When I was a kid, one of the local channels showed reruns of Saturday Night Live. I loved watching these reruns. All the people were so funny and silly, and there was one lady named Gilda Radner who made everyone laugh, who could just come out and say "Hi, I'm Gilda Radner" and everyone would clap for her. I would watch the show as the years went on, getting the jokes that flew over my head when I was a kid, watching new people like Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman, Jan Hooks, and thinking: "Someday, I'm going to go to New York and be on that show." (But then again, I also had dreams of going to NYC to write for the soap opera Guiding Light, but for today, we're going to concentrate on the SNL dream)
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Flash forward many years later. I'm not close to going to New York yet, and I don't know if I'll ever be a Not Ready for Prime Time Player. But I do one thing: I do love watching Saturday Night Live, so I was delighted that there was a new book about SNL called Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live, written by Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller, which turns out to be a gossipy, fun, and yet touching book about the people that made SNL an enduring hit.
Written in the popularized style that George Plimpton and Jean Stein did with Edie when there is a stream of consciousness interviews throughout the book, it tells the story about how the show got started in 1975, how it slowly became a hit, then fell when Executive Producer Lorne Michaels left in 1980, the Eddie Murphy years, then the comeback during the late 80's to the current cast today. Every cast is different, but all of them are incredibly funny, black humored, and have always said that being on that stage on Saturday night is an incredibly rush.
Much ado has been written about the book, because it has juicy gossip. Well, if you know the show, it's not that revealing: Gilda Radner and Bill Murray were a hot item. So were Dan Ackroyd and Gilda. And Dan and Larriane Newman. No one liked the NBC brass. Pretty much everyone hated Chevy Chase, who as the first season went on, got an ego the size of, oh, the size of New York state, as demonstrated in the following excerpts by former cast members Terry Sweeney and Will Farrell:
TS: Chevy hosted the second show, and we were all excited because, to us, Chevy was like a god
he was a monster. He insulted everybody
.he turned to me and he said: "Oh, you're the gay guy, right?" And he goes "I've got an idea for a sketch for you. How about we say you have AIDS and we weigh you every week?"
WF: The worst host was Chevy Chase
he got to one of our female writers (after riffing on some ideas for the show he was hosting) he made some reference like, "Maybe you can give me a hand job later." And I've never seen Lorne more embarrassed and red.
Another thing that Shales and Miller shows: The Man Known As Lorne Michaels. Lorne Michaels helped create the show and has been the executive producer for 22 of its 27 years. To some people, he's the dad that never gives attention to the kids that crave it. Or the big brother to let the kids get a chance playing on the basketball team. But Shales and Miller do an excellent job showing how from one generation to the next, how much Lorne means to each cast, to Gilda Radner's pure adoration to him because she looked to him as a dad, to Janeane Garafalo's irritation with him that he kept her waiting three hours in his office. Everyone has a version of Michaels, and odds are, none of them are wrong.
But apart from the good gossip, there are incredibly touching moments in the book, mostly to do with the deaths of former cast members such as John Belushi, Chris Farley, Michael O'Donaghue (a writer on the show) Phil Hartman, and the one death that hurt everyone involved with the show, Gilda Radner. In this passage, former boyfriend Bill Murray describes the last time he and many people from the old SNL saw Gilda alive:
Laraine had a party one night
there was a collection of like the funniest people at the party
most of us from the show, and Gilda
she was slim. We hadn't seen her in a long time. And she started doing, "I've got to go," and she was just going to leave, and I was like "Going to leave?" I felt like she was going to really leave forever.
So we started carrying her around, in a way that we could only do with her
Danny did (carried) her for a while. Then I did it again. We just kept carrying her, we did it in teams. We kept on carrying her around
just carrying her around and saying: "She's leaving! This could be it! Now come on, this could be the last time we see her
" She was laughing so hard we could have lost her right then and there. It was just one of the best parties I've ever been to in my life
it was the last time I saw her.
Copying that passage makes me teary, because I still miss Gilda Radner, plus it reminded me why I loved this book so much. For every gossipy, b**chy story, there's a sweet story like that one. For every backbiting story, there's stories of how Phil Hartman saved people in sketches, or how Lorne Michaels arranged for Chris Farley to get into rehab. For every bad celebrity story, there is how the SNL cast all came together during the crisis of Sept. 11th and the anthrax scare that swept 30 Rock where they tape the show.
Live From New York shows how people can be at their best and worst with each other, but it also shows something more: It shows that all these misfits, these people that sometimes felt like they didn't belong anywhere, suddenly find a home and family on SNL. All right, it might be a dysfunctional family, but it is a family. And Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller shows this family in all its screwiness and glory, and afterwards, you'll be glad you've met them all.