I mentioned about a week and a half ago that Saturday Night Live has been on my mind of late due to a book I was reading. I’ve finally finished the book, Live From New York, so I thought I’d write down my thoughts on the book itself. The book labels itself as “An uncensored history of Saturday Night Live as told by it stars, writers, and guests”, and that’s essentially what it is — editors Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller only occasionally interject their own text and thoughts into the book, primarily to “set the stage”, so to speak, for the next few pages’ topic of discussion. That discussion is given through anecdotes and remarks of people associated with the show, from executive producer Lorne Michaels to the cast to the guest hosts.
The format winds up reading sort of like an interview, only we don’t see the questions, and the person responding switches rapidly. Sometimes you’ll be reading something that Dan Aykroyd is saying, and then it’ll switch to writer Marilyn Ann Miller, then to Laraine Newman, and back to Aykroyd again. There sometimes appears to be a back-and-forth going on between different people, but I think this is just an effect of careful editing (though sometimes it’s clear that the person was told what the other had said). The book is very easy to put down, but this isn’t a criticism of it — it’s easy to put down not due to any hypothetical lack of interest, but because its format makes it very easy to read just a few paragraphs at a time. Few of the responses are more than a page in length. It makes for an excellent coffee-table book, something to pick up during commercials or when one is mostly occupied with something else that requires the occasional waiting period. Somebody who “doesn’t have a lot of time to read” could easily manage this book, just reading it a few pages at a time over however long it took to finish.
And the interviewees really are the stars of the book and the stars of the show. It seems like Shales and Miller went out of their way to talk to anybody who had any connection to the show at all. Lorne Michaels is a large part of it, of course, as is Dick Ebersol. Several of the writers are featured as well — I didn’t do a headcount, but I think there were at least two dozen names in it that were labeled as “writer”. And there are comments from a lot of the hosts, including one-time hosts such as Andrew Dice Clay and multiple-time hosts such as Tom Hanks. And of course the cast and featured players all have their say as well — it runs from the original cast to the year it was compiled (2002), and I think the only living cast member who stands out as not having provided an interview is Eddie Murphy (who one gathers from the book has largely disowned Saturday Night Live for some reason, despite it making him a star.) From Garrett Morris to Chris Kattan, they’re all there; they even interviewed Judith Belushi, John’s widow, regarding his role on the show.
The book mostly proceeds in a chronological order, starting with the genesis of the show and going through its first few seasons, then on through the brief period when Michaels stepped away, and through each major cast change on into the “present” — so to speak. Since the book was compiled in 2002, obviously it’s now ten years short of the full history. This leads to some amusing moments such as Will Ferrell, who had just announced his departure from the cast, optimistically hoping he’ll have a few successful movies but not sounding completely sure of it (I think that worked out all right for him.) It’s also funny reading comments from Jimmy Fallon and Tina Fey about their roles on the show, knowing that their larger success was yet to come.
It gives a solid sense of the stress and excitement of working on the show, depicting the late nights writing and the long hours and the cast in-fighting that sometimes happens. Since it’s all personal anecdotes, there’s often a sense of he-said/he-said regarding the events, where it’s left to the reader to decide who is being more truthful about a situation. Billy Crystal’s “firing” from the first episode is discussed by Michaels, Crystal, and Crystal’s agent at the time; between the three of them, it starts to sound more as if Crystal wasn’t fired so much as Michaels needed Crystal’s segment trimmed down for time, and Crystal’s agent threw a fit; Crystal relates Belushi saying that his agent had screwed him, and honestly, that’s how it comes across. Similarly, Norm MacDonald being removed from “Weekend Update” at Dan Ohlmeyer’s request is looked at from multiple perspectives, including Ohlmeyer and MacDonald’s, as are several of the cast turn-overs. Adam Sandler notably relates that to this day he’s still not entirely sure if he was officially fired or not.
The book purports to be uncensored, and while it’s impossible to verify this, it does appear to be fairly unvarnished. While Shales and Miller are obviously big fans of the show — they praise it heavily regarding all but the least-regarded seasons — the book doesn’t focus on the good points more than the bad points, nor vice-versa. It talks about the heavy drug use in the early seasons, and it discusses the deaths of John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Phil Hartman, and Chris Farley. It discusses the love-hate relationship the cast members have with Lorne Michaels — there’s even a section near the end devoted to just that, which is perhaps the one flaw in the editing, as it comes across more disjointed than the chronological segments. And it also discusses the in-fighting between cast and writers, and dealing with difficult hosts or crew members. Chevy Chase is acknowledged by all casts as having been difficult to work with whenever he’d return to the show; even those who like him say he can be hard to deal with (on the other hand, he’s also hosted more times than anyone else, so something must work about it). There’s a sense that it feeds on itself to some degree, with the initial cast resenting him being the breakout star, and giving him a chilly reception after he left after one season. Bill Murray relates an incident of John Belushi stirring up a fight between him and Chase. Chase himself doesn’t talk much about it, seeming to prefer to focus on the more positive experiences.
Janeane Garofalo also comes across poorly, though in her case it’s not due to what others say, it’s from what she herself says; virtually everything she says comes across as a contradiction of the attitude everyone else has about the same time period. The book also talks about Larry David’s stint as a writer, and how he failed to get even a single sketch he wrote on the air; David acknowledges that he reworked many of his sketch ideas into episodes of Seinfeld (which amusingly means that Seinfeld was made up of ideas that weren’t good enough for SNL). Every cast member who fizzled out for one reason or another is given a moment to talk and be talked about; if someone was around for only a year or two, they’re almost certainly mentioned in the book, and get some room to talk for themselves.
But there’s a lot of positive as well. Chris Rock discusses the fact that he always seemed to have to play stereotypical “black roles” on Saturday Night Live, and says this is the reason he went to In Living Color, where he could just play whatever he wanted. But he also makes it clear that he loved his SNL co-stars, and that he is very grateful to show for giving him his start: “I’ve never been broke since I met Lorne Michaels”. Dan Aykroyd states that the reason he hasn’t hosted (he would the next year for the first time) is because he wants to be remembered as part of the cast, not as a host, and he’s always willing to come by as a guest star for a sketch if they need him. Most of the cast members seem to relate generally positive experiences on the whole, while not glossing over the difficult moments. Even those who didn’t necessarily like their experiences seem to acknowledge it as a trial-by-fire, and the word “fraternity” is thrown around by a lot of cast members.
Live From New York gives a pretty solid overview of the show’s history up to that point in time, and even somebody who hasn’t been watching for all of that time will likely find it interesting. It’s a “warts and all” portrayal of the show, related by the people who were most involved.