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Book Report: Live From New York

My dear husband gave me Live from New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live, by James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales, in part because he knows that the way to my heart leads through a bookstore, and in part because Saturday Night: A Backstage History of "Saturday Night Live" by Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad is one of my favorite entertainment reads. Thanks to these two books, I'm freakishly literate in SNL's history and in the press it receives, which is especially remarkable for someone who has not watched the show with any consistency since graduating high school.

So if the books were paired off against each other in a no-holds-barred wrestling brawl, who would win? It depends: one of the most consistently amusing things in Live from New York is reading, again and again, how very much nearly everyone associated with SNL hates Chevy Chase, while Saturday Night is a great deal more diplomatic about Chase's people skills. The Jean Doumanian era (all ten months of it) is dissected in excruciating detail in Saturday Night, while Live from New York offers much less meaty material. Charles Rocket -- he of the inadvertent "fuck" that led to Doumanian's departure -- either wasn't giving interviews or didn't give any account of the incident for Live from New York, and I noticed the absence.

A lot of the book is shaped by who isn't talking. The 1985-86 cast -- locked in a three-way battle with 1980-81 and 1994-95 for the title of Most Likely to Be Regarded as Franchise Nadir -- featured Anthony Michael Hall, Damon Wayans, Joan Cusack and Robert Downey, Jr. That's a fairly deep bench of talent that did miserably on the show. While Wayans and Hall are willing to discuss their brief stints on the show, there's nothing from Downey or Cusack on their experiences. This is actually a loss, as one of the ideas that bubbles up through interviews from time to time is that some of the most gifted or funny people to pass through the 17th floor had the most unhappy or unsuccessful tenures. It would have been illuminating to read more from people who have done better off the show than on it, such as Christine Ebersole, Randy Quaid, Ben Stiller, Jay Mohr, or Sarah Silverman, none of whom appear.

The real story in Live from New York is approached obliquely, and it is never stated outright, so I'll do it here: the show's biggest legacy may not be what talent it launched into the wider entertainment world, but what talent it squandered. A bedrock assertion in Saturday Night is that the only person who really discovered Eddie Murphy was Eddie Murphy; that's backed up here, and the sequels, Nobody Appreciated Damon Wayans and Whose Bright Idea Was It to Underuse Chris Rock? are produced as well. Much is made of SNL chronic boys-club problem -- dismissed by one writer as the "DNA of the show" -- and Janeane Garofalo does herself no favors in elaborating on it. But very little is said about how SNL managed to ignore three of the strongest African-American comics and actors in the last twenty years. That nobody other than Rock or Wayans was capable of seeing or commenting on this phenomenon is just bizarre.

The things that do get talked about -- like the tension between relatively untested talent and established comics Billy Crystal, Harry Shearer, Christopher Guest and Martin Short during the 1984-85 season -- are interesting but not too surprising, and there's a lack of follow-up when the same thing duplicated itself ten years later with Michael McKean and Mark McKinney. It's clear that Miller and Shales had an Augean editing task in whipping hundred of interviews into some sort of cogent book form, but the lack of follow-up on some interesting questions is frustrating.

Then again, some might call this sort of thing "reader-directed interpretation." One of the most consistently amusing threads running through nearly every chapter concerns drug use among the staff, beginning with "We were so stoned!" and ending with the current cast marveling at how sleep deprivation is ruining their complexion. This topic eloquently illustrates how SNL went from hipster appointment viewing to stodgy broadcasting institution without ever saying so directly. That Shales and Miller are willing to stand back and let the reader come to that conclusion is one of the best things about the book.

One of the best things, mind you. The real, lasting delight is in the small details where people inadvertently reveal the warts in their personalities. For example, the only person in Live from New York who doesn't regard Phil Hartman as a prince among men is Joe Piscopo, who talks instead about how his Sinatra impersonation was superior to Hartman's. It's worth noting that other people in the book talk about Piscopo's Sinatramania inspiring the game-show sketch "What would Frank Do?" after the writers got fed up with Piscopo vetoing jokes on the ground that "Frank wouldn't do that." It's also worth noting that the book details the time Joe Piscopo proposed hosting the show in his Sinatra persona. Live from New York leaves it to the reader to conclude whether it would be better to be remembered as a selfless and talented professional whose death left everyone he knew shaken, or a zealous celebrity impersonator who lets no chance for self-promotion pass.

It's these accumulated anecdotes that make Live from New York worth reading, but they're also what make it a much different book than Saturday Night. The earlier book is actually the one that tries to ask and answer the question of what SNL done to America and vice-versa. The most recent book simply accepts the claims of SNL as an institution straight from the mouths of people who say it's so. Of course they're going to say that -- they worked on the show. But there's a world of difference between a first-hand perspective and a reporters' perspective, and anyone who reads Live from New York needs to remember that before they even open the book.


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