on September 26, 2002
This book feels like a reunion of old friends, telling their stories at a dinner party that you are fortunate ewnough to overhear.
There is so much history in the years of SNL that there is an anecdote for every fan, but this book recognizes Loren Michaels as being the true genius behind the creation and development of the show. He's not universally loved by the cast (but also not nearly as despised as Chevy Chase, who seems to beeveryone's favorite whipping boy), but his genius is acknowledged by one and all.
A lot of favorite skits and characters are discussed, as well as some legendary battles with censors, advertisers and network executives. The mix of radical comedy with revenue concious TV executives makes for fascinating reading.
The chapters dealing with the deaths of cast members and behind the scene staff members are incredibly poignant, especially Belushi's and Chris Farley's, bit of whom were known to be dancing with trouble.
This book also goes a long way to humanizing Chris Rock, who emerges as one of the most thoughtful and career minded members of all SNL casts. His intelligence shines through in his tales of making it by way of the show.
There is a great story on almost every page of this book, and having grown up with this show, it made the memories all the more pleasant.
This is a great Christmas present for any 30-50 year old who has spent their Saturday night in front of a TV.
on November 12, 2002
The curtain is pulled back on SNL in this book to reveal (not surprisingly) that Lorne Michaels was, is, and always will be the Wizard who always kept SNL ticking. Decades of drug use, debauchery, infighting, sleeping around, desperation, and show-biz chutzpah are related courtesy of first-hand accounts of the writers, stars, agents, TV executives, staff members, and guests of the show.
Not all comments are complimentary, and not all that went on behind the scenes was funny. But it all makes for a fascinating read, despite the fact that a few notable surviving cast members chose not to participate in these oral interviews. "Live From New York" is as much a evolutionary history of the business of television over the past three decades as it is an oral history of the show itself. Perhaps SNL isn't as consistently cutting edge and counter-culture as it was in its earliest years. But nowadays the show IS the pop and showbiz culture it lampooned in the past. It cannot ever really return to its fabled glory days of 1975-1979 because the entire showbusiness landscape has changed so dramatically since then. One must credit Michaels for recognizing that and still plodding ahead with the show for most of the years since the days of The Not Ready For Prime Time Players.
Read this book to find the origins of many of the standard conventions and favorite moments of the show: why the band always dresses in tuxedos, the inspiration of Danny Aykroyd's buttcrack-exposing refrigerator repairman, the inhuman writing schedule, etc.
This is better than an "E! True Hollywood Story" any day.
on October 4, 2002
Shales lets the cast and crew tell their stories in their own words, with minimal editorializing. It's interesting to see how different people remember the same event with skewed perspectives. A hefty, 550+ page book I could barely tear myself away from to go to sleep. Recommended.
on October 14, 2002
This book is chockful of juicy gossip and backstage dish with interviews from cover-to-cover of SNL cast, writers, producers, and hosts. Interviews with SNL insiders are offered in a linear fashion from surviving "Not Ready for Prime Time Players", writers, producers, and hosts to current cast members and staff.
This isn't the authors' take on SNL, but the history of Saturday Night Live from people who lived through it.
Tom Shales and James Miller in a smart, smart move chose to have everyone speak for themselves. And how telling it is. : ) The editors keep introductions and explanations to a minimum.
I was surprised about how candid many of the SNL stars and hosts were about themselves and the show.
If you have ever watched Saturday Night Live, you'll enjoy this book. With its insider stories,
you'll find this book hard to tear yourself out of. It's apparent that many stories of SNL players' behavior outside of 30 Rockefeller Center are not in this book, but what's there is more than enough.
So get your hands on this book-- you'll find it definitely lives up to the hype.
Whether you liked SNL in 1975 or enjoy it now, this book is an amusing romp through the history of the show. Although the years have been filled with amazing talent, it's still surprising to hear from others that it was primarily the genius of Lorne Micheals, the guy behind the scenes, that got the show going and continuing. This is stuff you DON'T see on television.
There are too many episodes of outlandish behavior to describe here, but suffice it to say there are things that went on that should have killed most shows. There's lots of gossip, of course, and many of the cast members embarrass themselves while trashing others and many that are a heck of a lot sweeter than you would think (Jane Curtin comes to mind). There is blatant talk of alleged 'racism', 'anti-feminism' (one member refused to do skits written by women) and outrageous drug use during, before and after the shows. In fact, in the beginning, it seems the show needed that edge to survive, or to survive, needed that edge.
No matter. This voluminous collection of after-thoughts is entertaining, hilarious and sometimes sad. You can decide where the true talent was, who had the biggest heart or who was the biggest jerk. This book is full of them and I highly recommend it.
on May 2, 2005
I can't say I hated the book. I kept coming back to it willingly enough, and finished it relatively quickly. My problems with it come not from the bulk of the material itself (interviews with cast, hosts, producers, directors, and writers, cut into segments organized into some rough similiarities of topic), but from what the writers have done with it.
When you have a book consisting largely of interview snippets, what you have is a cross-section of opinions. Some of those opinions may have a greater amount of concensus behind them than others. Better writers could have done real research to qualify or confirm the statements made by the interview subjects: was Doumanian's budget actually cut from the first years of the show? If so, by as much as she claims? Where did the cuts hit the most? What were the actual box office numbers of Belushi's and Murphy's movies? Have they taken later rentals and tv showings into account in saying who was more successful? Was Nora Dunn as unsuccessful after leaving the show as her resentful colleagues would like to think? (A quick look at imdb.com suggests not...)
Apart from the failure to provide factual context, the writers show their own prejudices in ways that can't help to be annoying and occasionally disturbing. The bridge and introduction segments are full of the usual kind of biography hyperbole better writers avoid. SNL "helped bestow upon the comedy elite the hip-mythic status that rock stars had long enjoyed." "An audience that expected to see fresh new Gildas, Belushis... refused to settle for the paltry replacements that initially dominated Doumanian's cast." "[Belushi's death] told his friends at Saturday Night Live not only that John was mortal, but that they were too." All arguable statements, of course, but statements better writers would have let the material say for them without lapsing into purple, melodramatic prose.
Further, there's a distracting sense that the writers have their own over-protective issues with the show. "Those who hurt show bad! Those who protect show, good!" I can't help but wonder if Jean Doumanian and Nora Dunn suffer largely from an absence of voices other than their own to present their point of view. And while Dunn might have handled walking off the infamous Andrew Dice Clay show better than she did, the authors describing Clay's act as "politically incorrect" and "antifeminist" rather than mysoginist- which it very arguably was- is telling.
The authors arrangement seems to have been written as if imagining a television show- perhaps understandable, given the choice of topic, but a poor choice for a book. When snippets of interview are presented in an arbitrary order without any knowledge of the questions that provoked those answers, one cannot help but wonder if the authors were more interested in selling a particular version than giving their readers a chance to draw their own conclusions. Again, do the authors really contribute to the material? Does this arrangement offer so much more than we could have gotten if they had just presented the whole interviews, with questions, one per chapter?
Finally, there are obvious gaps in who is and is not interviewed, and how much material they are given. Again, A.D. Clay's receiving a page and a half in his own defense is telling, though I'm sure the reader recognizes by now that the topic grated on my nerves. But more, two of the show's most notable stars- Dennis Miller and Eddie Murphy- are not interviewed at all. It is mentioned in passing that Murphy dislikes talking about the show; no mention is made of the reason for Miller's absence. A better book would acknowledge the absence and their attempts to work around it. And while I enjoyed reading Tom Hanks's segments, his contributions to a chapter devoted to a period in the show's history where not only had he yet to host, but yet to become a professional actor, are extremely questionable.
For all this, I enjoyed reading much of the book. Some of the interview material is insightful; some of the anecdotes are side-splittingly funny. I just can't help but wish the authors, Pulitzer-winners though they may be, didn't seem to be such hacks. Two stars for the writers, four for the material, average of three.
on January 3, 2003
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.
"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 more than a dozen people, including Belushi's family, friends and writers and cast members from the show.
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 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.
on October 26, 2002
An incredibly comprehensive history of SNL, from just about every single person who made it happen: the cast, the writers, guests, etc.
Whether you still love the show, hate it, or are ambivalent, this book is for you. I found it particularly nice that everyone involved, particularly the comedians, take it seriously here. No one is "on", no one tries to be funny, everyone just opens their hearts and reveal what they truly feel. I have a (new) huge amount of respect now for Bill Murray who I never thought could take ANYthing seriously - here he is incredibly serious, fortright, and reflective. His thoughts impressed me the most.
All the highs and lows are covered. Reflections on lost cast members are respectful and touching.
This is a great book.
What we have here are several hundred brief personal reminiscences and commentaries from almost everyone directly involved with Saturday Night Life over a period of almost 30 years. They are organized by Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller within each period of that television program's evolution, extending from its premiere in 1975 until last year. Throughout SNL's history, one of its most unique and challenging features is the fact that it is performed almost entirely LIVE. Except for a brief period (1981-1985), SNL's executive producer has been Lorne Michaels (born Lorne Lipowitz), a Canadian writer whose work on Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In and specials for Lily Tomlin had attracted NBC's attention. Most members of SNL's cast and crew seem to have had a love-hate relationship with Michaels but their comments about him (both positive and negative) suggest that no one else could have guided the program as well as he has throughout the years since it first appeared.
The material provides (albeit subjective) answers to questions such as these:
1. Which hosts were the most enjoyable to work with? Why?
2. Which were the most unpleasant? Why?
3. What was a normal week's work schedule? Who was involved in each stage of preparation for the next show?
4. Off-camera, what was it like to associate with John Belushi?
5. Of all the cast performers, why was Gilda Radner most loved?
6. How did Michaels deal with the NBC "suits" and especially with censors?
7. What were the biggest foul-ups prior to or during a show?
8. What do most of the cast and crew members agree are the show's greatest moments? Why?
9. What has been the best and worst aspects of being involved with SNL?
10. What is the consensus of opinion as to why SNL has continued for almost 30 years?
Of special interest to me are the professional as well as personal relationships between and among cast and crew members, including Michaels. More specifically, as I read this book, I was curious to know what impact those relationships had on the programs telecast each Saturday night. Radner, Belushi, and Phil Hartman were three of my personal favorites. Although they made no direct contributions to the reminiscences and observations assembled in this volume, all three are quoted extensively and recalled fondly by those who were closely associated with them.
Eddie Murphy offers a representative example of young people with immense but unrefined talent who are finally given the opportunity to perform. (During the 1980-81 season, one show ran short and needed several minutes of "filler" which he eagerly provided.) Almost immediately Murphy became the most popular member of the SNL cast and was featured prominently until 1984 when he began to concentrate on feature films. For reasons best revealed in this book, Murphy is probably the only SNL "star" who has since totally disassociated himself from the program.
Who will most enjoy reading this book? Those who have been regular viewers of SNL throughout much if not all of its remarkable history. I also highly recommend it to those who are especially interested in popular culture in the United States from 1975 until the end of the 20th century. I can think of no other television program which offers more and better insights into the culture of that period than does SNL. To their substantial credit, Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller allow the contributors to speak for themselves. Predictably and understandably, the value of what they have to say is determined almost entirely by each reader's degree of interest in those who have proclaimed, week after week, "Live from New York! It's Saturday Night!"
on February 4, 2003
You could probably write entire books on each individual cast member of Saturday Night Live, so trying to cram the show's entire history into just one book (even at over 500 pages) is a challenge to say the least. But the authors of Live from New York are smart enough not to try. It's constructed as a rough chronology of the show in quotable form. Credit Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller for getting stories from virtually every important living person associated with the show.
There are exceptions: talented people from the show who wouldn't have anything to do with the book, like Eddie Murphy (clearly the show's greatest cast member ever), Dennis Miller, Jim Breuer, or the immortal Denny Dillon. But otherwise, you'll find a great story on virtually every page. There's enough here to keep you occupied for a good long time: Chevy Chase living up to his reputation as a complete scumbag, a staff writer's "encounter" with Milton Berle, Chris Farley doing something very naughty out the window of 30 Rock, Joe Piscopo taking his Sinatra impression a little too far. It's all presented here in the rawest form possible, with attitudes about the show ranging from reverential (Chris Rock) to contemptuous (Jane Curtin, Janeane Garofalo). Stories seemingly repeat themselves with new casts, or they contradict other stories from different people. It's all wildly entertaining. Having the voice of Lorne Michaels as a consistent presence throughout the book helps keep it all cohesive, with his own love-hate relationships rightly taking over as the dominant theme. You'll have an opinion of your own on Michaels once you've finished.
There are some flaws here. The tone from the authors (one of whom, Shales, is a TV critic) is too reverential. Okay, SNL changed TV. We get it already. We quickly learn that fact is almost more atrributable to the show's indestructible format than a product of the show's humor. SNL, after all, is usually only sporadically funny. What the authors and subjects illustrate well is that when the show has moments that ARE funny, they become immortal in the world of comedy. And that is absolutely incredible. There is no other show like SNL, for better or for worse, this book says. It's right. No show lives off its own legend of both comedy and excess like SNL. If the show seems a little staid these days, it still has the ability to make you watch, if only in the hope that you'll see something that will become the stuff of legend. SNL is a show that lives off the hope of laughter, and every subject in Live from New York points that out either directly or indirectly. It's amazing to think that one show, with so many people involved, can have the same effect on everyone.
Now, if they could just stop putting Maya Rudolph in every sketch...