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Saturday Night Fever

  Live from New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live
Tom Shales, James Andrew Miller
Little, Brown & Company, 2002
Rating: 3.7
 

Posted: November 1, 2002

By Kevin Forest Moreau

Let's just get this out of the way right up front: Saturday Night Live sucks, Saturday Night Live is great, it hasn't been as good since so-and-so left the show, the original cast was lightning in a bottle, it was overrated, every cast since has been but a pale imitation, the show's saving grace is that it's been able to reinvent itself time and time again.

It's a measure of the enduring cultural significance and impact of Saturday Night Live that the above statements are all both completely subjective and absolutely correct. It's another measure of that ongoing relevance that each bouquet and brickbat listed above has been leveled against the long-running comedy staple many times over during the past 27 years, often with polarizing results. Even if you've never watched since what's-his-name left last year, or in the early '90s, or in 1980, SNL has always been there, as reliable as death and taxes, sometimes in your face, sometimes a wallflower at the back of the room that gave you a jolt of surprise when you realized it was still around.

So, for better or worse, SNL has earned a place in television history, and by virtue of that fact it has also earned a thoughtful, comprehensive book that examines evenhandedly examines its pop-cultural importance, detailing both its unlikely genesis and its equally unlikely (if not moreso) evolution over more than a quarter of a century.

So let's get something else out of the way right here and now: Live From New York, an impressively extensive oral history compiled by Washington Post television critic Tom Shales and journalist James Andrew Miller, is not that book. Far from it. Oh, yes, it does detail, with you-were-there precision and refreshing candor, the show's creation and the right-place, right-time factors that contributed to its resounding success and its contribution to the zeitgeist. And it does so with an unending stream of anecdotes, contradictory accounts, bitter broadsides and just-the-facts reflections from many of the show's performers, writers, producers and hosts.

But just as the show fizzled out once all remnants of its mercurial original cast (John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, Chevy Chase, Jane Curtin, Laraine Newman and Garrett Morris) were gone, so too does Live From New York falter once it clears the hurdle of documenting the show's initial rise and fall. And also like the show itself, Live From New York gives plenty of warning ahead of time: The tone of the co-authors' text, in the brief scene-setting bridges that occasionally break up the flow of remembrances, can only be charitably described as fawning. This crucial lack of journalistic distance between subject and writers -- not so surprising when one learns that the book was apparently the brainchild of SNL creator, executive producer and figurehead Lorne Michaels -- proves an alarming, if minor, irritant in the early going. But as the years and eras the book chronicles roll on, this relentless cheerleading only increases.

In fact, the book's chief flaw is that it never steps back to examine this stance, never dares to broach the idea that in a very real sense, SNL lost its manic edge with the departure of that original cast. Instead, Shales and Miller simply posit that since the show has lasted, reinventing itself again and again as a slightly edgy member of the sketch-comedy establishment, it is therefore important. This circular logic is true, as far as it goes. But the authors fail, for the most part, to acknowledge the fact that the show, even as it pushes the boundaries of comedic taste in the present day, is simply tamer than it was in 1977. Much less ask or explain why, except to air recurring observations on the parts of different principals that the show has gradually mutated into a performer-and-character-driven program as opposed to a writer-and-idea-driven one.

To be fair, that issue may not be particularly important to many readers, and the argument that the show is tamer now is somewhat flawed. After all, many modern day sketches and concepts would gain nothing extra if they'd been performed by Belushi or Murray, and some of the show's latter-day comedy -- such as a sketch in which a parental couple pre-chews their children's food before regurgitating it into the kids' waiting mouths -- would have been if anything less funny or effective if performed by the earlier cast. It's all relative to the personalities and the times -- what would have seemed desperate or too much in 1975, for example, is perfectly acceptable today.

But Live From New York fails to ask a great many other questions as well. How did Lorne Michaels evolve into the distant father-figure of today, and how does he come to routinely dine with rock royalty like Mick Jagger, Paul Simon or Paul McCartney? Why does he continue to foster an atmosphere of desperate, cut-throat competition between performers and writers? Why did Will Ferrell get a parade of reverent send-offs from the current cast on his final show earlier this year, when no other departing cast member has ever been so acknowledged? Why did certain key figures -- Eddie Murphy and Dennis Miller primary among them -- refuse to be interviewed for the book? The begged questions are legion. As are unexplained references to certain people or circumstances which bog down the ongoing narrative with nagging questions: Chevy Chase's departure from the show was more thoroughly explained on the E! channel's Behind the Scenes documentary; past host Carrie Fisher often refers offhandedly to a "Paul," and if the reader isn't already aware, or able to infer on his or her own, that she's talking about Paul Simon, well, then, too bad.

But for all its flaws, Live From New York is nonetheless a fascinating read. The authors did extensive research and conducted countless interviews, and have managed to construct a unique look at a television institution in an inspired format -- even if certain passages come from out of nowhere, with no established context, in an arbitrary and jarring fashion. And the vicarious thrill of reading gossipy tidbits about certain hosts or performers or writers, if a bit tawdry, proves an irresistible and compelling lure. Still, one closes its covers wishing that Shales and Miller had dared to produce more than an exhaustively compiled puff piece, that they'd opted instead to write a book less slavish in its devotion and more prone to ask tough questions.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterwork
 4.0-4.9: Great read
 3.0-3.9: Well done
 2.0-2.9: Ordinary
 1.1-1.9: Sub par
 0.0-1.0: Horrendous

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