Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Live from New York! It's Saturday Night!

Reviewed by Christy Herndon

Being a Saturday Night Live fan can be rough. Generally, whenever someone discovers I’m a fan I am bombarded with statements like “That show is just not as funny as it used to be”, “[This cast] was so much better”, and “It was just better in the [‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s, etc].” And on and on and on. People have been saying basically the same thing ever since the second season so I have given up trying to defend it. The truth is the show has always been hit and miss. Even in the early seasons not every sketch was brilliantly hysterical (this seems like an impossible feat to achieve anyway). But that didn’t hamper the show from becoming a pop culture phenomenon for over 35 years.

In Live from New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live authors Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller take on the large task of interviewing the stars, writers, producers, and even hosts of the late night sketch show. The result is a thick volume of dishy oral history. Reading this book was like engaging in some really good gossip with your best girlfriends - if they happened to work for a wildly successful television program on NBC. That’s not a negative criticism; it makes for an interesting and fairly quick read despite its 600+ pages. But it’s important to remember that as the reader, you are getting the facts third hand through the interviewer, who gets them second hand through the interviewee. Not to mention some of the stories that they are relaying happened over 30 years ago. But while a few of the specifics may be off I have no trouble in believing a lot of what’s revealed. A few stand out things that I learned from the book:

•    Chris Farley, although deeply troubled, was revered as a sweet man who would do anything to make someone laugh.

•    John Belushi did not think women could be funny and would refuse to even properly read through a sketch during rehearsal if he knew a woman had written it. (As a big fan of his, this part was a bummer to read.)

•    Chevy Chase was (and by all accounts still is) a jerk, cutting down those he felt beneath him with scathing remarks for no other reason than just because he could.

•    Previously neutral about Jane Curtin, after reading this book I have a whole new respect for her. She didn’t let anyone walk all over her and frequently called out people’s sexism. In fact, all of the original SNL ladies (performers as well as writers) deserve respect simply for being successful, comedic women in the 1970s.

•    Chris Parnell, an underrated cast member, was fired from SNL only to be re-hired mid-season at the urging of fellow cast member Will Ferrell.

Those are just a few of the bite sized tidbits sprinkled throughout the book.

While some cast members did not enjoy, or even hated, their time on the show, many agreed that it was a whirlwind of exuberant joy and terrifying stress. (Years after they left SNL, some writers still experience panic attacks on Tuesday nights - the show’s designated “writing night”). Some even called the show both the most wonderful and horrible experience of their lives. That fluctuation mirrors the show’s popularity with viewers as well. But to paraphrase one writer, if someone likes every single sketch then the show’s doing something wrong. That’s true for Live from New York as well. You certainly won’t like every story that’s shared or maybe the people sharing them, but if you’re an SNL fan you’ll love it nonetheless.

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