Book 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 run.

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 the problem.

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 reading.