Review: 'Live From New York'
By R.D. Heldenfels,
The Beacon Journal
Live From New York is not the best book ever written about
Saturday Night Live, NBC's groundbreaking late-night comedy
series. But the best book, Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad's Saturday
Night, is out of print, so for now, Live From New York
will have to do.
An oral history, the book
by prize-winning TV critic Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller
offers a chronological discussion of the series from before its
premiere in 1975 through the end of the 2001-2002 season. A final
chapter then has people assessing yet again the role played by
Lorne Michaels, the impresario behind the show for most of its
The interviews actually extend
beyond what the title suggests to include NBC executives, producers
and, in a couple of cases, widows -- those of John Belushi and
NBC executive Brandon Tartikoff.
While the book draws solely on
the living -- choosing not to include archival comments from
Belushi, Gilda Radner, Chris Farley and Phil Hartman, among others
-- it did not get to everyone who is still around. Eddie Murphy
is a big loss. (``He won't talk to anybody about the show,''
Chris Rock says in the book. ``He's done with it.'')
The oral-history device, supplemented
by occasional narrative by the authors, makes for some frustratingly
vague storytelling, and the authors offer few clarifying notes.
While the book ends with a listing
of the cast members over the years, it does not give the writers
the same treatment, even as the writers drive the story.
And for a book that is really
trying to demonstrate that Saturday Night Live will be
vital as long as Michaels runs things and finds new stars, it
remains fixated on the early years; the book is about a third
over before it gets to 1980.
But for all that, it's a telling
description of how the show felt to the people making it, and
how those people felt about each other.
``When I did the twenty-fifth
anniversary show, there was a very warm feeling,'' says Bill
Murray, ``a great feeling of like we were all in the same fraternity,
or sorority, we all like went to the same school somehow.''
But those school days included
plenty of unhappiness (especially as the cast and writers sought
praise from the emotionally distant Michaels), wars with the
networks, busted affairs, bad blood and backbiting.
When Victoria Jackson confronted
Jan Hooks and Nora Dunn about their meanness in front of the
rest of the cast, no one seemed to support her. After Hooks and
Dunn walked out, Jackson said, ``I said to the others, `Thanks
a lot for standing up for me.'... And Dana (Carvey) goes, `You
didn't hear anyone disagreeing, did you?' ''
Janeane Garofalo complained loudly
about men dominating the show in her few months in the cast,
although others from the time argue that Garofalo herself was
While Garrett Morris was also
frustrated, he ended up feeling that his lack of socializing
with writers and other cast members may have kept him from getting
better roles. (Morris also has one of the most chilling lines
about the show: ``I've been described as being the worst person
in the world in terms of drugs. Now we know that that turned
out not to be so.'')
And almost everyone, it seems,
hated Chevy Chase, including newer cast members who would meet
him when he returned as host. Will Ferrell, for one, calls him
``the worst host.'' When Chase began making tasteless jokes to
women on the show, Ferrell said, ``I wish we'd all gotten up
and walked out of the room.''
At points like that, I wish the
book was better structured, that it might then explain why Michaels
kept bringing Chase back. (Other bad hosts didn't get a second
chance, while great ones -- especially Tom Hanks -- were brought
back repeatedly.) The whole final chapter, focusing on Michaels,
is an overlong coda where the most useful material could have
been integrated into other parts of the book.
And I still sat down one evening,
planning to flip through this book, and instead read it almost
cover to cover. Far from perfect as history, it is still entertaining