Hired by producer Lorne Michaels to represent the voice of authority contrasting the punkish spirit of the original Not Ready For Primetime Players, Pardo played the part of announcer for 38 of SNL’s 39 seasons, missing only its seventh, the 1981-82 season that started Dick Ebersol’s tenure as producer. (Eager to distance his SNL from Michaels’—and Jean Doumanian’s—Ebersol also shelved the “Live from New York, it’s Saturday night!” intro that season.) Pardo demonstrated the tightrope-walk nature of the show in its very first telecast, accidentally identifying the cast of what was then NBC’s Saturday Night as the “Not For Ready Primetime Players.” He’d get it right the next time, and continue getting it right for hundreds of episodes afterward.
Pardo wasn’t just the voice of God intoning names of the show’s cast members, hosts, bandleaders, and muuuuuuusical guests. He was often an active participant in the proceedings, bookending early episodes with fakeout preemption notices (“101 Dalmatians Get Run Over By 101 Moving Vans will not be seen tonight…”) and tongue-in-cheek farewells (“This is Don Pardo saying, ‘This is Don Pardo speaking.’”). In the show’s 1976 Christmas episode, Pardo lent a hand to Frank Zappa’s performance of “I’m The Slime,” reciting the lyrics presented by Zappa on a nearby chalkboard.
Pardo’s most prominent musical collaboration, however, came courtesy of a Zappa acolyte: Reprising his role on the original version of Jeopardy, Pardo taunts “Weird Al” Yankovic between verses of the Greg Kihn Band parody “I Lost On Jeopardy.” Pardo also makes an onscreen appearance in the song’s video, alongside Art Fleming, with whom Pardo formed the show’s host-announcer team from 1964 to 1975. It was Fleming who helped familiarize TV viewers with the name “Don Pardo,” introducing the catchphrase “Thank you, Don Pardo” at the suggestion of the show’s creator, Merv Griffin, and Pardo’s wife, Catherine Lyons.
Of course, Pardo had already been seen and heard for years on the National Broadcasting Company, where he began working in 1944 after a stint with WJAR, the NBC affiliate in Providence, Rhode Island. Getting his start in radio—in which his duties also included making sure programs hit the air and ended at the proper times—Pardo was soon pulled into NBC’s experiments in television. Following an ill-fated stint as a baseball play-by-play man (accustomed to filling dead air on radio, he reportedly talked over the game too much), he transitioned into announcing gigs that would include the children’s game show Choose Up Sides and Goodson-Todman’s first take on The Price Is Right. Pardo was also NBC’s on-duty announcer on November 22, 1963, breaking into regularly scheduled programming to inform viewers of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
Pardo was one of two people with a lifetime NBC contract, the other being Bob Hope; after 60 years with The Peacock, he announced his retirement in 2004. Yet, as testament to the persuasive powers of Lorne Michaels, Pardo stayed on with SNL, commuting to New York for weekly tapings from his home in Arizona. When the travel proved too difficult, he pre-recorded his intros from home. “Is Don Pardo leaving SNL?” became a familiar refrain in the lead-up to each new television season, but he stuck with the show through its 39th-season finale in May 2014.
Pardo’s devotion to Saturday Night Live has long been reciprocated by the show’s castmembers, many of whom—like Jimmy Fallon, Maya Rudolph, and Rachel Dratch—have commented on the stirring sensation of hearing their names announced in that familiar baritone. (“Each week he represented a dream come true,” Dratch tweeted this morning.) When illness prevented Pardo from performing his duties during Darrell Hammond’s time on the show, the master mimic would substitute for the absent announcer, unbeknownst to the SNL audience. (“‘You’re difficult to do!’” Pardo remembered Hammond saying, years later.) When Tina Fey returned to SNL to host the February 23, 2008 episode, she capped off the show by commemorating Pardo’s 90th birthday—after which the eternally game announcer blew out all 90 candles on his birthday cake. Even in semi-retirement, the strongest lungs in broadcasting still had plenty of air in them.