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.
Table of Contents
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Preface to the 2015 Edition
It's highly doubtful that anyone associated with the premiere of Saturday Night Live in 1975 imagined that the show would still be around ten, fifteen, or twenty-five years later. Some of those present at the creation, however, were definitely still around on February 15, 2015, and they, along with dozens of other alumni from TV's longest-running comedy show, returned to Studio 8H to celebrate its epochal fortieth anniversary.
The special, which spanned more than three and a half hours of prime time on NBC, truly had something for everybody who'd ever loved or even liked the program, and it also, true to form, had something for everybody to bitch about. Lorne Michaels, the show's creator and its producer for all but five of those forty years, was determined to invite everybody associated with SNL in any significant way to attend the TV special and a splashy after-gala, and he gave orders to the producers and writers of the special to include as many celebrated or notorious highlights from four decades of SNL as possible.
Blocks of memory-stirring moments were interlaced with new versions of SNL classics, all of them combined in an astonishing whirlwind ride—one that demonstrated how SNL could sail through myriad changes in American trends, fads, fashions, attitudes, institutions, social realities, political movements, and technology and manage to remain young, even as the rest of us grew older. The show had begun, actor Robert De Niro noted, "back when TV was still watched on TV," when if you missed the show on Saturday night, then you missed the show.
The special was divided loosely into thematic blocks ("Forty Years of Politics on SNL," hosted by Jack Nicholson; "Forty Years of Sports on SNL," hosted by Derek Jeter and Peyton Manning) and even included a new rap song, by Andy Samberg and Adam Sandler, to accompany a montage of "breaks"—times when actors broke up laughing.
In reviewing the special, Internet writers and bloggers and social-media practitioners dubbed it "uneven," a charge that the series has faced since its inception. The show was always bound to be uneven, partly because it envelops and displays so many different kinds of comedy, intermingling political satire with shameless slapstick and ribald or just plain dirty farce.
On the fortieth anniversary show, the clips whizzed by with once-familiar sayings and catchphrases popping back into the collective consciousness…
"I would like to feed your fingertips to the wolverines."—Michael O'Donoghue to John Belushi, and vice versa, from the first episode ever aired
"Guess what: I've got a fever. And the only prescription is more cowbell."—Christopher Walken, as the Bruce Dickinson, to Will Ferrell, Jimmy Fallon, and others in a classic sketch from April 2000
"Wow! That's good bass!"—Laraine Newman to Dan Aykroyd in a reenactment of Aykroyd's Bass-O-Matic commercial spoof from the first season
"Remember when you were with the Beatles?… That was awesome."—Chris Farley, as an inept but lovable interviewer, to Paul McCartney in February 1993
"I can see Russia from my house!"—Tina Fey as vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin in 2008
"It was my understanding that there would be no math."—Chevy Chase as Gerald R. Ford in a presidential debate from the first season
"I can't believe I'm losing to this guy."—Jon Lovitz as Michael Dukakis in response to a burst of gibberish from Dana Carvey as George Bush, in a presidential debate from 1988
"Well, it got a big laugh—but did it get the right laugh?"—Mike Myers as Lorne Michaels in a "Wayne's World" reunion (with Dana Carvey) written for the fortieth anniversary special
And, yes, Generalissimo Francisco Franco was "still dead," as Chevy Chase had regularly reported in the first season of "Weekend Update" mock-newscasts, back when the cast was known as the Not Ready for Prime Time Players.
"There they are—all my friends," said John Belushi, made up to look like the old man he would never live to be and pointing to headstones on a cemetery hill in Tom Schiller's poignant 1977 short film Don't Look Back in Anger. All his old cohorts from SNL had preceded him in death, Belushi said, scoffing at suspicions that he would be the first to go.
Even SNL detractors would have to admit that the range represented on the special verged on awe-inspiring; it was that breadth of scope and style that helped explain the forty-year run in the first place. That, and the fact that the show perpetually replenished itself onstage and in the writer's room, launching the careers of many an extraordinary performer in the process.
The assembled glitterati watching the special in Studio 8H represented a cross section of the pop-culture elite, just as the performers constituted a remarkable roll call of comedy royalty. They came together to honor a program that had started in the minor tributaries of television and soon became a torrent in the mainstream.
Among those seated in the audience that February night was Al Franken, once a Peck's Bad Boy of television on SNL, now grown up with a vengeance. As a writer and performer, he had maliciously insulted network president Fred Silverman in a sketch for a 1979 episode of the show, and now he was serving his second term as a U.S. senator from Minnesota. How things change.
Bill Murray, as lounge singer Nick Ocean, sang new and gratuitous lyrics to the theme from Jaws, with Paul Shaffer at the piano ("Jaws! You took me and made me part of you… you bastard, Jaws"). Eddie Murphy, who'd refused to take part in the show's twenty-fifth anniversary, made a noncomic appearance to say that all was forgiven and that "I will always love this show" (though he refused to do an impression of scandalized Bill Cosby). Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin paid tribute to Tracy Morgan, former cast member suffering through a long recuperation following a traffic accident. And, in a selection of clips, viewers saw the ancient auditions of performers who did make the cast and a few—Jim Carrey, Kevin Hart—who didn't.
"I'm just glad it's over" was one of Michaels's comments a few days after the complex, spectacular, exhaustive, and exhausting show had aired. He was saluted at various points in the program, lampooned at others, and was called up onto the very crowded stage for good nights. And it was clear, however much he and the show he created have tried to avoid sentimentality over the decades, that even Michaels was fighting back tears.
Afterward, at the Plaza Hotel, worlds collided in a way that only Michaels could probably engineer. With all due respect to Vanity Fair's fabled Oscar bashes, no one else could have summoned the array of musicians, comedians, actors, politicians, and corporate big shots that Michaels brought together that night. Music was in the center ring, starting with Dan Aykroyd summoning onstage the likes of Paul McCartney, Jimmy Buffett, Taylor Swift, Debbie Harry, Miley Cyrus, Ariana Grande, the B-52s, and Michael Bolton. That was hardly that. Jimmy Fallon later called on Prince to take the stage and bring the evening to the proverbial "next level."
What was being celebrated that night was a phenomenon that—through the endlessly morphing and recharging organism that Michaels had created—had made not only television history but also played a role in the political and social direction of the nation. Born in an age dominated by three TV networks and a smattering of independent stations, Saturday Night Live had survived into the Internet era and was still rolling powerfully along.
The SNL special drew an impressive 26.5 million viewers according to Nielsen ratings, ranking it as the most-watched NBC Entertainment program in a decade, and also setting a record, according to Entertainment Weekly, for the largest number of tweets ever prompted by a single program—9.1 million people interacting via 1.3 million tweets, by the Nielsen Social count.
It would be all but inarguable to declare the night not only a success but also a milestone. One had to concede—considering the innumerable earthquakes and sea changes that had already occurred in American media and all the others undoubtedly lurking in the future—that, no, there would never be anything like this again.
No, not ever.
Preface to the 40th Anniversary Edition
In the twelve years since the paperback edition of Live from New York was published, Saturday Night Live has gone through many changes, as have we all. Twenty-eight cast members have been hired; twenty-six have left. Some departed for sitcoms or movies; others simply vanished from the public eye. There have been uproars, embarrassments, firings, budget cuts, a writers' strike that nearly derailed an entire season, and the construction of a new stage in Studio 8H. Women anchored "Weekend Update" and played a hugely prominent role in a presidential election.
This new expanded edition of LFNY is meant to chronicle those changes and others, help mark the show's fortieth anniversary, and document further its lasting imprint on American culture. After thirty-nine seasons, this much is still true: through triumphs and troubles, through incomparably memorable moments and fitful flirts with mediocrity, Saturday Night Live marches on as the most successful comedy show in the history of television.
As with previous editions of this book, here we endeavor to write history through commentary and reminiscences from the show's cast members, hosts, and writers—this time including those who have been part of the show since the original book was published. We originally conceived LFNY as a book of record, and we welcome the chance to make that a living record—an illumination, we hope, for those who have lived their entire lives within the time frame of the show and for those old enough to remember its first tumultuous years.
One consistency through the decades—despite all the changes and upheaval—is that Saturday Night Live still hews to tradition. It began as and remains the expression of primarily one man: Lorne Michaels, the creator and executive producer, who, except for a five-year hiatus during which others ran the show, hasn't missed a performance. He is the guiding spirit, and many of the standards he championed in the beginning are still evident in each subsequent iteration.
So even when its content may be sophomoric or semismutty, Saturday Night Live continues to reflect its old established values—no canned laughter, no fake breakups by cast members, stringent technical standards. Indeed, one of the most common refrains from hosts involves awe at how expertly and impressively the machinery of SNL operates; live television has no margin for error.
As a result, even in its own middle age, and with many cable channels now proclaiming themselves as major players in the comedy business, Michaels's creation stands out. It has, let's face it, a better pedigree than do pretenders to the throne, and beneath the ballyhoo and profits it evinces a palpable sense of purpose—something rare for commercial television.
You don't get to be forty without a little paranoia. SNL has always tried to stay ahead or at least abreast of industry developments, repackaging material for cast-member "Best of" home-video releases, DVD boxed sets, network specials, and exposure on Hulu and other Internet sites. In the past decade, though, Saturday Night Live has managed even to co-opt candidates for its own replacement. Former cast member Andy Samberg, along with writers Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer, convinced Michaels to feature weekly digital shorts on the program just as YouTube was becoming part of America's daily routine. More people now see SNL's digital shorts on computers than they do when watching the show itself on Saturday night.
Of course that digital ecosystem has put the show under a brighter and, arguably, harsher spotlight than ever, with each episode being analyzed and pounced upon by the Internet's cacophonous chorus of opinionators. The show has ridden a roller coaster of ups and downs, sometimes making news as well as commenting on it—or doing both at the same time. A "sketch that kills" can go viral now in a flash and be seen by millions who no longer watch the show. As a result, SNL has had to face, from Twitter and elsewhere, a huge new array of would-be satirists and commentators.
The same Internet that supplies perpetual criticism for SNL supplies perpetual competition for it, with a seemingly infinite array of satirical or pseudosatirical voices clamoring for attention. Competition has become even fiercer, especially against the bottomless pits of programming on cable and satellite television. Cable stars like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert try to do nightly what SNL does weekly on the "Update" desk, making it even harder for SNL writers and performers not only to be funny but also to say something distinctive and unique about the week's news and pop-culture parade.
To his credit, and even though there has sometimes seemed to be a lag between criticisms of the show and attempts to address them, Michaels has remained vigilant in maintaining the show's prominence in the zeitgeist and in the increasingly hasty march of time; he and the writers, producers, and performers under him try desperately each week to keep the show fresh and relevant. Obviously, currency is the show's most important single attribute.
NBC has exploited the success of SNL at every opportunity: its reruns often plug holes in the NBC schedule and are licensed to play on cable channels (some partly owned by NBC). Michaels's own domain and wealth have vastly expanded; with the ascendancies of Jimmy Fallon to The Tonight Show and Seth Meyers to Late Night, Michaels became executive producer and guardian angel of NBC's entire late-night schedule, Monday through Saturday.
The flagship broadcast, Saturday Night Live, has developed into a relatively dependable audience delivery device, so much so that it has become common for SNL—where the resident troupe used to be self-mockingly called the Not Ready for Prime Time Players—to score higher Nielsen ratings than any show in NBC's Saturday prime-time lineup. Of course that's attributable not just to SNL doing well but also, in the thousand-channel universe, to everybody else being in the dumps, or almost in the dumps. The size of the pie stays relatively the same, but the slices grow ever smaller; the audience now must be divided among new channels, new networks, and new media.
Can there be anything left, meanwhile, of SNL's original rebellious, maverick swagger? Can SNL continue to satirize what it has, arguably, become?
Maybe these worries are spurious, perhaps as irrelevant as some claim the show has now become. But week after week and year after year, perpetually replenished with new young talent who claim Studio 8H for their own, Saturday Night Live continues to push on, and the man whose name remains first in the credits at the end of each show has vowed to stay there as long as he lives. Michaels still manages to identify with the audaciousness and irreverence that have always been vital to the show's DNA.
For us, this journey has proved a hilarious pleasure at times and a daunting challenge at other times. But always, more than anything else, it has been an honor.
—James Andrew Miller and 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.
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.
LORNE 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 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.
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.
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.
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:
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