After reading The Revolution Was Televised, I realized that a whole genre of books about my absolute favorite pastime, television, existed and I was missing out. Live from New York, a 600 page oral history of Saturday Night Live, was published in 2002 and hit exactly the right notes. The book is just the right mix of old school celebrity gossip, logistical industry insight, social context and fond (and bitter) cast and crew memories. Most importantly, it’s an incredible look at what has gone wrong with SNL periodically, and the various views (writer, cast, Lorne Michaels) on why there were some troubled periods.
Most fascinating were how the relationships between cast members and writers really drive the quality of the show. The first five years were built on the strength of the cast, their devotion to each other in and out of the office, the crazy amount of drugs and alcohol they consumed, and their individual relationships with the writers. And the Tina Fey years were almost the inverse – they thrived on the respect, professionalism, and clean living that they all prided themselves on. It really pinpoints why transition years are difficult – when you have a group like Mike Myers, Dana Carvey, etc. giving way to youngsters like Adam Sandler, Chris Rock, and Chris Farley, factions occur, conflicts arise and work gets less productive.
Surprising to me was how the way prior cast members or writers talked about the show could dramatically change my opinion of them. For example, I’m now totally obsessed with Jane Curtain who’s smart, funny, blunt, pithy and amazing and I want to go back to 1975 and be her best friend. I’m a firm believer that you should never trash your former employers – something about that job gave you the skills, experience or wisdom to help you get where you are today. And there were a wide variety of past cast and crew members lobbing some hard hitting criticism at SNL – Julia Louis Dreyfus, Janeane Garofolo, Chris Rock, Victoria Jackson, Chevy Chase, Eddie Murphy, etc. Some of them came off as whiny and unappreciative, while some of them managed to convey what it was about SNL that wasn’t right for them, and critique some of the show’s longstanding perceived faults (particularly re: gender, race) intelligently and graciously. Honestly, I actually loved some of the people who complained about the show more after reading this book (I’m looking at you, Julia Louis Dreyfus).
Is SNL still relevant?
Yes. I strongly believe it is. Particularly in the age of viral YouTube clips and DVR, most people I know watch some clip, if not the whole episode, every week. This book provided proof for my hypothesis that, with the exception of the first 5 years of the show, people have ALWAYS complained about SNL. Complained it’s losing it’s edge, that this cast is not as great as the last iteration, etc.
But SNL has survived, and endured, and although the legends of SNL credit that success exclusively to Lorne Michales, this book showed me he’s had a team of writers, producers and network executives pushing him out of his comfort zone and helping him adapt the show to the times.
Also, one of my all time favorite skits is from this season. Make of that what you will. SNL, for me, still endures. Sorry that it’s subtitled in Spanish.