An Unforgettable Edge Blunted: SNL Smothered in Reminiscence

Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live , by Tom

Shales and James Andrew Miller. Little, Brown, 594 pages, $25.95.

Saturday Night , the original name of the show later and better known as Saturday Night Live , had to make do with its shorter name during its first season, despite the wishes of founding producer Lorne Michaels, because premiering that fall on ABC was another show called Saturday Night Live , now long forgotten. Memory can be a great healing instrument: That year’s Saturday Night Live was a prime-time variety show, in every sense not live, starring Howard Cosell, who was himself utterly not live, at least not as far as an 18-year-old such as myself could tell. Cosell, a sportscaster with a bad toupée and a Brooklyn schnozz, had built up a small quantity of celebrity juice calling Ali fights and commenting with comical pretentiousness on Monday Night Football opposite Frank Gifford and Don Meredith. Meredith, the former Cowboy quarterback who traded insults with Cosell for 50 minutes out of the 60 in a typical football game, was funnier, smarter and better-looking: They should have given him a variety show. Cosell was too stiff, too out of sync, and too depleted of irony and nonchalance; he made Ed Sullivan look like Robin Williams.

Cosell’s show died a quick death, there being some justice in the world, and, as we learn in Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live , an oral history compiled and edited by James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales, young producer Lorne Michaels at NBC insisted for his second season on using the name he’d always had in mind for his own live sketch show. By that time, the show we all know and love was already a smash success, and he could have called it almost anything short of Hee Haw .

Mr. Michaels has produced the show for 22 of the 27 years since its inception; the missing years were an interlude when Dick Ebersol, Michaels’ boss at NBC, took it over (think the Joe Piscopo era). The show has made stars of Chevy Chase, John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, Jane Curtin, Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy, Billy Crystal, Martin Short, Phil Hartman, Dana Carvey, Mike Myers, Chris Farley, Chris Rock, David Spade, Adam Sandler and a bunch of others. Steve Martin, a repeating host, might be the lead among those whose careers were markedly enhanced by the show even though he was never a part of the cast.

Two important traditions came together at the right time to make Saturday Night Live a success. The first was a vein of American political humor that stretched back to Mark Twain and Will Rogers and was heavily influenced in the early 70’s by the popular transgressions of George Carlin and Robert Klein (who brought to mainstream cultural commentary what they’d learned from Lenny Bruce). The second was a brand of sketch comedy that was distinctly English and, subsequently, Canadian (many of the figures named above, including Lorne Michaels, come from north of the border: Canada, the comedy nation … who knew?). The English tradition goes back, in recent times, to Peter Sellers and the Goons in the 1950’s, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Beyond the Fringe in the 60’s, and, of course, the immensely successful Monty Python in the early 70’s: All these fed a growing appreciation for sketch comedy that hadn’t been seen since the days of vaudeville. The premier venue for this type of comedy was Second City, which brought many young comedy writers and actors to the stage of SNL , and which gave birth to a show that, to my mind, was significantly funnier and more subtle than SNL , Second City TV . To SNL ‘s credit, the differences between the two are significant: Second City wasn’t live and it didn’t do politics. These two bits of daring have always been what gave SNL its unforgettable edge.

Little knowledge of these traditions and issues feeds the almost unbearably hagiographic Live From New York . The book, with its breathless claim of being ” uncensored,” should have been censored a little more: not its scandalous material, but its hundreds of pages of insider-baseball and unpleasant personal complaints and self-justifications. At close to 600 pages, it’s perhaps three times as long as there is any conceivable need for it to be, and it takes way too seriously what is, after all, a television show-one that has never faced significant competition in style or time slot. When Messrs. Shales and Miller stop the sometimes funny, sometimes dull, sometimes painful reminiscences of former performers, writers, producers and network execs, it’s to add passages like this:

“In the same years that he was getting the most grief from network executives that he’d ever received in his career, Lorne Michaels also got an exquisitely flattering offer [from Howard Stringer at CBS] …. But Michaels, even though under siege-really a constant barrage-turned Stringer down. He still felt a loyalty, if not to NBC, then to the show he had created, a show that even through these tense and turbulent times remained the ultimate, the pinnacle, the bright star-maybe even television’s ‘shining city on the hill.'” Puhleeze. You have to bushwhack your way through the clichés. The book was excerpted in Vanity Fair , which is the perfect venue for this material. And an excerpt is all you need, even if you’re a dedicated SNL fan.

Live From New York ‘s claim on our attention is the oral testimony which constitutes the vast majority of the text. It reveals what we already knew: The people involved with the show, especially in the 70’s and early 80’s, did tremendous amounts of cocaine and frequently slept and fought with each other. Duh. This scandalous material degrades as the memories become more recent: You move from Bill Murray’s memories of crazed all-night sessions and dawn comedowns to Janeane Garofalo rehashing her well-known complaints about working on the program, while others are called upon to bash her. (You can tell: She still sticks in their collective craw.)

There are certain moments of Saturday Night Live that for people my age linger in the memory: From the early years, Dan Aykroyd’s imitation of Jimmy Carter doing a call-in radio show, talking down someone who’s called in after taking too much acid: “Was it butterfly or microdot?” he asks, expert as always. “Do you have any Allman Brothers?” John Belushi doing Roy Orbison, brilliantly: He stood stiffly singing the song, oversized acoustic guitar before him, then slowly began to tilt, to an almost impossible angle (perhaps they’d tacked his shoes to the floor), until two stage hands rush out to set him right: then he begins slowly to tilt in the other direction, not missing a beat the whole time. Sometime in the first or second season, Paul Simon sitting on a stool, George Harrison beside him; they’re playing guitar and singing together. Later on: Harry Shearer and Christopher Guest’s short films; Martin Short as the liar, with the impossibly long cigarette ash. Later still: the brilliant Phil Hartman as Bill Clinton, stopping into McDonald’s while out on a run, stealing food off people’s trays while he explains about the warlords in Mogadishu. Or the show during the weekend of the Anita Hill testimony on Clarence Thomas, which opened with the Senate Judiciary Committee facing Tim Meadows: “Let me get this right,” asks one of the Senators, all perfectly played. “You told her you liked her breasts? You told her about the Long Dong Silver movies? And she still didn’t go out with you?” Strom Thurmond pipes up: “Have you tried sawft-cawr pawrn? Women lahk sawft-cawr pawrn.” It was the perfect antidote to the unreal shenanigans running 16 hours a day that weekend. The show similarly made explicit the unrealities of the 2000 election.

The kind of fueled intelligence that good comedy requires-the combination of perfect social analysis, tight storytelling and delight in the absurdity of human behavior-usually suffers under long discussion. Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller prove this point, and then some. They’ve taken something admirable and heaped upon it too much piety and too much praise, and so diminished what they’d hoped to enlarge.

Vince Passaro is the author of Violence, Nudity, Adult Content: A Novel (Simon & Schuster).