Live From New York by Tom Shales (2002)

In the mid-1970s, Johnny Carson was the undisputed king of late night television. Carson’s Tonight Show was airing five nights a week, with reruns and highlights running Saturday nights. Desiring a break, Carson requested that his reruns not be run on the weekends but rather during the week, allowing him a few weeknights off. Desperate to fill the popular Saturday night time slot, NBC executives turned to Lorne Michaels, asking him to produce a 90-minute live comedy show. The rest, as they say, is history. Live From New York is the complete story of Saturday Night Live, from inception to the present day, as told by the people who lived it.

Like many others, I don’t remember life before Saturday Night Live. I was just two years old when the show debuted in October of 1975, and I’ve spent many, many Saturday nights since then watching and laughing along with the show.

Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller’s Live from New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live is more than a simple history lesson; it’s the complete story of Saturday Night Live as told by those involved in the show itself. Writers, producers, performers and even several of the show’s hosts share their tales with the authors, who then wove them together to present a pretty complete and encompassing view of both the shows origin and evolution. If you have ever wondered just what it takes to put ninety minutes of live comedy on every week for thirty years, this is the book for you.

Shales and Miller leave the story telling to the people who were there. The contributors’ stories have been broken up into small chunks, so you’ll hear each story from several different peoples points of view one paragraph at a time. For example, when you read the tale of Nora Dunn walking off the set in a protest against guest host Andrew Dice Clay, you’ll hear the story from Dunn, Clay, Lorne Michaels, and several other cast members as well.

Live From New York contains a lot of grit. Not only did it take a lot of blood, sweat and tears to launch the program, it also took a lot of booze, pot, and cocaine. As you make your way through the cast’s sordid tales, you’ll read about John Belushi busting into a room and snorting all of Al Franken’s cocaine, Lorraine Newman’s heroin addiction, and Chris Farley’s infamous tales of self-destruction. The book also covers the deaths of several cast members, including Belushi, Farley, character-comedian Phil Hartman and the brilliant Gilda Radner.

With such a wide range of personalities, clashes were inevitable. You’ll read about who was mean to Victoria Jackson, what made Eddie Murphy so mad that he refuses to talk about the show or participate in SNL reunions even to this day, why Norm McDonald was fired, why Jane Curtain didn’t hang out with the crew, why Janeane Garafalo thought the show was sexist, who got along with Lorne, who didn’t, and who thought Chevy Chase was a jerk (which turns out to be everybody ever involved with the show).

Compared to the cast from the show’s first two decades, the newer comics seem squeaky clean. Long gone are the days of snorting coke and backstage fistfights. Recent performers such as Will Farrell, Tina Fey and Chris Kattan pretty much just share stories of how great everybody is and what a great place it is to work. Let’s wait and see what they’re saying about the show a decade from now.

Despite interweaving hundreds of stories, the authors never lose site of the true subject of the book, the show itself. Despite rotating producers, writers and cast members, the show has trudged on for thirty years. The show has seen some highs and a lot of lows, the reasons for which (as well as a lot of finger pointing) are included as well. Because the book’s subject is the show, many specific events (like Phil Hartman’s death, for example) don’t get much individual attention. A few people mention it, its discussed, and the book moves on. If the book has a downside, its that there isn’t much analysis of the stories or events presented. People often present differing opinions and versions of stories throughout the book. Its up to the reader to sift through the material and come to his or her own conclusions.

Live From New York is the perfect book for those who love listening to DVD commentary tracks or who have dreamed of being a fly on the wall, peeking in to the secret world behind Saturday Night Live. After reading this book, you’ll never look at the show the same way again.

Comments are closed.