"Live From New York" by Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller

A new book about "Saturday Night Live" dishes the backstage dirt on sex, drugs and fistfights, but lacks the guts to ask if the show still matters.

Published October 9, 2002 6:52PM (EDT)

It changed comedy, television and pop culture, and it unfolded from the most unlikely corporate, Midtown Manhattan location: the 17th floor of NBC's Rockefeller Center. Lost in a haze of marijuana smoke, where sex partners were swapped like joints, where the elevators were wounded by unruly comedians who kicked the doors during frustratingly long waits, and where writer Tom Davis, reeking of "really skunky pot," one day shared a very quiet, awkward ride down to the lobby with news anchor Tom Brokaw, the show was to the '70s what Rolling Stone magazine was to the '60s, and MTV to the '80s: a cultural touchstone.

The 1975 TV experiment only came about because Johnny Carson, NBC's reigning late-night cash cow, was annoyed that the network was airing his "Best of Carson" reruns on the weekend. The host wanted to run the repeats during weekdays to cover him for when he ducked out on vacation.

So network executives called up a young Canadian comedy writer and producer named Lorne Michaels who had done work for "Laugh-In," and on Lily Tomlin specials. He was paid $115,000 to create a new late-night variety, comedy and music television show, one that would speak to a new generation that distrusted network TV almost as much as it distrusted Nixon.

And of course, live from New York, it was Saturday night.

An engaging oral history and a gold mine for serious "SNL" fans, "Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live" is also compelling reading for those with a casual curiosity about the show, its battles with censors, the backstage addictions, the drunken hosts, and the perpetual cycle of creative boom (John Belushi), bust (Gary Kroeger) and boom (Will Ferrell).

"The success of 'Saturday Night Live' sparked a renaissance in topical, satirical, and political humor; launched the careers of innumerable new talents; hugely expanded the parameters of what was 'acceptable' material on the air; and helped bestow upon the comedy elite the hip-mythic status that rock stars had long enjoyed," note co-authors Tom Shales (the Washington Post's TV critic) and James Andrew Miller in the book's introduction.

Who among the (mostly white) generation of TV junkies between the ages of 30 and 50 who grew up on the show would argue that the groundbreaking first five years of "SNL" did not change American pop culture? Or that the original cast of Not Ready For Primetime Players weren't unlikely icons of cool? (Dan, John, Chevy, Jane, Garrett, Laraine, Gilda and later Bill; we can recite them quicker than a list of our first cousins.)

But readers may quibble with the authors' notion that "SNL" today is in top form, and continues to be a defining force in American comedy. ("'SNL' has never been stronger," shouts the back cover blurb.) Its ratings were actually down last year, and there's a sound argument that says "SNL" long ago stopped trying to shape, let alone undermine, American culture and instead traded its original rebellious streak for the chance to become a profitable, and relatively predictable, assembly line of cute catchphrases: "Yeah, that's the ticket," "Buh-bye," "Steve, Stevarino, the Steve-ster," "No-mah!" It's hard to be so glowing about a boy's club comedy revue so tightly wed to its formula of monologue/faux commercial/faux talk show/faux game show.

The fact is, the original smart-aleck, Harvard Lampoon-style comedy that "SNL" used to bottle each week has spilled over into all of pop culture. Tune in to Letterman, Conan or Kilborn for a daily dose. Meanwhile, five nights a week Comedy Central's "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" routinely outperforms the "SNL" centerpiece of topical news, "Weekend Update." And on some weeks last season, Fox's underrated Saturday late-night comedy staple, "Mad TV," went skit-for-skit with "SNL."

"Live From New York's" only real fault is that it takes "SNL" so seriously, which shows in the book's length (nearly 600 pages), coming in at roughly 100 pages too long. Oral histories are tricky for authors, since they give up substantial control in order to allow people to speak in complete paragraphs. But Shales and Miller could have done a better job stamping out redundancies. When former host Gwyneth Paltrow informs readers on Page 549 that Michaels is stingy with compliments, she's dead on. How do we know? That point had already been made what seems like 15 times by other "SNL" players.

Speaking of Michaels, much of the book's excess can be blamed on the final, endless chapter pondering the importance of the longtime producer. It reads like one of those dreadful 12:50 a.m. "SNL" sketches that goes on and on and on. Digesting 123 separate ruminations from "SNL" writers, hosts and actors, we learn that Michaels is "the most mesmerizing conversationalist you'll ever meet" (Tom Hanks), "a wonderful storyteller" (Candice Bergen), "an amazing person" (Gwyneth Paltrow), "a genius" (Garrett Morris), "brilliant" (Dan Aykroyd) and "a deep thinker" (Molly Shannon).

Without Michaels' cooperation, "Live From New York" probably never would have been completed, and this realization makes such passages uncomfortable reading. Yes, the book is "uncensored," and to their credit Shales and Miller allow Michaels' detractors -- such as Chris Elliott and Janeane Garofalo --to tee off. Says Jane Curtin, "I think [Michaels] picked the right profession, because he gets to lord over people who want to kneel at his feet and he doesn't acknowledge them -- which makes them work harder."

However, Michaels' insights are invaluable to the book, and surely his participation signaled to others inside the tight-knit "SNL" world that it was OK to cooperate with the authors. (As for no-shows, Eddie Murphy is the biggest star who refused to cooperate with Shales and Miller.)

Throughout the show's impressive 27-year run, which includes more than 500 episodes (and what must be close to 3,000 skits), the behind-the-scenes story of "SNL" has always been about how a group of frighteningly talented and often highly insecure people scrambled to land precious on-camera time each week. Seeing your skit get cut between dress rehearsal and the live show or being relegated to extra roles (assigned by Michaels, the gatekeeper) could send an ambitious but underused cast member spiraling into depression. "There was no job I could imagine having to do that would have been more difficult than returning to the show," recalls Julia Sweeney, who quit with one year left on her contract after being virtually banished from "SNL" during her final season.

"The whole place was just full of the most insidious mind games," recalls former cast member Harry Shearer.

While that dark cloud permeates the book, it does not dominate. Instead, "Live From New York" usually finds itself marveling at the show as Shales and Miller uncover all sorts of untold or overlooked nuggets. For example, Dan Aykroyd was just 23 years old when he landed his role on "SNL." Billy Crystal's "Fernando's Hideaway" sketches were completely improvised; no scripts were ever prepared. "Seinfeld" collaborator Larry David managed to get just one of his skits on the air while working as an "SNL" writer back in the '80s. The priceless 1979-80 season employed only six cast members; the forgettable 1994-95 season carried 17. Host Mel Gibson pitched nervous "SNL" writers on a "Brideshead Revisited" spoof called "Bird's Head Regurgitated." They passed.

Of course, oral histories are all about recollections, and "Live From New York" captures page after page of witty and wonderful ones:

Writer Fred Wolf recalling the time rotund cast member Chris Farley broke up with an "SNL" staffer who then, unbeknownst to Farley, started dating Steve Martin: "Farley said, 'Well, she may find somebody better looking than me, or she might find somebody richer than me, but she's not going to find anybody funnier than me.' And what I couldn't tell him was, he was wrong on all three accounts. Steve Martin was richer, better looking and even funnier."

Laraine Newman on the backstage brawl that broke out between Chevy Chase and Bill Murray when Chase came back to host for the first time: "It culminated with Billy saying to Chevy, 'Why don't you fuck your wife once in a while?'"

Eccentric staff writer Michael O'Donoghue on his refusal to collaborate with the early, now forgotten "SNL" muppets: "I don't write for felt."

Jane Curtin on her star-crossed colleague's demise: "When John [Belushi] started making too much money and started doing too many drugs, the sweet John was gone, and the ambitious John took over. His ambition was just overwhelming, as was his need to self-medicate."

Writer Alan Zweibel on his job interview with Michaels back in the '70s: "He says, 'How much money do you need to live?' I said, 'Well, I'm making $2.75 an hour at the deli -- match it.'"

Frequent "SNL" host Tom Hanks, on tricks of the trade: "The secret of being the host of the show is to concern yourself only with the monologue. Because if you have a good monologue, everybody thinks the entire show was great."

Another "SNL" host fixture, Alec Baldwin, on sucking up to the cast: "You're standing next to some guy one day doing the show, and you turn around and five years later they're getting paid $20 million in a movie. So now, no matter who I work with, no matter what a sniveling, drooling wuss they are, I embrace them all like they're my dearest friend and my most respected colleague."

It's telling that Baldwin views today's "SNL" as a career vehicle. He's not alone. But as "Live From New York" documents, the touchstone show once aspired to be much more.

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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