Friday, August 14, 2015

Live from New York: The Complete Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live by James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales

Makes 40 years feel like two centuries
Live from New York, a behind-the-scenes history of the Saturday Night Live television series by James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales, was originally published in 2002. The latest edition, released in 2014, was timed to coincide with the show’s 40th anniversary and has been updated with coverage through the program’s 39th season. The book is an oral history comprised of brief bits of first-person commentary by hundreds of SNL cast members, crew, writers, hosts, and NBC network executives. The oral history approach evokes the collaborative nature of SNL and allows for the presentation of differing perspectives on events or controversies in the show’s history. The drawback to this approach, unfortunately, is that it all too often amounts to dozens of people making the exact same points over and over again.

Miller and Shales are attempting to accomplish two goals here: the first is to give the reader an idea of what it’s like to work at SNL; the second is to establish the show’s place in television history. Towards the latter goal, it’s not surprising that much space is devoted to the formation of the show and the original cast of Not Ready for Prime Time Players. For the television historian, the endless debates over the details of the show’s creation may be important, but for the casual fan the network politics can get rather dull. I understand that Lorne Michaels is the heart and soul of SNL, and likely a comedy genius, but does anyone really watch the show for Lorne? Most likely you watch the show for its cast members, and what this book doesn’t do well is let the cast members’ voices be heard, unless they’re talking about Lorne. Writers are an important part of the show also, and it’s interesting to hear them talk about how certain sketches were created. Unfortunately, too many of the writers just discuss the same things over and over again—how hard it is to get stuff on the show, staying up all Tuesday night writing, and once again, Lorne. Even though everyone analyzes Lorne ad nauseam throughout the entire book, when you reach the end you get a final chapter entitled “Lorne” which is an absurd exercise in eulogizing the living.

If you’re interested in romances or feuds between cast members, there’s little of that mentioned beyond what’s already common knowledge. Another problem with the oral history approach is that almost everyone is reluctant to say anything bad about anyone. There’s a few cast members that everyone seems to agree were difficult, and when the topic of worst host ever comes up, the usual easy targets are mentioned. Surprises are few. Some great cast members either declined to participate (Eddie Murphy) or are barely present (Will Ferrell, Mike Myers). The best part of the book is the Kevin Nealon/Jan Hooks/Phil Hartman years through the Adam Sandler/Chris Farley/David Spade/Chris Rock era, because that’s when you get the most cast input and the best idea of how much fun it is to put the show together. Surprisingly, an inordinate amount of time is devoted to the very recent years of the show, with a lot of unnecessary congratulatory back-slapping. From the way praise is heaped on Andy Samberg’s juvenile music videos, you’d think he were the next Fellini.

Fifty years from now, television historians are going to consider this book a valuable documentary record of the history of SNL. For the fan, however, it can be a colossal bore. It’s so easy, even addictive, to just read the next little tidbit, but at the end of twenty minutes you realize you’ve just heard forty people say the same thing, and you wonder why you wasted your time. If you can find this book cheap, get it, but just look up the passages concerning your favorite cast members. To read the whole thing is a disappointing and mind-numbing experience.
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