Monday, October 03, 2005

Live From New York

I picked up Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live for only $5.99 in the bargain section a few months ago. After I finished writing my own book last month, I finally had time to read it. I have always been interested in Saturday Night Live as a social phenomenon as well as for its entertainment value, which has varied widely over the years. During SNL's classic early years in the late 1970s I was too young to be allowed to watch it, which only made it more intriguing. By the time I was in high school (late 1980s), SNL was the one weekend event sure to be discussed in the hallways on Monday morning. My Spanish teacher was an SNL fanatic, and he used to blurt out hilarious lines from characters like "Ed Grimley." In my second job out of college (circa 1994), we often quoted SNL characters such as Phil Hartman's "Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer." Soon after I lost interest in television altogether. But enough about me...

I thought I would only be interested in the years when SNL was a part of my life, but I enjoyed the entire book. It is written in an oral history style using extensive quotes from cast members, executives, hosts, writers, and others involved directly with the show. The words from authors Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller (Miller is incorporated as Jimmy the Writer, which makes me feel that my own company name isn't quite so lame after all) are more like those of a narrator in a play, limited to providing background and transitions. The only problem I had with this format was keeping all the names straight, particularly for the early years. Aside from that, it worked well and moved along quickly. My only quibble with the organization of the book was the last chapter. After chapters for each "era" of the program, the last section was simply "Lorne," a disjointed, chronologically scrambled character sketch of SNL originator and producer Lorne Michaels. The end matter includes a list of cast members by year, but I wish they had included a list of hosts and musical guests (Wikipedia has one).

Live From New York is fascinating for its behind-the-scenes look at how the show is put together. Surprisingly little has changed in the weekly routine. The legendary Tuesday up-all-night writing marathons were probably a lot easier when almost everybody was doing drugs. More recent cast members like Janeane Garafalo have criticized the outdated, stressful schedule. She comes across negatively in the book, as does Chevy Chase. Chase was the first big star to outgrow SNL, but he became increasingly hard to work with each time he returned to host. There are enlightening nuggets to be found throughout the book. First person accounts give insight into controversies such as the Sinead O'Connor incident. Julia Sweeney explains how her androgynous "Pat" character developed because of her inability to be convincingly masculine in drag. Cast members talk about the deaths of many associated with the show, including Chris Farley, who idolized John Belushi. Regarding Belushi, there is harsh criticism of Bob Woodward's biography, Wired.

Ultimately, this book should have been longer. I would have liked to read more about some of the popular characters portrayed in the show. The jacket claims that "they're all here," but I suppose that was better copy than the more accurate, "They're mostly here but barely." As someone who wore a "Mr. Bill" T-shirt in his youth, I was crushed to see his name appear only twice in the whole book. Incredibly, Don Novello is quoted in the book but his "Father Guido Sarducci" is nowhere to be found. Adam Sandler's "Opera Man" is never mentioned, and "Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer" is only named once (oddly as "Frozen Caveman Lawyer"). Many of my favorite moments were omitted, too, such as the episode where the Church Lady disciplined host Rob Lowe. And there was very little about Dennis Miller anchoring "Weekend Update" although he did it longer than anyone else. I suppose everyone has his or her own favorite sketches and characters, so maybe it was considered impractical to get into anything beyond the most famous or controversial ones.

Live From New York left me begging for more, and its format hints that there are lots of snippets from interviews that didn't make the final cut. It is a good introduction to the madness behind the scenes of this program. Now I really understand how much preparation goes into pulling off the 90-minute show every week, and why everyone in the cast looks so tired and "glad it's over" as they hug and wave goodbye at the end.

No comments: