Book Review: Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live

I’ve done two reviews so far and I actually finished my 3rd book about a month ago but I haven’t gotten around to reviewing it yet so here it is.  It’s a behind the scenes look at Saturday Night Live through the years as told by the cast and crew through authors Tom Schales and James Andrew Miller.

3rd book – Live From New York: An Uncensored History Of Saturday Night Live

Written by Tom Schales and James Andrew Miller

Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live

I watched my first episode of Saturday Night Live when I was around 11 years old.  It was around the time of the 1992 Presidential election and SNL was a good way for a kid like me to relate to politics because they made it funny.  Phil Hartman played Bill Clinton and Dana Carvey played both George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot.  It was funny to watch them make these politicians look so petty, juvenile and self-deprecating.  It became even funnier when I grew up and realized that’s how politicians really were even if they weren’t as blatant as their SNL counterparts.

The book is broken down into chapters by eras.  The first chapter goes over the first five years, also known as the “golden years” when Saturday Night Live was a ground breaking new show, then a chapter for the next 5 years when Lorne Michaels stepped away and so on.  The best thing about the book though is it’s not a couple authors writing in their own words what they heard second hand from the SNL vets but actual direct quotes from them strung together by topic.  It could get interesting when someone would paint someone else in a negative light and then in the very next paragraph there would be that person responding.  When something was covered it was covered by everyone, no one’s view point was left out.  The authors were very fair in that regard where the story never got skewed in one direction or another.

There is not a lot of blockbuster information in the book.  They did a lot of drugs in the 70’s.  Belushi was crazy, Fairley was a mess.  The interesting part was finding out exactly what went on behind the scenes.  Our now esteemed United States Senator from the state of Minnesota Al Franken recounted a story about him and his former writing partner Tom Davis buying their first ever bag of cocaine.  They spread the cocaine on their desk in their office and while trying to figure out how they wanted to do it John Belushi ran into their office, jumped onto their desk and snorted both lines.  They sat there in shock not knowing if they should be pissed that Belushi snorted all of their cocaine or amazed at what he had just done.  The stories that the guest hosts recalled about going through dress rehearsal and being convinced that Belushi was way too fucked up to make it through the show and then showtime came and Belushi absolutely killed it.  Belushi would save his best work when an Oscar winning actor would host the show.  He plodded through the week and rehearsals and the actor would be caught off guard when Belushi absolutely crushed him during the live show.  The guy was a comic genius and it’s too bad that his life ended before he could entertain many more people.

One of the more clever tools by the authors was building up moments by the order that they put the quotes.  When they got to the death of Belushi you were just waiting to read the reaction from Dan Aykroyd.  They went pages and even printed 2nd and 3rd quotes from people before they finally ended the section with quotes from Garrett Morris (who is disappointingly used sparingly through the book although he even admits the 5 years were so drug hazed that he doesn’t remember much), Jim Belushi, and Dan Aykroyd.  That was probably the best stuff in the whole book and any fan of Belushi should probably check it out.  I’ve always been a big fan of Saturday Night Live and I bought the first 4 seasons on DVD so it was very interesting to hear the people tell the stories of the people who were gone before my time – Belushi, Gilda Radner, Michael O’Donoghue – they all made me laugh but I had never watched an episode of Saturday Night Live while they were still on this earth.  I know Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray and all those guys enough by now seeing them in all of the movies and interviews I’ve seen them in so it was cool to get an almost 1st person view of the ones that were gone.

Besides the first cast my favorite is the one I broke myself into Saturday Night Live with – the early to mid-90’s cast.  It’s almost hard to imagine that two of the featured players from the cast, Adam Sandler and Chris Rock, have become multi-billionaire media moguls and I watched them first starting out, struggling to get skits on Saturday Night Live.  It’s amazing that those two guys started out by sharing an office with Chris Farley and David Spade at 30 Rock.  Imagine if you told them then how many millions of dollars they would gross in Hollywood movies alone let alone comedy and TV specials, they would have probably laughed you out of the room.  My generation unfortunately got its Belushi, literally, in Chris Farley.  One of the amazing things about Saturday Night Live is how two guys could almost live a mirrored life like those two.  Right up until the very end when they died of the same exact mixture of heroin and cocaine.  It is pretty eery when you think about it.

A lot of people came out good and some people came out bad by what they said in the book.  Interestingly enough the guy who came off the most humble, to me at least, was Chris Rock.  While some of the other actors who didn’t get the experience that they were hoping for on Saturday Night Live they would criticize the writers, the other actors, or Lorne Michaels Chris Rock said flat out what the problem was during his time there – the writers simply didn’t know how to consistently write good material for a black comedian.  But he said he understood it and went on to give SNL credit for making him who he was today.  He wasn’t the least bit bitter and acknowledged that everything he learned about running his TV shows and comedy specials he learned from his time at Saturday Night Live.  It was pretty cool of him to acknowledge that even though he didn’t really have to.  He also heaped a shit ton of praise on every writer, producer, and fellow cast member that he worked with on the show.

Then there is Lorne Michaels.  He’s always been somewhat of an idol of mine.  He’s a creative genius.  He might not always have the best ideas but he continues to chug along and it doesn’t seem like he’s changed all that much except for the natural maturity of the aging process.  When he started the show he was the same age and Chase and Belushi and those guys.  He was kind of like a brother to them but as the generations have passed he became more like a father.  He talked about how he just let Belushi do his thing and never got in his way but when Farley came around he learned his lesson and sent him to rehab over 10 times.  Unfortunately not even Lorne could save him.  The entire last chapter is all about Lorne but it almost seems unnecessary at that point, like icing a cake that already has icing.  By time you get to that chapter you feel like you know him already.  He is Saturday Night Live and he’s been there almost every step of the way.

In a lot of ways Saturday Night Live is like the Boston Red Sox in my family.  My parents watched it when they were younger.  As a matter of fact when I was growing up my family would show us all of the comedies with the Saturday Night Live actors in them because they were their favorite comedians.  I grew up watching Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray.  Hell, I think the first time my father ever showed my Animal House was when I was 12 years old (the edited version of course).  Then I matured during my teenage years watching Chris Rock, Adam Sandler, and Chris Farley movies.  Just think of how many movies that you’ve seen in your life that have starred a Saturday Night Live alum.  There are not many bad ones either.  From Animal House to Horrible Bosses these guys have been making us laugh for over 30 years.  It would be cool for this show to survive beyond Lorne Michaels (Conan O’Brien, I’m looking at you) because I’d love to pass this down to my children as well.  If you like Saturday Night Live and you like to read get this book because it almost puts you right there backstage with all of them.

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