It’s odd. The things we get obsessed about are sometimes the very things that we find difficult to get access to. The elusiveness lends a certain patina to the object of our obsessions – the harder it is to actually see it, the more it seems to shine in the imagination. I’ve been fascinated for years by Saturday Night Live.
It’s always been difficult to see in this country, at least until recent years. I don’t recall any major television network picking it up in the UK – my erratic memory recalls stumbling upon occasional episodes shown in the middle of the night on cable channels and certain shows would find their way to me if they happened to feature particular guests or hosts who I had a liking for.
The episode with Neil Innes, I’ve seen a few times. I’m fairly sure I’ve seen at least one of Michael Palin’s hosting spots. On the whole, it tends to be sliced and diced into clips. MTV had a liking for the Belushi / Aykroyd Blues Brothers sequences. The Chris Farley / Patrick Swayze duet I’ve seen far too often. I’m intimately familiar with the original Not-Quite-Ready-For-Prime-Time players, but that’s more through their film work than the original show. An actual run of episodes? That’s always been out of reach. As a result, it shines in my head as something special. Something magical. Did I actually want to settle down and watch the damn thing, only to find that it wasn’t all that special? Thanks to the region 2 release of the complete series 1 a few years ago, I finally did. It was. Very, very special.
Not for a good few episodes, mind. It takes the format a while to shake down. A ninety minute live sketch-comedy-music show is bound to have a few dead spots. When it begins to coalesce though – the magic begins to happen. 650 episodes on, the magic is still there. I watched the episode hosted by Daniel Radcliffe today and it really does still have it. I’ve barely scratched the surface, mind. That’s a lot of ninety minute shows to work through and certain eras remain… out of reach. I’ve often wondered why. As is the way with my love for long-running television series, I’ve also often wanted to dig about under the bonnet, see what drives it.
Recently I found out about Live From New York by Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller. It’s an oral history of the show, told by those who were in the trenches (and that phrase comes up frequently – most of the interviewees seem to adopt a “thank christ we survived” attitude). I finally got around to reading it. It is – no two ways about it – tremendous.
The format’s simple – use the words of the participants to tell the story, linked with just enough narrative to join the pieces together. Apparently the writers pretty much lived under the bleachers in the studio to put the book together and it shows. They obviously interviewed everyone they could (starting with Lorne Michaels and as many of the original cast as possible) and then worked their way forward. Pretty much everyone you’d want to contribute does (Eddie Murphy being the only real omission, but that’s not a surprise – he doesn’t seem to think fondly of his SNL days. A shame, as he seems to have had a seismic effect on the show, both while on it and long after he left). The book takes us from the earliest days through to 2003. By the time we leave them, Tina Fey and Jimmy Fallon are in the ascendancy. I wonder whatever happened to them? I had such high hopes.
As tends to be the way with these things the actual origins of the show have become fogged over time, with many people claiming a hand in the actual creation and all believing they invented it themselves. They probably did. Television’s such a collaborative medium that they almost certainly all created a bit of it individually. It’s when you put it all together that the format begins to emerge.
One thing does appear to be certain though – it all started with Johnny Carson.
It’s difficult to appreciate the massive clout the likes of Carson (and Ed Sullivan before him) had in the American media, at least from this remove. Certainly the impression I get is that nothing happened – nothing – in US light entertainment in the seventies and eighties without the Carson say-so. The shadow looms large. In this case Carson wanted NBC to stop showing weekend re-runs of The Tonight Show – this in order to allow him to have them screened during the week instead, enabling him to take vacation time when required. NBC capitulated, and then had to start looking for something to fill the barren space left behind on a Saturday night. From such humble beginnings, giants sometimes emerge. Primary contributors to the early part of the book are Lorne Michaels himself (obviously) and Dick Ebersol – at this time an NBC executive but a man who would have an influence on the show second only to Michaels himself during the period when Michaels temporarily gave up the reins. As one of only three people to executive produce the series (the third being the ill-fated Jean Doumanian, handed the poisoned chalice of the show’s 1980 season following the departure of Michaels and that entire legendary first cast), Ebersol’s contribution shouldn’t be understated. He knows what he’s talking about and his words carry as much impact as the legendary baseball bat he would swing during his time as the head of a somewhat turbulent empire.
Fred Silverman, Bernie Brillstein, Annie Beatts, Howard Shore, Alan Zweibel, Al Franken… their recollections are joined by more and more voices with every page until it’s difficult to keep track. This was a show everyone had an opinion on. Some managed to influence things by shouting the loudest, some by canny allegiances formed in the writer’s room. The thing that cuts through every page – even in the show’s darkest moments – is that almost everyone is and was proud to have been a part of it and everyone fought their damndest to make it the best it could possibly be. Self-interest is not necessarily the only motivation, but egos stampede through these pages. Contributors tell it as they see it and if they are instantly contradicted by someone elses memories a few paragraphs down, so be it. It’s a good approach and the book breathes as a result.
Some of the stories are a real surprise. A lot of the participants who you may have previously thought would have at the very least been bullish about things (given some of their… eccentric public personas) allow hindsight and the passing of time to take the sharp edges off their contributions and come across as genuinely kind and gentle people.
Bill Murray in particular is a tremendous interviewee – honest when required, openly humble about his part in the early years and how he felt about it and endlessly generous both in speech and actions towards those who came after.
Observing the difficulties Jean Doumanian was having (the knives were out the minute she took over from Michaels, the new cast wasn’t gelling, the “Saturday Night Dead” reviews were beginning to appear), Murray comments –
She was struggling, and they were having a hard time getting quality hosts. So I called up and I said, “I can’t get arrested. Is there any way I could work on your show?” So I went in there. It was a tough week. We worked really hard writing and rewriting, and the show turned out good, and I thought, “This could work.”
Things like that can really raise your opinion of someone. Especially someone who can with some justification claim to be part of one of the most consistently lauded comedy teams ever assembled.
Likewise Chevy Chase – a man whose antics on returning to host the show after his departure provoked at least one fist-fight, horror in the writers room and what appears to be an irreversible lifetime ban after some appalling behavour during his last appearance – is gracious in his praise, genuinely apologetic about some of his more excessive tendencies and absolutely everything you would want an interviewee to be. Obviously though, he’s still Chevy Chase –
The “sex appeal” thing, I don’t know where that came from. I know that I had sex appeal because I know how much sex I had.
Jane Curtin doesn’t seem to have had a terribly good time, but she had a family to go home to between shows, and emerges from the insanity almost totally unscathed. Chris Rock used his time on the show to inform what he did afterwards, having gained an unprecedented insight into the difficulties of making televsion, he was well prepared for anything he might do in the future and he put that experience to good use.
Others don’t fare so well. Out of the various generations of cast members nobody seems to have a good word to say for Janeane Garofolo. Nora Dunn wins no fans, especially after her principled stand against Andrew Dice Clay’s guest-host slot. She wouldn’t appear on the same show, and lost her job as a result, more or less. The general opinion appears to be “publicity stunt” (kindest comment) or “did it to publicise her own career” (more or less every other comment).
Victoria Jackson claims that Jan Hooks hated her guts, but has the highest regard for Hooks professionally. Hooks claims that any gripe she had with her was entirely because
I just have a particular repulsion to grown women who talk like little girls. It’s like, “You’re a grown woman! Use your lower register!” And she’s a born-again Christian. I don’t know, she was like from Mars to me.
Oddly, the person who garners the most negative comment (at least out of the performers) is Harry Shearer, about whom no-one seems able to find a good word. “Ruthless and perfectionist” is the kindest you’ll get. Then again, it’s that sort of book. The bad stuff gets the light shone on it. What makes it good, is that it’s not just the bad stuff. I’m sick of “tortured artist” biographies. I want to know about the nuts and bolts. The hard work. The joy of when everything works, when it all comes together and everyone in the room is grinning because they know they’re getting it right. Light and shade and all of the bits in between that remind you of why you were interested in the first place – that’s what I’m after.
You’ll get plenty of both. The authors freely admit that the tone they wanted was an unashamed celebration of SNL, without necessarily brushing over the unsavoury bits. To be absolutely fair to them, they hit that stated target square on the nose (although an entire chapter devoted to Lorne Michaels and his ability to be nobody to all people is maybe a step too far. Everyone has an opinion on him but nobody seems to be able to get a handle on who or what he is).
More or less everything you might want to have covered is in here. The fatalities punctuate the narrative, taking time to remind you of their better qualities as well as their frailties. The ghosts of John Belushi, Gilda Radner and Chris Farley haunt these pages. Belushi was lightning in a bottle. Radner was beloved by all who knew her and a massive influence on many who followed (turning down her own chance at a starring prime-time special to stay with the team is merely one moment that makes you think, “god – she really was that nice”). Farley worshipped Belushi, even to the extent of wearing his pants, and dying of excess at exactly the same age.
All three are such giants that they can’t help but bulk over the pages. Eddie Murphy is an almost constant presence in the second half of the book. The absentees are warmly remembered by those who remained, but everyone has stories to tell.
Al Franken’s “Limo-For-A-Lame-O” attack on an already overwhelmed Fred Silverman seems at this remove to be merely petty, but the effect it has on the show is a major one, with repercussions which went on for a long time afterwards. Ditto the strange campaign waged by NBC West Coast president Don Ohlmeyer to remove host Norm Macdonald and revered writer Jim Downey from the hallowed “Weekend Update” slot.
There’s a particularly strong section on the first show after 9/11 – two weeks after it’s almost as if the city is desperate for someone to give them permission to laugh and that first show… well, it’s become something I’m very very keen to see.
First, Michaels’ longtime close friend Paul Simon sang his song “The Boxer,” a number that Michaels himself requested (though others on the staff found it dubiously appropriate). Onstage, a crowd of New York firemen and policemen listened silently, grim faces panned by the studio cameras. The song over, Michaels stepped up and asked Giuliani if it was all right for Saturday Night Live to be “funny.” Giuliani responded, smiling slightly, “Why start now?” Then, when the laughter subsided, Giuliani exultantly shouted the show’s famous opening line.
Live from New York, New York was alive.
The stories keep piling up. John Belushi accidentally cutting Buck Henry’s head open with a Samurai sword on air, only for the live nature of the show to enable everyone in that night’s episode to be sporting splints, casts and various wounds by the end of broadcast.
Dick Ebersol firing almost everyone for the tenth season and replacing them with a staggering lineup of bought-in talent – (Pamela Stephenson, Billy Crystal, Martin Short, Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer -returning after an ill-starred first stint only to find he didn’t fit any better second time around).
Dan Aykroyd’s legendary aftershow parties at “The Blues Bar” (Aykroyd – deservedly – comes out of the book as the most beloved cast member, and most beloved person in general. There isn’t anyone who didn’t love him or love working with him. Quite right too. The man’s perpetually underrated.)
Mike Myers answering claims that Dr Evil from the Austin Powers movies is based on Lorne Michaels (something which sheds a whole new light on the character and one I was completely unaware of).
Almost everyone, without exception, wondering why Lorne Michaels makes such great television but such lousy movies (I’m staying out of that one).
There’s a lot of love in this. A lot of sadness, too. A pinch of regret. Personal jealousies, rivalries, breakups and get-togethers. The SNL family springs into vivid life. I came out of it with massive respect for some participants. I liked others considerably less. Short of joining the writers under the bleachers, this is as close as I’m ever going to get to knowing what goes into putting together a juggernaut like SNL. It’s certainly as near as I’ll ever get to understanding it. It’s a tremendous book and as SNL continues – seemingly unstoppably – into 37 years of uninterrupted broadcast, there only seems to be one problem on everybody’s mind. Rick Ludwin, vice president for NBC Late Night –
I want to leave before Lorne does. I would rather not have the job of trying to find someone to replace him. I’m definitely timing my exit to precede his. I’m just making sure that I go before he does.
It’s a puzzler, alright. I just hope there’s a long way to go before they really have to start addressing the problem seriously.
So long as there’s an NBC, so long as there’s a Saturday night, a schedule without SNL seems unthinkable. Long may it remain that way. It’s become a mainstay, and as a result it’s also become an easy target. SNL’s always attacked, villified, damned with faint praise. However, millions love it. That position seems unassailable. This book will tell you how it got there.