WHERE would the world of comedy be without Saturday Night Live ? The 23-year-old television institution might not be a household name outside America, but many of its stars truly are. When it comes to taking raw young comedians and turning them into major stars, SNL has been a one-programme Comedy Hall of Fame. Among the celebrities who have cut their teeth on that nerve-racking, live 90 minutes of late Saturday night mayhem are early stars such as Dan Ackroyd, Eddie Murphy, Chevy Chase and Bill Murray, all the way through to today's generation of comic heroes - David Spade, Dana Carvey, Mike Myers, Chris Rock and Dennis Miller. If that list seems incomplete, it is because there are several other comic geniuses who passed through the SNL school of laughter but, tragically, are no longer around. When Blues Brothers funnyman John Belushi died in 1982 after a drink and drugs binge, he was the first SNL star to meet an untimely death. Others have passed away since. But when another SNL alumnus, Chris Farley - a tortured, self-destructive comic whirlwind in the Belushi mould - brought about his own early death last December, questions began to be asked about what was beginning to shape into a tragic SNL legacy. Now, with last Thursday's violent shooting death of Phil Hartman, a regular on the programme for eight seasons, the questions have taken on a sense of urgency: quite simply, is Saturday Night Live jinxed? 'There is definitely a curse on the house of Saturday Night Live,' said Bob Thompson, director of the Centre for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. 'The mortality percentage of that cast is getting to be fairly frightening.' Realistically, to speak of an SNL 'curse' because of the tragic deaths of a total of six members of its cast in a quarter of a century is not that logical; certainly, no more logical than talking of a rock n' roll curse on the famous pop stars who have died in car crashes or from drug overdoses. But the comparison is not an idle one. While Saturday Night Live is not the wildest or most alternative show to emerge from national TV, the finest of its performers have been to comedy what some of the most famous pop stars have been to music - as daring and unpredictable as they are talented. While Hartman's comic persona - and lifestyle - was far more middle-of-the-road than the fast-living Belushi, his death shocked the entertainment world because it could never have been predicted. Police believe his wife Brynn shot him in an early morning argument, then turned the gun on herself as officers entered their Los Angeles house. When such events occur, Los Angeles often makes the perfect stage for such a tragic spilling of celebrity blood. The Hartmans, however, were not Hollywood, Beverly Hills, or even Brentwood types. While the 49-year-old star had acquired some of the trappings of wealth, including a large mansion, a boat and a fast car, he had typically chosen to make his roots in the less flashy, staid suburb of Encino. An unassuming Canadian who came to show business after an early career in graphic design, Hartman made his name as perhaps the most talented impressionist ever to appear on SNL. His impersonations, including Bill Clinton, Frank Sinatra and Liberace, showed him to be a versatile comic, rather than one with a definable image. Even though he gained a wider, more international audience in movies such as Coneheads and Jingle All the Way, he recently remarked that although he was frequently recognised in public, people could never remember his name or quite what he was famous for. If anything, the life of the Hartmans, who had two young children, seemed far removed from the typical lives of Hollywood couples. But although photos always showed them smiling for the cameras, behind the facade appear to have been the same human insecurities and tensions of their peers. Hartman had been married twice before, and his latest marriage was also heading for the rocks. An NBC executive was quoted on Friday as saying: 'The marriage had gone sour, and he told her he was leaving. He had a new romance in his life. That apparently was too much for her, and she snapped.' The death of someone like Hartman always robs the world of someone with the unique talent of making us laugh. But when death comes even more prematurely, the loss is harder to take - as it was in the cases of Belushi and Farley, who both died at the age of 33 in eerily similar circumstances. Belushi, an original cast member when SNL started in 1975, soon acquired a reputation as fast and dangerous as the crazy parade of characters he portrayed on the small and large screen. But by the time he was taking his talents to Hollywood in such hits as Animal House, his private life was going off the rails in a haze of self-indulgence. When an overdose killed him in 1982, many were not surprised - even if everyone was shocked. When Farley was starting out in Chicago in the late 1980s, Belushi was his idol. And after winning his coveted spot on SNL, the overweight, sweating, buffoonish comic threw himself into his roles with the same energy as his hero: he created a series of unforgettable characters, such as the lunch lady, the overweight Chippendales dancer and Matt Foley, the blue-collar parody of a motivational speaker. Tragically, Farley aped more than Belushi's comedy work, and in his private life went off the same rails. Soon after leaving the show, he landed roles in hugely successful teen comedies such as Tommy Boy, but was over-indulging on food, alcohol and nightlife to such an extent his closest friends feared his heart could never stand the pace. JUST before he died, Farley went back to the SNL set for a guest appearance. Friends said that during the week's rehearsals he came into the studio barely able to stand after nights of bingeing. But true to form, his talent carried him through the live broadcast unscathed. A few weeks later, just before Christmas, his heart finally gave out after a night of drinking and cocaine, and he was found dead in his Chicago penthouse. Death also came to two talented female members of the SNL crew - in less sensational, but no less tragic fashion. If one of the show's growing list of deaths moved the public more than any other, it would be that of Gilda Radner, an original cast member along with Belushi, Ackroyd and Chevy Chase, who stayed until 1980. Virtually unknown outside the US, Radner's mimcry and character acting made her one of the biggest names to ever serve on the show - but it was what came later that carved her name in stone. Towards the middle of the 1980s, Radner continued with a successful solo career on Broadway and on TV, but was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She and her husband, actor Gene Wilder, put a brave face on what became a courageous fight against the disease. Cruelly, doctors told Radner that she had beaten the cancer before she went into remission and died in 1989, aged only 42. Cancer also claimed the life of another cast member, Danitra Vance, who only played for one year, in 1985, but had the distinction of being the show's first black woman star. Few people remembered her when she was beaten by breast cancer four years ago aged 35. Illness also killed Michael O'Donahue, who played a key role as a lead writer during the show's legendary early years. He died after a stroke in 1995. SNL has gone through many difficult periods in recent years, not least from the critics who remember its early days and say its quality is now much lower. Gossip columns have often loved to feed on stories of dissent on the set and of fights between the stars and the veteran producer, Lorne Michaels. However, the programme survives, continues to attract a healthy and loyal audience and shows no sign of disappearing. Curse or no curse, Saturday Night Live is an American institution.