Book Review: Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live, as Told By Its Stars, Writers and Guests

Everyone should read Live From New York: An Uncensored History of ‘Saturday Night Live‘. I’ve read it about ten times*. You can borrow mine, but it’s also good bathroom reading. I’ll understand if you prefer to buy your own.
I love SNL.** Everyone who knows me knows this, and almost everyone makes fun of me for it. I understand…to a point. They point out the garbage sketches, the usually flabby political satire, the elevation of pretty boy stars like Jimmy Fallon***, the repeating of characters ad nauseum, the booking of lame WB stars and crappy musical acts. Blah, blah, blah, haters. SNL makes me happy, and the idea of a bunch of young, anarchic, funny people all living in this sort of desperate comedy bunker, trying, again desperately, to put together a new, 90 minute LIVE comedy show every single week has always been my secret ideal of a place to work and a thing to aspire to. Legendary film critic Pauline Kael used to invite friends over to watch SNL, and if people complained, she always said, “Oh, they’re just having a bad night.” That’s how I look at it too. In the book, Tom Shales and some other dude collect interviews from almost every living person ever associated with the show and chop them up, grouping the pieces into a loose approximation of a theme, subject or person. There are funny anecdotes, axes are ground, tales are told out of class, and everyone hates Chevy Chase. Compulsively readable.

Who comes off the worst:

Probably about to say something terrible.

1. Chevy Chase. Oh my God. From the early days, where he was something of a prima donna and left after the first year. To the time he came back to host and Bill Murray goaded him into a fistfight by saying “Why don’t you go fuck your wife, I hear she needs it”, which was, thankfully for Chase, broken up before he was. (Chevy goes on at length in recounting this about how he had a rougher childhood than people realize and how he could actually have beaten up Murray. It’s pretty sad, after all this time). Every time Chevy came within a hundred yards of the show, he offended and horrified almost everyone. He told openly gay cast member Terry Sweeney SNL should have a running gag where he has AIDS and they weigh him on the show every month, and, when asked by Sweeney in a writer’s meeting, “what can I do for you/”, replied, “you can start by licking my balls”. He offended a female writer in a similar fashion later when he replied to her with “you can give me a hand job later”. Yup, everyone agrees, Chevy is a dick.****
2. Dick Ebersol. He was the NBC suit who co-created the show with Lorne Michaels, and then took it over a year after Lorne left and kept it running for five years, wherein the show became a safe, bland, dumbed-down version of itself while, not surprisingly maybe, becoming more popular. He is also, in the book, portrayed by most as a weasel. He whines about not getting enough credit for the show. He is roundly criticized for having absolutely no sense of humor. He responded to one novice writer’s challenge to him with “that’s big talk for someone who was making $90 a week last year”. He was an ass-kisser to his biggest star Eddie Murphy, who was contemptuous of him, and a “publicity hog” according to many. Openly called a liar by about six people.
3. Don Ohlmeyer. NBC West Coast president. Actively pursued more control over the show in the 90’s, despite having no connection to the show directly, not being a writer or producer of comedy, and making everyone’s lives miserable, especially Lorne’s (whose control over his show was made to seem weak), and Norm MacDonald’s (whom Ohlmeyer unilaterally decided wasn’t funny as anchor of Weekend Update, and whose ouster was publicly demanded by Ohlmeyer). This one’s just plain weird. As one executive in the book puts it, “Don loses perspective sometimes”. This guy just decided he could “fix” SNL from his Los Angeles office and tried to wrest control from Lorne Michaels. This caused no end of misery for Lorne, and anyone creatively connected to the show. He ordered the universally respected writer Jim Downey fired. He ordered Norm MacDonald ditched from Update. The fact that those two were responsible for all of the truly vicious and funny “OJ is guilty” material is not lost on anyone as OJ Simpson’s best golf buddy for 25 years was…Don Ohlmeyer. Ohlmeyer denying that had anything to do with it is, well, unconvincing. A weird, creepy chapter in SNL history.
4. Janeane Garofalo. Look, I think she’s a pretty funny person and a pretty good actress. But, through her comments here (and her audio commentary for the film Wet Hot American Summer), she is also a didactic, humorless bore. In her brief tenure at SNL, apparently Garofalo chose to snipe to the press about the show being “a boy’s club” and unfunny, rather than use her talents (which are considerable), to maybe, crazily, write good sketches and make the show better. Sure, it was the Sandler/Farley era, and that’s obviously not her sense of humor, but when the show is down (which, to some extent it was), then the field is wide open to make your mark. According to Fred Wolf, the writer (and friend of hers) who got her the job, “It was all such a crock of shit”.  She never spent an all-nighter…she never got with the writers and worked on a sketch she was dying to have on the air…all she did was glom on to the host and tear the show apart for the week.” Described by Lorne (although not by name) as an “injustice collector”, Garofalo says, upon seeing how good things were at the show with the current cast, “someone must have performed an exorcism or something”. Well, according to everyone who worked with her, a whiny, manipulative, humor-impaired malcontent sounds like just the sort of evil spirit to get rid of.
5. Joe Piscopo. This seems like beating a dead, shticky horse, but Piscopo, who is well represented in the book, seems to have lost his mind at some point. Egotistical without apparent cause, and possessive of his Frank Sinatra impression to the point of creepy schizophrenia, Piscopo alienated writers by repeatedly asserting to their Sinatra sketch ideas “Frank wouldn’t do that”. He talks about his closeness with the Sinatra family, about how proud he was to have been chosen to do Sinatra’s voice in a Brisk iced tea commercial a few years ago, and about how Phil Hartman’s Sinatra was not respectful enough of his idol. As writer/producer Bob Tischler says, “it was sick”. He also, as one person puts it, “Let Eddie Murphy’s success go to his head”.

I may have been the only person Googling “Joe Piscopo” at this moment.

6. Nora Dunn. Look, I know it seems like I’m picking on the “outspoken feminist” element is SNL’s history (Jane Curtin’s entry to follow), but I’m just looking at facts, and the facts are that Dunn (who was pretty funny on the show), apart from making sure everyone knew she was sleeping with Lorne at some point, blindsided the show, and, especially, the other female cast members with her highly (self)-publicized walkout over the booking of unfunny, misogynist jackass Andrew Dice Clay. I find myself put in the abhorrent position of seeming to defend aforementioned unfunny misogynist jackass, but I think Dunn is the real asshole on this one. Sure, she objected to him being on the show. Fine. I can’t stand him either (and his “I’m just a comic playing a role” defense does nothing to convince me he doesn’t know exactly to what audience he is playing). But to call a press conference about her boycotting the show without telling anyone on the show, and without voicing her complaints to anyone on the show was manipulative, self-serving and unprofessional. Especially to Jan Hooks and Victoria Jackson who were suddenly receiving death threats from women who accused them of selling out, of supporting Clay, and of basically being cowards for not standing up for women like brave, brave Nora Dunn. The infinitely more talented Hooks and the very annoying Jackson***** talk pretty persuasively about feeling betrayed by Dunn. It comes across.
7. Jane Curtin. Maybe I’m just brainwashed into this romantic ideal of the show, but Jane (who, again, I liked on the show) and her detached, isolationist disapproval turns me off. She just comes off as a killjoy.
8. Steven Seagal. Even before I read the book, my candidate for the worst guest host ever, Seagal was apparently a completely humorless creep. He pitched sketch ideas (like one where he plays a shrink counseling rape victim Victoria Jackson and he tries to sleep with her, “because that’s how shrinks fucking are…they just want your money”) so bad that Julia Sweeney said, “it was like Candid Camera”.
9. Robert Blake. Yet another celebrity murderer, Blake wadded up the script for a Gary Kroeger-written sketch and bounced it off Kroeger’s face, saying, “I hope you’ve got a tough asshole, pal, ’cause your gonna be wiping your a** with that one”. As Tim Kazurinsky succinctly puts it, “a dick”.
10. Harry Shearer. This one kills me, because I am in awe of Shearer’s talents. But he is, by unanimous account, a dick. Hired twice, Shearer left by mutual decision twice, once under Lorne, once under Ebersol. While its hard to disagree with someone so talented who says that the show is badly run, too safe, and that neither Ebersol nor Michaels are easy to work for, the consensus, from literally everyone, is that Shearer, for all his talent, is not worth the trouble he causes. Arrogant, mean, standoffish and manipulative.

11. Jean Doumanian. Talk about beating dead horses, Doumanian’s disastrous tenure replacing Michaels is old, well-covered news. She really was ill-suited for the job, and therefore, doomed, which isn’t her fault, for what that’s worth. That being said, there’s no debate about how bad she was at the job, pitting writers against each other (also an Ebersol trait), and being completely unable to inspire the slightest confidence in her (admittedly lousy) staff. Doumanian’s repeated assertions here that being a woman in charge was the primary cause of her downfall (undoubtedly a factor) aren’t to be discarded, but Jean hits the theme pretty hard as excuse for her failure at the helm. What’s most damning in the book is her claims to be the one pushing for Eddie Murphy to be more prominent on the show, when literally everyone else involved counters that Doumanian thought little of Murphy and that she had to be convinced that the obvious superstar on her bench was worth more than the role of a glorified extra.

Who comes off the best:

1. Lorne. Call him a one trick pony. Call him arrogant, aloof, and snobbish. Say (as most do) he’s a star-fucker. But, as Chris Rock says, “is he arrogant? sure he is. but I know arrogant hot dog guys…when you look at what he’s accomplished, he’s entitled”. Lorne just comes off well, despite the fact that every single person in the book has something negative to say about him. There are also a lot of nice stories about his generosity, and his talent, and even his most critical detractors (except maybe Garofalo and Shearer) have some grudging respect for him. It’s Lorne’s show, and we’re all just living in it.
2. Chris Rock. He didn’t make much of a mark on SNL, and that makes sense; Rock’s not really an actor…he’s one of the most brilliant stand-ups of our time, and a very smart man. His insight (on Michaels, on being a black actor on the show, on his favorite sketch writers) is funny, concise and convincing. His affection for his friends Sandler, Spade and, especially Farley, is touching and funny (especially his reminiscences of Farley). He’s clearsighted about the show’s shortcomings, yet generous and gracious for what it gave him.
3. Bob Odenkirk. Not a fan of the show, really, Odenkirk’s time there was frustrating for him, and he left in pretty short order. When he speaks about it, though, Odenkirk is, again,

Just a cool guy.

clearsighted about the faults (I generally agree with everything he says) but never comes off as vindictive or meanspirited. While he doesn’t worship at the altar of Michaels, he respects his abilities and is complimentary about how Lorne tried to help his good friend Chris Farley. His bad experience at SNL does not preclude him giving credit to those he feels deserve it, like Phil Hartman, Robert Smigel, Adam Sandler, and Conan O’Brien.
4. Conan O’Brien. Just a funny, funny bastard. Lots of great, funny anecdotes and nothing but love from everyone who talks about him.
5. Gilda. Everyone loved Gilda.
6. Adam Sandler. Just comes of as a nice, humble guy. Lots of props to Rock, the writers. Still seems genuinely bemused that he has the success he does. As much as they are responsible for some truly atrocious movies, the stories of he, Spade, Rock and Farley being this gang of unruly friends backstage, going out for Chinese food and making each other laugh gives me a warm fuzzy.
7. Bill Murray. Apart from being the most talented person to come out of the show, Murray appears here as the wisest of elder statesmen. Brutally honest, but never vindictive, Murray holds forth on all subjects and you just listen. Uncompromising and brilliant.
8. Al Franken. Always a ballsy, annoying, funny dick. The story of the prank with his newborn daughter and a roomful of screaming women worth the cover price alone.
9. Phil Hartman. A little distant personally, Hartman is praised by everyone. Hardworking, generous and guaranteed to kill on air, everyone loved him.
10. Dan Aykroyd. Humble, full of great stories. Hardly a bad word for anyone.

So there you go.

*Make that about 20 times. The updated edition really jump-started things again. 

**This article was originally written for my own amusement (the concept of anyone paying me to write stuff wasn’t a twitch in my fingers at the time). It was on my Myspace page, if that gives you any idea. So the idea that I’d be the SNL reviewer of record at the AV Club would have spun my head around like Beetlejuice. I still love SNL, though.

***Thus explaining the Jimmy Fallon slam.

****And this was all before Chevy went Chevy all over Community.

*****This written before “very annoying” graduated to “apocalyptically annoying and ludicrously uninformed as a Fox News correspondent.”

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