By Tom Shales
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When first published to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Saturday Night Live, Live from New York was immediately proclaimed the best book ever produced on the landmark and legendary late-night show. In their own words, unfiltered and uncensored, a dazzling galaxy of trail-blazing talents recalled three turbulent decades of on-camera antics and off-camera escapades.
Now decades have passed, and bestselling authors James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales have returned to Studio 8H. Over more than 100 pages of new material, they raucously and revealingly take the SNL story up to the present, adding a constellation of iconic new stars, surprises, and controversies.
Copyright © 2002 by Thomas W. Shales and Jimmy the Writer, Inc.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.
Little, Brown and Company
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The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to realpersons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
First eBook Edition: November 2008
ALSO BY TOM SHALES
On the Air
Legends: Remembering America's Greatest Stars
ALSO BY JAMES ANDREW MILLER
Running in Place: Inside the Senate
From the beginning Saturday Night Live has been a showcase for cutting-edge music as well as cutting-edge comedy. To keep this book at manageable length, the authors concentrated on the comedy. All the music and great musicians may one day get a book of their own. Godspeed.
If some of the tales told herein have the ring of familiarity, so be it. Much about Saturday Night Live, especially its early years, has passed into legend. While not every story can be called previously unpublished, many are being told for the first time in the words and voices of the actual participants. Certain key figures in the show's history who did not speak on the record to other chroniclers did speak to us, and to them we are especially indebted.
Edie Baskin, Mary Ellen Matthews, and Norman Ng, along with Amber Noland, Aisha Aeyers, and Hillary Ripps, made it possible to include a splendid collection of photographs. Bob Peck of Reelin' in the Years made an important contribution to the paperback edition.
We also wish to express our heartfelt thanks to Brooke Posch, Jennifer Guinier, and Lyle Jackson in Lorne Michaels's office. No matter how crazed their days, they always made time to be of help. We adore them.
Sean Smith, John Maynard, Harriet Schnitzer, Peter Rose, and Jenna Singer labored tirelessly on transcripts and interview logistics. Liz Nagle and Peggy Leith Anderson, at Little, Brown, graciously helped navigate the production labyrinth. Heather Fain and Marlena Bittner, publicists without peer, woke the town and told the people with vigor and flair.
Our brilliant editor, Geoff Shandler, was an enthusiastic and invaluable voice.
Sloan Harris, our agent and hero, fought the good fights and never gave up — on the book or us. It was a privilege and pleasure to work with him.
Finally, the beautiful Jackie Miller gave her grateful husband unconditional love, and his friend and colleague unconditional support.
— JAMES ANDREW MILLER, TOM SHALES
Like all show business successes, Saturday Night Live had many fathers. Several mothers too. There is still, so many years after the birth, disagreement over who the real father is. The show had a gestation period of more than a year, during which the concept took various forms, none identical to that of the show we know today. Adjustments and refinements continued after the premiere. Whatever the evolutionary variations in structure and format, however, Saturday Night Live was from the beginning a lone pioneer staking out virgin territory and finding its way in the night, its creative team determined to make it television's antidote to television, to all the bad things — corrupt, artificial, plastic, facile — that TV entertainment had become.
CBS still ruled the ratings in the mid-1970s, but executives at RCA, which owned NBC, had high hopes for the network's aggressive and competitive new president, Herbert Schlosser, a onetime Wall Street lawyer who took over in 1974. He was anxious to make his mark on television history. And he would.
ROSIE SHUSTER, Writer:
Lorne Michaels arrived in my life before puberty, let's put it that way. I swear to God. There was not a pubic hair in sight when he arrived on my doorstep. We were living in Toronto in the same neighborhood. I was with my girlfriend. We were jumping on boards, just letting go — we were just wild prepubescent kids, and Lorne observed me from the sidelines. And I guess he was struck by my mojo, or whatever, and he basically started following me around. We were inseparable after that.
HOWARD SHORE, Music Director:
As kids, Lorne and I went to a coed summer camp in Canada. And that was really the beginning of our friendship. I was thirteen and Lorne must have been about fifteen. Rosie Shuster was there, too. We did shows you do at summer camp, like Guys and Dolls, The Fantasticks, things like that. And on Saturday nights, we did "The Fast Show," a show Lorne and I put together quickly — hence the title. We did comedy, we did sketches, we had kind of a repertory company and some musicians. If you think about it, it was truly the beginning of Saturday Night Live, because it was a show we put on every Saturday night, and it was a live show, and it was somewhat improvisational, with comedy and music. We always had a bunch of people around us who were writers and actors even at that age. And that kind of progressed from summer camp to other things that Lorne and I wrote together.
My dad really mentored Lorne in terms of comedy. Lorne had a partner and did radio shows just like my dad had done, and then did CBC specials just like my dad had done. I saw the whole thing unfold, and felt like Saturday Night Live was so much a part of something that grew from my home. Something about the show came from inside my family.
Lorne visited my dad inside his little showbiz pup tent where he shared his wild enthusiasms. Lorne was a very avid, eager sponge for all of it; he heard all of the names of everybody backstage at the Ed Sullivan Show, and all the ins and outs of the movies. My dad grew up watching the Marx Brothers and Chaplin. He was just spellbound by all of that, and he shared that love with me and with Lorne.
ORNE MICHAELS, Executive Producer:
I grew up in Canada, where we had all three American networks and later a Canadian network. So I was watching CBS and ABC when I was eight or nine, and grew up on the same television that everybody else grew up with. I saw the same kind of movies, but my grandparents owned a movie house and my mother worked in it and my uncle had been a projectionist — the Playhouse on College Street. My mother, who died in 2001, could still play music from the silent movies, from the sheet music the movie companies sent around. My maternal grandmother, who was an enormous influence on me, and my aunts and uncles and my mother of course, all talked about movies and show business in whatever form, and books. That was all a part of my growing up. I don't think I ever thought that's what I'd be doing with my life, although when I was at my peak seriousness, at twenty-two or twenty-three, I thought I'd be a movie director.
In 1972 I had presented this pilot to the CBC. They said they were thinking about it, but the head of the CBC — whose name I am clearly blocking — said to me one afternoon when I was talking passionately about why this show would be a breakthrough show, he said, "If you're that funny, why are you here?" And I thought, "Oh my God, it's that Canadian thing of 'If you're good, you go to America.'"
SANDY WERNICK, Agent:
When I met Lorne, he was in Canada, producing and starring in The Hart and Lorne Hour with his partner, Hart Pomerantz. I remember when I met him that I didn't think he was that good. The other guy was the funny one, you know, which is typical in our industry. But I remember being impressed with the meeting. I had never met anybody who had a gift of gab like Lorne. He would just mesmerize me with what he was talking about. If you talked about comedy, all of a sudden he would just light up and turn on. I remember introducing him to Bernie because I knew that would be a marriage.
BERNIE BRILLSTEIN, Manager:
I met him when he was working on Laugh-In with his partner, who wound up going back to Canada. We were doing the Burns and Schreiber summer show with Jack Burns and Avery Schreiber, and there was a spot for a writer. Sandy Wernick from ICM told me Lorne was available. I said to bring him in to fill the last slot. And I fell in love with him. He wanted to know about old show business, and he had done a short film, The Hockey Puck Crisis, which was great: Hockey pucks grew on trees, and there was a blizzard that destroyed the crop, so they couldn't play hockey in Canada that year. Being a hockey fan and a comedy fan, I thought it was hysterical.
Bernie's a larger-than-life character. He was also an antidote, because I was deadly serious about everything I was doing in those days. Bernie had the gambler's love of the sheer larceny of it, whether it was Hee Haw or whatever, it didn't seem to matter. He knew the good stuff from the bad stuff, but it didn't stop him from dealing with either — whereas I thought if I was involved with anything bad, it would destroy my life.
I had done television shows with Lorne in Toronto and in Los Angeles. On one of Lily Tomlin's specials we did "Arresting Fat People in Beverly Hills" together. Bernie Brillstein played one of the fat people. Vertical stripes, you know, only vertical stripes. It got nominated for an Emmy.
LILY TOMLIN, Host:
Lorne was used to being a star back in Canada. We were quite close at that time. When Lorne worked with me on my specials, he would spend too much time editing and be too fanatical about everything. Jane Wagner would say, "You're going too far and you're spending too much money and the show needs to be rougher." Lorne and I would get into the editing room and get too perfectionistic, you know. I must say I think some illegal substances had something to do with it.
ROBERT KLEIN, Host:
I remember before there was any Saturday Night Live, an actually humble Lorne Michaels used to come to the office of my manager, Jack Rollins. Lorne was a kid from Canada married to Rosie Shuster, who was the daughter of Frank Shuster of Wayne and Shuster, the duo that used to be extremely unfunny on the Sullivan show years ago. Lorne was looking for some work, and Jack was very helpful to him.
TOM SCHILLER, Writer:
My father, Bob Schiller, was working on this show called The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show in 1968, and he said there was a junior writer on the show that he'd love me to meet. And I said, "Why?" And he said, "Well, he knows all of the best restaurants in L.A."
So one day Lorne comes over wearing a Hawaiian shirt. He seemed like a nice enough guy — a little nebbish, you know. What struck me though was that after my dad introduced me, Lorne lit up a joint right there in the house. I was scared — but I was impressed too, that he had the boldness to do that. We sort of became friends and I started hanging out with him at the Chateau Marmont.
DICK EBERSOL, NBC Executive:
In the spring of 1974, I was approached by NBC to come over there and essentially run their sports department. At that time, I was Roone Arledge's assistant at ABC. I said no. I think they were like in shock; how could somebody who was twenty-seven turn that down? But I felt they didn't take sports seriously, that they wouldn't put real resources into it, and besides, I didn't want to compete against the best person who'd ever done it before or since: Roone.
My saying no apparently impressed Herbert Schlosser, the president of NBC. So, lo and behold, in the summer of 1974, Schlosser invited me to his place on Fire Island — along with Marvin Antonowsky, one of his programming executives — and essentially laid out the whole thing: how Johnny Carson had given them fair warning that he did not want weekend repeats of The Tonight Show to exist after the summer of 1975. They had begun to order up some specials. One had Burt Reynolds sort of hosting. It was talky and had some comedy bits. Herb said he was very much interested in finding some regular stuff for that time period. I was intrigued, even though I had no background whatsoever in late night. I'd been a sports kid since I dropped out of Yale to work for Roone in 1967.
I told Roone I was leaving the same morning Nixon resigned. I had a whole deal to come over to NBC as head of weekend late-night programming. I had one year to come up with a show to go into that time period, and if the show was creatively sound, I had Herb's word it would get at least six months on the air.
I thought I'd negotiated every possible thing to protect myself, but I had neglected to ask for a secretary. So when I arrived at NBC, the biggest bureaucracy of the western world, I didn't get a secretary for three months. I was answering my own phones and my office was a mess.
HERBERT SCHLOSSER, NBC President:
I had played a role in hiring Ebersol. I can remember when I interviewed him, it was out on Fire Island on a weekend, and he was wearing a pair of pants where one leg was one color and the other leg was another color. Which I guess is what you wore in Connecticut.
Johnny Carson was the biggest star NBC had, unchallengeable in his time period. It wasn't like Leno and Letterman fighting each other now. Johnny was very, very important to the network, and we were getting emanations that he was not pleased about the weekend repeats of his show. They'd been on for ten years, and we ourselves weren't that thrilled, but it had been an easy thing for us to do — just put 'em on.
So I thought we should try something new.
FRED SILVERMAN, NBC President:
When Herb looks back on his days at NBC, he's the only guy that had worse days than I did. He really doesn't have much of a positive nature to look back at. So I can see where he would remember the beginnings of the show so well. Saturday Night Live was a big deal for him. It was Herb's biggest endeavor.
GRANT A. TINKER, Former NBC Chairman:
I think Herb Schlosser gets credit for letting Saturday Night Live happen, or even causing it to happen for all I know, and I think that's particularly important because Herb is such a tight-ass guy. And the fact that it started on his watch says a lot.
I'm not sure if it would have started on mine.
I give Herb credit because he's the one who would take the heat when there was heat from the RCA directors or whatever. Those were very straight guys, in the old-fashioned sense of the word, on the fifty-third floor where RCA had its offices. There wasn't a laugh in a carload up there.
I spent September and October of 1974 roaming the West Coast, Canada, Chicago, and New York, looking for comics and comedy producers. I came to the conclusion rather quickly that the only way this show would work would be if the young embraced it — if it was a show for a younger audience. Johnny was the most brilliant person in the world but his show wasn't for teenagers.
One piece of talent I thought would give us credibility was Richard Pryor. We had these meetings with Richard, and they went fairly well. He finally agreed to a deal. After that, Lily Tomlin agreed to fall in. So did George Carlin. Someone was trying to sell me Steve Martin and Linda Ronstadt as a twosome.
While all this was going on, Sandy Wernick at ICM, who had Lorne as a client, set up a meeting for us in L.A. I didn't know Lorne but discovered he had substantial credits in specials and that he'd been involved in Laugh-In. Lorne pitched an idea based on Kentucky Fried Theater. I decided right away that it wasn't for me. I just didn't really dig it. But Lorne and I hit it off. Meantime, I'm buying up a lot of talent.
Just after Christmas of 1974 I get a phone call from a manager-lawyer in Atlanta, now dead, who says that he represents Richard Pryor and has convinced Richard that television is a disaster and whatever career he has, he'll never be able to do what he does well on over-the-air television. He could not be himself. So the deal was off. I came back right after the first of January and told Schlosser that Pryor was out. Some day subsequent to that he wrote me a memo and said, "Why don't you bring the show back to New York and even think about doing it in old Studio 8H?" So that part was his idea: "Use 8H."
Then I got hold of Lorne, the closest contemporary to me I'd met in this whole process. He did not have an idea at this point. We goof now about the number of people who've talked about how "the idea" was "sold to NBC." No idea was sold to NBC. I adore Bernie Brillstein, but anything in his book about selling an idea, it never happened. Get the lie detectors out; ask Lorne. It's all bullshit. What did happen was that Lorne just took my breath away in the way he talked about things, how he wanted to have the first television show to speak the language of the time. He wanted the show to be the first show in the history of television to talk — absent expletives — the same language being talked on college campuses and streets and everywhere else. And I was very taken with that, among other things.
So I told NBC there were two people I wanted to do the show, which would be a live comedy show from New York: I wanted this guy Lorne Michaels to produce it, and I wanted a guy named Don Ohlmeyer to direct it.
You know that at one point NBC suggested Rich Little as the host? I swear to God. We had a meeting with a guy named Larry White. He was head of NBC programming. And we went to see him with the first real pitch of Saturday Night Live ever. Lorne told him what he wanted to do, and Larry White said, "That's the worst idea I've ever heard in my life."
The night Lorne picked me up at the Beverly Hills Hotel to go see Kentucky Fried Theater — he never said a word about being married — there was this really, really gorgeous dish who got out of the front seat and into the backseat. So we all went to this play, and Lorne and I sat together and this girl sat next to me. And they had introduced her as "Sue Denim," because Rosie loved having these various names. And we finally got back to the Beverly Hills Hotel, and I'm thinking, "This girl is really a knockout and smart as hell, maybe I ought to ask her out." Because I wasn't anywhere near married in those days. And at some point, when we walked into the hotel to have a drink, it came out that she and Lorne were married, though they weren't living together at that time. But I know they pulled the wool over my eyes for at least three hours.
Dick thought that I was procured for his delight or something. There was a little fuzziness around my introduction.
MARILYN SUZANNE MILLER, Writer:
Other than Herb Sargent, I was the television veteran of Saturday Night Live, which is to say I had worked in TV for two and a half or three years, and I had started on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, having had the sort of Lana Turner-ish Schwab's discovery made of me by Jim Brooks, aided and abetted by Garry Marshall. So I was writing Mary Tyler Moore and Rhoda at twenty-two, and I was on the staff of The Odd Couple.
I met Michael O'Donoghue and Anne Beatts through a friend when I was doing Rhoda and living in New York. When Lorne was putting the show together and asked me to be a part of it, I had an overactive thyroid and was living with this guy I really wanted to be with. So I told Lorne, "I can't do the show because I want to get married, but you've got to hire this guy O'Donoghue, because he's brilliant." Lorne of course had his own access to the Second City people and already knew Chevy, which had nothing to do with Michael. So thanks to me, Michael O'Donoghue got hired.
ANNE BEATTS, Writer:
I was living a very sort of style-based existence with Michael O'Donoghue, which was severely crimped by the fact that he'd quit the Lampoon and we were completely broke. Michael was rather laid low by the whole experience. At one point I had achieved this thing where we had a gig doing restaurant reviews for the Village Voice — every reporter's dream, right? And free meals. And it was Christmas-time and Michael and I cowrote a review of Luchow's, this restaurant where Diamond Jim Brady had gone to romance Lillian Russell. It was very Christmassy because it had a giant Christmas tree in the middle of it. Anyway, Michael insisted on putting some reference to Hiroshima and the Nazis into the review. The Village Voice did not go for this, especially in a restaurant review. Michael quit in a huff and we lost the gig. And I was like, "Oh, no." We were at the bail-out point when Lorne showed up and offered first Michael and then me jobs on Saturday Night Live. And I turned it down because I had sold a book: Titters, the first collection of humor by women. I said, "I can't do this stupid television show." And then a friend of mine was like, "Are you crazy? You have to do it." And thank goodness I did. So then Michael and I were working on it together.
NBC set up a meeting for eight o'clock in the morning. And Lorne said, "Dick, eight o'clock?!? You know I can't function at that hour." I said, "Lorne, it's breakfast. We've got to do it."
Lorne said, "I can't get up." I said, "Lorne, this is the one time I'll call you and get you up."
So he came to this breakfast, I don't know if he'd even been to bed, and he's sitting with these two guys who, despite whatever nice things they did for me, I have to give the title of "stiffs." They're basically asking if Connie Stevens is going to do the show. Lorne goes into his best BS. When it's over they say, "Well, he's awfully young. But okay — you can have him." The next morning I bring in Ohlmeyer, who's more akin to their world, and they liked him very much. But Roone would not let Don out of his contract at ABC, and it would be almost two years before NBC got Don away from them.
I wanted to do the show live if possible, and I wanted to do it in New York City, because New York had lost all of its entertainment shows. Everything had moved to Burbank. Even Carson had moved to Burbank. Which left a void in 30 Rock. I originally thought it should be two hours and so forth. But the research department was very conservative. Nobody seemed to be enthusiastic at the meeting.
Now I'd had an experience with the Tomorrow show, which I didn't want to repeat. I had wanted to put it on, and we went through the procedure as you should of having a financial analysis and a research analysis and so forth, but I never could get an answer from my own network people.
So I was talking to Julian Goodman, who was the chairman of NBC, about my frustration with my ideas for Saturday night, and he said to me, "You should just call Les Brown" — the reporter from Variety. "Have lunch with him and just tell him you're putting the show on." So I did. And it was in Variety a couple days later. Sure enough, the wheels started moving more rapidly.
I would go to the Chateau Marmont, where Lorne lived, and basically for nine or ten days, between going out to dinner and all this stuff, we worked out a loose thing of what this show is going to be. It's going to be a repertory company of seven, and a writing staff and fake commercials and all that.
About this time, Lorne invited me to his birthday party — his thirtieth, I think — the only party ever held in the lobby of the Chateau Marmont, where they all used to stay. So the party supposedly starts at nine. I was the old man of the group, so I arrive at nine-thirty. And there's not a soul there. Not one. And finally Lorne comes down in slacks and pajama tops, just waking up or something. He said people would be there in a while. This is so Lorne. And about eleven o'clock, here's who walks in: Richard Pryor, Lily Tomlin, George Carlin — the entire underground of Hollywood comedy. And that's when I knew Lorne was a real somebody.
NEIL LEVY, Production Assistant:
Lorne's a cousin of mine, and he had brought Paul Simon up to a cottage where I was staying. I didn't actually know who he really was. That's what an idiot I was. I asked him if he was from Simon and Garfunkel. He said, "Yeah, used to be." They had broken up four years earlier, I didn't even know. I did some magic tricks for Paul Simon. I think that impressed Lorne. After that he took me down on the dock and asked me if I wanted to be his assistant on this new show. Oh man, I think my bag was already packed. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. I was nineteen when I first came on the show — the youngest person on the staff. I just watched the whole thing come together with all these famous people slowly gravitating toward the show.
I slept on Lorne's couch for a couple of weeks, long before the show ever started, and one day I came in and Mick Jagger was sitting there — in Lorne's apartment, on the couch. I don't know how Lorne knew Mick Jagger, because at that point he wasn't even "Lorne Michaels." But people were drawn to him.
Some time had passed between when I met Lorne and the formation of this show. Next thing I know, I was immediately sought out as the host. Lorne came down to see me with Chevy Chase, who'd been in Lemmings, and checked me out at the Bitter End on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village. And I remember Lorne suggesting — he was no longer humble — that I should be more "vulnerable" in my act. He said this not directly to me, but through my manager, Jack Rollins. Anyway, it was definitely agreed that I had too big a reputation already to be, quote, "one of the kids," but that I should host the show.
ALBERT BROOKS, Filmmaker:
Here's how Saturday Night Live came about. I was doing clubs and performing a lot, and Lorne used to come a lot to the shows. I knew that he was a fan. And something was brewing. They decided, I think around September of 1974, that they were, in fact, going to open up eleven-thirty on Saturday. I was first approached in the late fall, early winter of 1974. I was sort of asked by Dick Ebersol if I wanted to have a show — be the permanent host every week. Lorne Michaels was around. I mean, you know, it was both of them. I think I met with Ebersol alone, and Lorne alone, and then both of them together. But that was the first time I heard, "Do you want to host your own show?" And I actually had just done a short film. I wrote this article in1971 for Esquire: "The Famous School for Comedians." PBS had that Great American Dream Machine, which was a show of short films, so I made the "Famous School for Comedians" into like a fake infomercial, and it was hugely successful. The PBS stations ran it during pledge drives, and it just turned out to be a great experience for me. So this is what I wanted to do. But in any case, I knew I didn't want to do television, and I told that to Ebersol and Michaels.
- "Constantly entertaining....It's revealing, it's funny, it's mesmerizing." ---Entertainment Weekly
- "A guilty pleasure of the highest order....Live From New York shines." ---Lev Grossman, Time
- "A sharp-clawed, incisive account of how nearly three decades' worth of comic talent has emerged from a single television show." ---Janet Maslin, New York Times
- "Tremendous fun." ---Rob Walker, Newsday
- "A patchwork of backbiting, humor, intelligence, backbiting, gossip, backbiting, and backbiting." ---Newsweek
- "Refreshing....Shales and Miller paint a detailed landscape portrait of what has become an American cultural icon, one that will guide any attentive reader to a fuller understanding of comedy, TV, and the culture itself." ---Steve Johnson, Chicago Tribune
- On Sale
- Oct 6, 2015
- Page Count
- 800 pages
- Back Bay Books