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January 01, 2003

Review: Live From New York

Once the freshest, latest thing in show business, Saturday Night Live is closing in on 30 seasons on the air. I was 7 when the Not-Ready-for-Prime-Time Players made their debut, and first became a regular viewer in the pre-Eddie Murphy lean years, but I've always loved the show.

Until the rise of Comedy Central and hundreds of cable channels, it was the only place on TV for political satire, and one of the few places for live music. Two of the three songs I can remember hearing for the first time were SNL performances.

Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live is a chronicle of the show's history, told by (most of) the people involved. I expected the book to be narrative, but it isn't: authors Tom Shales (TV critic for the Washington Post) and James Andrew Miller structured almost the entire book as a series of interview snippets about particular people, episodes, or events.

The section on John Belushi's death, for instance, includes comments from Anne Beatts, a writer; Lorne Michaels, the show's producer; Neil Levy, another writer; Robin Williams; Bernie Brillstein, Belushi's manager; Jim Belushi, Bill Murray, Bob Tischler, who wrote for the show and produced The Blues Brothers, Tom Davis, Carrie Fisher, Jane Curtin, Tim Kazurinsky, Joe Piscopo, Garrett Morris, and others.

The approach is interesting when it lets you see multiple sides of a conflict or different perspectives on a cast member, as with the extensive quotes from Norm Macdonald, Lorne Michaels, and Don Ohlmeyer, who forced Macdonald's firing midway through the 1999-2000 season.

It can be quite entertaining, as well, as we hear Joe Piscopo explain that his Sinatra impression was really a tribute, then hear from the writers who couldn't believe all the things Piscopo resisted on the grounds that "Frank wouldn't do that," including "Frank wouldn't eat in the Carnegie Deli," "Frank wouldn't wait for Stevie Wonder, Stevie would have to wait for Frank," and "Frank wouldn't jump off a building." Finally, in frustration, the writers considered a sketch called "Frank wouldn't do that."

On the other hand, there are a lot of voices left out: Eddie Murphy apparently refused to participate, and of course former cast members John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Chris Farley and Phil Hartman and writer Michael O'Donoghue are now dead.

It's usually the job of the author to provide an objective and critical eye on their sources. Here, that's mostly missing. Depending on whose quote you believe, Lorne Michaels is either the devil, a raging egomaniac, an opportunist who took advantage of the tremendous talent on the show, a gifted comedy writer, a creative genius, or all of the above.

Still, you'll learn a lot about what happens in the manic week leading up to 11:30 Saturday nights here. What the heck does the host really do? How many sketches do they prepare in a given week?

And there's a lot of SNL trivia, as well. Who was the first to say the "f-word" on SNL (I was surprised to learn it wasn't Charles Rocket)? Who was the first (maybe still the only) musical guest to lip-synch on the show?

Live From New York also provides some interesting perspective on the show's history: When did the show shift to being a platform for recurring characters? What led to the "star turn" season with already established performers like Billy Crystal, Martin Short, and Harry Shearer?

Still, if you're looking for a history particularly of the show's first decade, I would instead recommend Saturday Night: A Backstage History of 'Saturday Night Live', by Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad. Published in 1986, it's now out of print, but it's a very entertaining read that tells the story as, well, a story.

If, on the other hand, you're curious about how the performers, writers, guests and executives behind the show look at it, Live From New York is the place to start.

I noticed that there's also a book out now by one William G. Clotworthy called Saturday Night Live: Equal Opportunity Offender. I recognized his name -- he was the NBC censor assigned to the show in its earlier years, and the book is his chronicle of the standards and practices battles with the show.

January 1, 2003 in Books, Reviews | Permalink


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I remember babysitting one night for the kid next door and watching this with Richard Pryor as the host. Understandably, every show after that was a let down.

I liked the Friday night competitor that someone (ABC?) put up against it: the musical guests were always more hip (I saw the Clash, the Jam, and King Crimson there before the comparatively stuffy SNL acknowledged them).

In the end, it became more about New York which isn't all that interesting to me.

Posted by: paul at Jan 3, 2003 1:42:56 PM