45 Years Ago: A Chicago Diner Inspires Popular ‘SNL’ Sketch
The Jan. 28, 1978, episode of Saturday Night Live is one of the most fruitful in the show’s history. Hosted by comedian Robert Klein, the show saw the first appearance of Gilda Radner and Bill Murray’s Nerds, an ambitious, show-long running gag in which irradiated giant lobsters attack Studio 8H, Murray’s Nick the Lounge Singer adding lyrics to the Star Wars theme in the character’s most memorable outing and, debuting right after Klein’s opening monologue, writer Don Novello’s mini-masterpiece inspired by his time visiting a particular Chicago diner.
Novello, best known for his character of Father Guido Sarducci on the show, pitched what would become the Olympia Restaurant sketch to Chicago resident John Belushi. Based upon the eccentric rhythms of Chicago’s Billy Goat Tavern, which both Novello and Belushi had frequented, the Olympia Restaurant was an unassuming Chicago greasy spoon run by Belushi’s domineering Greek immigrant Pete (last name later revealed as Dionisopoulos), whose demand for quick customer turnover sees him shutting down all orders but those for cheeseburgers, Pepsi and a bag of ready-to-toss potato chips.
Backing the no-nonsense Pete are Laraine Newman’s waitress, Dan Aykroyd’s toothpick-chewing grill cook and Murray’s harried lackey, perpetually attempting to keep up with Pete’s rat-a-tat calls for “Petsi” and “cheeps,” the only dishes the unfortunate underling is entrusted with making. (Novello plays another staff member silently working the backroom grill, although it’s not clear what he’d be making except more cheeseburgers.) According to Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad’s seminal SNL backstage history Saturday Night, Novello’s sketch was greeted with applause in the writer’s room that week, and it’s not hard to see why. There’s a thoroughly lived-in little world depicted in the sketch’s scant four and a half minutes, Novello and Belushi’s affection for this slice of Chicago immigrant life as thick as the aroma of the working grill upon which Aykroyd’s cook shovels burger after burger. (Never one to be bound by budgets or convention, producer Lorne Michaels OK'd an actual flattop grill, something secured and installed the day of the show.)
Saturday Night Live has been rightly accused of utilizing cultural stereotypes as comedy shorthand over the years. Tim Robbins’ 1992 political satire Bob Roberts pointedly saw a suspiciously SNL-like late-night comedy show proudly trotting out a recurring sketch simply called “The Immigrants” to audience delight. But there’s a leavening familiarity here, borne partly from Belushi’s experience with an Albanian hot dog vendor uncle, that offers up a slice of hard-won respect to Pete and his clan’s steamroller approach to subsistence restaurant life. As a business model, bullying your customers into ordering only the most cost- and time-effective dish might seem untenable, but Olympia’s chain-smoking customers are all portrayed as equally invested in simply getting something to eat before facing the cold Chicago workday, and, until Klein’s fussy late entrant sits down, no one is overly precious about what that food is.
Watch the First 'The Olympia Restaurant: Cheeseburger, Chips and Pepsi' SNL Sketch
Regular customer Radner is greeted with affection by the gruff Pete, perhaps because she promptly asks for “the usual.” “Cheeseburger!” Pete calls out happily, before answering Radner's question about the tangled familial relationships at the Olympia. (Everyone is a cousin, although Pete treats Murray’s third cousin like a fourth cousin, since, as Pete explains loud enough for Murray to hear, the overworked guy is “chazos,” Greek for “stupid.”) Murray’s Pepsi pourer is the source of one of the episode’s funniest turns when, Pete being called away momentarily, Murray is confronted with Klein’s elaborate breakfast order, Murray’s grinning nods betraying the fact that the poor guy doesn’t speak a word of English. “Cheeseburger?” Murray asks hopefully after the irate Klein’s order is completed.
With Pete rushing in to adjust Klein’s order to the Olympia’s single chosen meal combo, Klein’s understandable objection that he doesn’t want a cheeseburger for breakfast elicits the sketch’s other superb turn, as the restaurant’s call-and-response ordering method brings unexpected near-disaster.
Pete, rebutting Klein’s objection, points to all the customers dutifully downing burgers, his repeated ticking off of “Cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger … ” seeing Aykroyd’s cook interpreting the tally for additional orders and piling the restaurant’s entire supply of ready-made patties on the smoking grill. When Klein finally gives in, he’s informed that the Olympia is now all out of cheeseburgers. He gets the eggs he initially ordered, although, in keeping with Olympia’s no-substitutions policy, he’ll get scrambled instead of the sunny-side-up eggs he wanted. There’s a laudable subtlety to the joke, as the parallel of Belushi’s “Cheeseburger”s and Aykroyd loading up the grill in the background is left for the viewer to recognize on their own. It’s perfect.
The Olympia Restaurant debut is a little slice-of-life playlet masquerading as a simple catchphrase-generating SNL sketch. Scanning the impeccably authentic set design reveals that not only is the restaurant taking in just 79 cents per burger but that, all evidence to the contrary, there is a “Pete’s Special” of eggs, juice and coffee on the menu for just 20 cents more. Pete’s obsession with turnover emerges as the outgrowth of his immigrant work ethic in this cold and hustling city, Olympia’s lockstep ordering methods are a way to get those 79 cents ringing up one after another until closing time.
As anticipated by the writers' room applause, the sketch was an instant hit with audiences, and a return was inevitable. SNL would go on to bring the sketch back five more times over the next year and a half, the cast’s commitment and the audience’s primed affection sustaining a premise that didn’t truly offer that many opportunities for elaboration. The sketch did, indeed, become a source of incessant calls of “Cheeseburger!” and “No Coke, Petsi” entering the lexicon. The actual Billy Goat Tavern soon caught on to the similarities and parlayed their indirect fame into a full-on re-appropriation, playing up the boisterous vibe and expanding into a Chicago-based mini-chain.