Originally published September 2014
It’s not just a show anymore—it’s the measuring stick by which at least three generations mark milestones in their lives.
Tom Shales’ and James Andrew Miller’s retrospective, “Live From New York: The Complete, Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live as Told by its Stars, Writers and Guests” is about as comprehensive behind-the-scenes look of the iconic NBC show as you’ll ever find. And it’s not short on opinions of why the show has worked. Not entirely new, the book was just recently re-released, updated for the show’s 40th anniversary season.
I started watching SNL in the early 80s, when I was in middle school and Eddie Murphy was a 20-year-old getting his big break on the show. While I remember seeing Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, John Belushi, Chevy Chase et al in clips shows, it was the days of Murphy, Piscopo, Kazurinsky, Louis-Dreyfus, Guest, Short and Shearer that I first remember watching live.
I still remember the day Belushi died, along with the ones when Gilda, Phil Hartman and Chris Farley died too. I remember laughing ’til I cried at skits and short films including Men’s Synchronized Swimming, I Married a Monkey, Tyrone Green, Lazy Sunday, The Cheerleaders and Debbie Downer. (I could go on, but the list is just way too long.)
If you’re even a casual fan of Saturday Night Live, there’s some nugget of information you’ll appreciate within the book’s pages. Less a “Best Of” and more a collection of historical anecdotes, interviews with all the major players illustrate the lengths Lorne Michaels has gone to not just to create the show but to keep it on the air—and there were several times its viability was called into question.
Michaels is truly a tour de force—and he remains somewhat of enigma, even in later years where most producers would relax into a comfort zone and let someone else take the wheel. While most concede he is not the easiest man to get to close to, or even just get to know, and a handful consider him arrogant at best and extremely difficult at worst, nearly all admit that he is brilliant at what he does and deserves all the props for what the show is now—an iconic piece of our culture, of Americana.
Another interesting thread for me over the course of the show’s history has been the role of women in comedy, and operating as major players. Whereas in the beginning, the lore is that female writers were lucky if their work was even read, today’s female cast shares equal footing with the men. And while it’s the Feys, the Poehlers, the Rudolphs, the Shannons and the Oteris of the cast that garner a lot of attention, chances are they wouldn’t have had the same level of success if not for Curtain, Newman, Radner and Hooks, along with female writers behind the scenes.
The overarching theme? Family—Michaels as the patriarch, of course, but mostly, just everyone feeling as if they belong to a big dysfunctional but loving family. There is companionship, there is dissent, there is snark and ultimately, a feeling of camaraderie with anyone who’s ever been attached to the show. They’ve all got their battle scars and their own perspective, but remain respectful of just about anyone involved. Because they’ve been there.
A great read for anyone who’s ever asked someone, “Did you see what they did on SNL this weekend?”