LIVE FROM NEW YORK
by James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
The first episode of NBC’s Saturday Night aired on October 11, 1975, with George Carlin hosting and musicians Billy Preston and Janis Ian joining the under-utilized Not Ready for Prime Time Players. Several decades later, the show is still on the air and mostly recognizable from that first episode. James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales have explored its history in their book Live from New York, originally published in 2002, and updated in 2014.
The book is set up chronologically, taking the reader from the earliest days when the show was just an inkling in several eyes as a way to replace Tonight Show reruns, through the years of the original cast and the ups and downs as new casts came and went. Lorne Michaels is certainly cast as the hero and driving force behind the show, even in the years when it was run by Jean Doumanian and Dick Ebersol, a massive figure from before and after their tenures who cast his shadow on the show they ran, for good or bad.
Interspersed between some of the essays is background information that helps present the flow of this history of the show, although the editors included it with a light touch and frequently the big events and changes in the show are implied through the interviews rather than spelled out. There are some places in the book where a firmer editorial would be welcome. Because Miller and Shales are allowing their interview subjects to speak for themselves, errors appear when the subject’s memory isn’t entirely accurate. Footnotes would help to indicate what the reality is and further improve the reliability of the work.
One of the interesting changes in the show that occurred over time was the role of the cast in relationship to the writers. Cast members always helped write the show and Chevy Chase was originally hired to be a writer who wound up a cast member. However, in the early years, the writers had the responsibility for the majority of the show. In later years, while the writers were still important, the cast seems to have become more involved in the creation of the skits, not least because of Andy Samburg’s series of short films, but also because working closely with the writers was a way to guarantee a cast member would get screen time.
Recurring characters have always been a part of the show, with the Killer Bees appearing in most of the episodes in the first half of the first season to the extent that they even appeared in one episode to be told they weren’t needed that week. However, as is pointed out later in the book, some of the recurring characters, such as Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd’s wild and crazy guys, only appeared a handful of time, but left a lasting memory for those who watched the shows.
While most of the people involved in the show who were interviewed have good things to say about the show, occasionally the book includes comments by cast members who felt they were treated unfairly by the show, such as Janeane Garafalo or Julia Louis Dreyfus. Some of these cast members and writers seem to have gotten over their experience while others seem to hold a grudge. The majority, however, view their experience at Saturday Night Live as an incredible opportunity.
One of the unfortunate constants in the book is death, from the drug-related deaths of John Belushi to Chris Farley, the violent deaths of Phil Hartman and Charles Rocket, or the cancerous deaths of Gilda Radner or Tom Davis, the death of a cast member gives the editors an opportunity to shine a lot on the specific person and the way their death impacted the show and those who were involved in the show. One of the most poignant comments in the book is from cast member Jim Belushi when discussing his brother’s death. Belushi pointed out that Lorne and others tried to intervene with Chris Farley, sending him to rehab numerous times and they were unsuccessful at averted the same fate that happened to John.
Perhaps the book’s biggest weakness is that it doesn’t come with a vast collection of BluRay discs, because as the various writers, cast members, guest hosts, and others reminisce about the show, it will make the reader want to put the book down and watch the specific episodes or skits that are being described. Emily Litella and the Samurai and Hans and Franz and all the other characters may live in memories and in the pages of the book, but they are only really brought to life by the actors on the screen.
It all comes back to Lorne Michaels, however, and the final chapter of the book is dedicated to the way people see him. It is clear that Michaels has a lot of friends, but equally clear that few of them are directly involved with the show. The show is made up of his employees, some long term. They view him as an acquaintance or as a father-figure, a mentor, or a stern boss. His friends come from other areas of his life. He has grown and mellowed with the show, evolving in his management style as much as the show has evolved in its entertainment style, which may be why he’s still running it after all these years.
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