The Book Club


Dear Neal,

Yeah, that’s the ticket—SNL was the show that was unafraid to call a prick a prick. It was tough yuks—made by the pricks, of the pricks, for the pricks. It was also a prick-up-your-ears for complacent society—remember those Michael O’Donoghue skits about getting blinded by needles? SNL was a revolutionary prickocracy—survival of the prickiest. So many of the stars came up fast by sneering down from some imaginary moral promontory: then-nobodies Murray and David Spade with searing putdowns of movie stars; uppity Chevy, Norm MacDonald, and Dennis Miller on “Weekend Update.”

Actually, though, SNL’s fangs have gradually retracted, like a gory troglodyte gone vegan. “Update” has never been better, but Tina Fey’s wit is fairminded, morally in earnest. If Professor Backwards—the guy whose shtick was talking backward—were to die on her watch, would she have done Chevy’s cold joke about his last words being, “PLEH! PLEH!”?

Jimmy Fallon, the most radiantly huggable cast member since Gilda Radner, seems incapable of hate. He’s the anti-Chevy, not a prickocrat; inclusive, not exclusive: He’s Jimmy Fallon, and so are you. He’s unlikely to repeat the prank that paleoliberal-prickocrat Al Franken pulled back when Kissinger tried to get seats to see the show, and Al said no, as payback for the immoral Christmas bombing of Hanoi. (The anecdote’s in the once-definitive 1986 book Saturday Night, which doesn’t hold up: It reads like homework compared with the breezy new book. As for Woodward’s Belushi bio Wired, it got stomped for good by a New Republic parody exposé of Dean Martin titled, I think, “Sozzled,” which sent up Woodward’s stuporous, humorless accumulation of lifeless detail.)

Before SNL, showbiz pawed and pandered; as Lorne Michaels tells Shales and Miller, SNL “required removing neediness, the need to please. It was like, we’re only going to please those people who are like us.” No boomer narcissism there! SNL needed to show you disenchantment, pedophile baby sitters, and an amazing profusion of skits about death. When I wrote O’Donoghue’s obituary, my editor almost refused to run it because O’Donoghue had faked his death so many times. How did we know he wasn’t staging another skit?

He famously spray painted the word “DANGER” on the SNL office wall to encourage risk-taking on the show, but S & M reveal that the spray can died halfway through, at “DAN.” Only desperate can-shaking enabled him to complete the word and retrieve his dignity. The danger of such public humiliation is another aspect of SNL’s appeal. You can destroy your career with one word on live television, as that f— Charles Rocket did. The audience savors the danger. Part of the fun of SNL is watching careers skyrocket in front of your face. The other part is watching them go down in flames. The show is an even more violent example of what critic Kenneth Tynan called the Johnny Carson show: a salto mortale, a death-defying acrobatic feat. S & M capture this spirit.

But I still think SNL would have been better if it weren’t live. Martin Short, whose SCTV character Ed Grimley was squandered for one season on SNL, says he flopped because he was used to writing for six weeks, then shooting for six weeks, then editing while writing. On SNL, you needed to dream up, produce, and politically ram through a new idea every 48 hours or so. SCTV kept the repeating character of Grimley fresh by making him an actor who appeared in different roles, like Oliver [Twist] Grimley. The skits were polished and incorporated into a satisfying ongoing storyline. I guess what I’m asking is—immortal as SNL is, wouldn’t it be more immortal if it were SCTV instead? Did the stars of Conan, Seinfeld, and Friends get their start on SNL, or survive despite Lorne’s best effort to crush them dead? And who’s funnier, Lorne or Henny Youngman?

All best,