted of the character, “but in reality, Beldar is a cream puff. He is like the average American—North American—father, trying to exert control, but really having none. It’s Father Knows Best played by space aliens.”
Jane Curtin played Beldar’s wife, Prymaat, while Laraine Newman played the couple’s daughter, Connie.
When the characters debuted on Jan. 15, 1977, they received an instant reaction. “The first time [Aykroyd] walked on stage as Beldar and took off the stocking cap he was wearing over his cone, the audience let out a collective gasp,” Davis later recalled.
Watch a Classic Conehad Sketch From 'Saturday Night Live'
The Coneheads -- with their distinctive alien voices, quirky interpretations of human life and penchant for “fried chicken embryos” -- immediately became the most beloved characters on SNL. They would appear in six of the show’s episodes in 1977, with another four appearances in ‘78 and one more in '79. Their popularity would also stretch beyond Saturday Night Live, inspiring an animated special, feature film, toy line and even a song by Frank Zappa.
For Aykroyd, the characters’ charm stemmed from simplistic honesty.
“Straight Earth people, Bluntheads, hide their emotions,” the comedian explained. “With Coneheads it’s way up front. When they get mad they go gggrrraaaaaiiihl … It’s like a cartoon.”