The Book Club

An S & M View of SNL

Dear Neal,

As you know, I’ve been worried sick about Tom Shales. When was he going to quit putzing around winning Pulitzers for the Washington Post and write that big book? I pegged him as the TV-critic equivalent of Duke Ellington—a genius of the short piece whose true symphony eludes him. But I want to hear you admit that now he and James Andrew Miller have composed the most artfully wrought oral pop-history opus since EdieLive From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live.

I admit it’s self-censored: Everyone but Eddie Murphy seems to have talked to Miller and the Fat Master, but you can tell they’re all calculating what to expose, and how SNL’s original Dr. Evil, Lorne Michaels, will react. But it’s astounding when anyone gets past the infinitely more malevolent publicists and handlers to get a particle of candid comment out of any star, and S & M do a marvelously smooth job of assembling what could have been sprawling anecdotes into a single, swiftly flowing saga. The authors’ own setups and transitional essays are a tart treat, too.

Often, the kind of blandiose mendacity that most stars expect you to swallow gets stopped short by another SNL insider’s sarcastic retort. Chevy Chase—the real Dr. Evil of the book, the motivelessly malignant meanie everybody loves to loathe—actually floats the notion that he would have stayed loyal as a tick hound if only Lorne had “put his arms around me and given me a hug and asked me to stay.” “Bullshit,” observes his then-agent Bernie Brillstein. “The real reason was he got a fucking car and more money.” Until I read this book, I bought Janeane Garofalo’s self-servingly self-lacerating tale of her travails as a feminist artist in an SNL world of Adam Sandler and Chris Farley. Yes, Farley was a guy who actually crapped out a window of Rockefeller Center, and Sandler represented a mutant kind of comedy with a weird new disregard for women beyond the sexist ken of Belushi and O’Donoghue. But Live From New York gives a gritty backstage sense of precisely how she blew it.

It’s all about the arguments—the psychologically fraught fistfight showdown of Chevy and his replacement Bill Murray, the Harry Shearer insurgency, the quiet yet incendiary internal exile of Jane Curtin. They’re not trivial arguments, because for 27 years SNL has been decreeing what funny means. In a culture of satire, what’s funny defines who we are as a society. In horrid fact, when a real political crisis occurs, we look to SNL to sort out how we should feel about it. “Weekend Update” can be more influential than Tom Brokaw. Our official political culture has become empty farce; the only really serious consideration Clarence Thomas, Monica Lewinsky, and the prospect of a Gore-Bush co-presidency ever got was on SNL.

So, it’s not a frivolous impulse but deeply principled curiosity that makes me cherish all the delectable dirt S & M collect. You remember Fred Garvin, Male Prostitute? That character grew out of Aykroyd’s precoital routine with brilliant writer Rosie Shuster (Lorne’s wife), whom Danny slept with when he wasn’t sleeping with Laraine Newman or proposing to Carrie Fisher, who stole Lorne’s best friend Paul Simon from Danny’s old flame Gilda Radner, which tormented her to the end. (“We were young,” says one writer. “You do the biology.”) The butt-crack repairman was a bit Aykroyd invented to cheer up a young SNL writer on a bad trip (an event that probably also gave the world Aykroyd’s Jimmy Carter talking a voter down from an LSD freakout). Murray’s rollercoaster affair with Radner was transmuted to art in their affectionately squabblesome “Nerd” sketches. Read a few pages of this book, and you grasp that the uneven entertainment onscreen signifies a more lurid psychodrama offstage, with real artistic consequences.

By letting us in on the metadrama, inducting us into the cult of what writer Alan Zweibel terms “Guyana on the 17th Floor,” the raucous chorus of Live From New York lets us in on the experience of SNL. Beloved host Alec Baldwin says it’s “like getting high, it’s like being stoned out of your mind, it’s like being shot out of a cannon.”

And it determines what’s in the canon of comedy. There’s a bitter debate running through the book about revolutionary purity. Chevy says he quit because “it was going to become … showcases for characters as opposed to what it should be, which is a vehicle to take apart television.” Laraine probably did more harm to her career by refusing to do repeating characters than by repeatedly doing heroin. When Buck Henry made a suggestion for an ending to a sketch, one of the writers behind him sniffed, “Hmm, 1945.” Says Henry, “I nodded inwardly, ‘I see. I get it.’ It was considered really corny to go for a joke.”

This strikes me as central. Aykroyd confesses that his crew always had a devil of a time inventing any ending at all for a sketch. The problem of the sagging ending has become more unsightly than Aykroyd’s ass crack, as performers and audiences influenced by SNL gradually forgot what an ending is. Neal, you are unique among comedy pundits of the Great Comedy Divide, because you actually know what you’re talking about: You’ve written books requiring protracted hangouts both in the Friar’s Club and in Bill Murray’s world. As the co-author of his autobiography, you are not exactly the ghost of Henny Youngman, but possessed by his old-school comedy soul. When SNL in effect declared war on the Friar’s Club style, what was gained and what was lost? Who will posterity consider a kick in the pants? The old school, or one or another generation of SNL’s jokey Jacobins?

Also, would it have been better—livelier, less like a Frozen Caveman Lawyer—if it wasn’t live?