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Live From New York

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Excellent Book

608 pages, Hardcover

First published October 7, 2002

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About the author

Tom Shales

10 books29 followers
Tom Shales is the Pulitzer Prize-winning TV critic of The Washington Post, and a movie reviewer for NPR's Morning Edition. His books include On the Air and Legends, and he has written for many major magazines.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,241 reviews
Profile Image for emma.
1,863 reviews54.2k followers
January 15, 2018
This. Book. Is. Amazing.

I have two great loves in my life and they are constantly dueling for my time. Granted, I have an excess of free time due to laziness and not making plans with friends as often as I should, but still, EVERY MOMENT of it is a battle between my two major interests.

They are comedy and books.

For the first time, I was given an option that was TRULY BOTH. (That’s this book.)

I made this book last me for a month plus because I so enjoyed not fighting that battle. (Picture me, trapped between reading an article on John Mulaney and writing a review. Now apply that to my entire human existence.) (Am I hinting that I have another, non-human existence? Dunno. You decide.)

SNL was the show that got me into comedy. The marijuana to the eventual heroin. (Just kidding, guys. Marijuana’s not a gateway drug. Also, don’t do heroin.)

I’m sorry. I don’t know why I’m talking about drugs. (Although this book talks about them, duh, and if that made you uncomfortable Janet you may just want to stay away from this and the early days of Saturday Night Live ALTOGETHER.)

Anyway. I have distinct memories of proudly setting SNL to record as a series on my thirteenth birthday. (Just because I was granted permission to watch TV-14 shows did NOT mean I was allowed to stay up until 1 a.m.) It was a momentous occasion.

I don’t have the same devotion to SNL now as I did then (Bill Hader and Andy Samberg are gone, duh) but I’m super grateful for it. Without SNL, I wouldn’t have discovered some of my favorite podcasts, movies, and TV shows, all through following the immense web that is the cast members’ careers.

Plus, it’s still the most fascinating thing ever. A weekly sketch show that’s been on the air for over forty years? Comedy’s greats practically living in 30 Rock, pulling all-nighters to write jokes, the best of which will become part of the cultural canon for decades to come? I mean, come on. Who wouldn’t want to read about that?

Thus, unsurprisingly, THIS BOOK IS SO, SO FASCINATING.

I keep describing it as gossiping with the greats of comedy. Dan Aykroyd confiding in you about Belushi; Bill Murray dishing on a fistfight with Chevy Chase minutes before air; countless, countless wonderful anecdotes about Gilda Radnor. (My favorite is that she used to search the drawers of Lorne Michaels’ desk, hoping to find a note that said, I really like Gilda.)

This book talks to Tom Hanks and Carrie Fisher, Jane Curtin and Kristen Wiig, Paul Simon and Chris Martin. The only people missing are the infamously-disproportionate number of dead and Eddie Murphy, still smarting from a blow to the ego this book could never quite diagnose.

If you get the fortieth-anniversary edition - which, obviously, you should - this book clocks in at exactly 800 pages. And it’s worth every single one. There are dry spells, sure, but if this book was encyclopedic and came in volumes I’d still read every page.

Most importantly, this is a book unlike any other. I wish every show and movie I like was lucky enough to have its history encapsulated like this, but if it had to be just one show, I’m glad it’s this one.

Bottom line: A must-read for every SNL fan.

(Note: I’m super sorry this review was so earnest. It seems crazy weird to try to joke about a book with a hundred contributors when every single one of them is way funnier than me.)
Profile Image for Whit.
26 reviews8 followers
February 18, 2011
Basically, the first cast all slept around, did drugs because they didn't know any better, and became famous overnight without expecting it. No one understands Lorne. Everyone loves Gilda, Chevy was a pompous jerk, and Jane was just a normal lady with a husband and cat. Later they adopted Bill Murray.

The next cast all expected to get famous, and hardly any of them did. Lorne left the show, and so did the rest of America. Eddie Murphy gets discovered, Joe Piscopo becomes creepily possessive of his Sinatra impersonation, and no one else has a clue about what's going on or who's supposed to be doing what.

Lorne comes back. New cast is hired, and again, expecting to get famous, they pretty much suck. Really famous people get hired, like Billy Crystal and Martin Short, and all the writers get jealous because they have to keep writing the same characters over and over again. Still no one understands Lorne. We realize that Lorne kind of likes it this way, and is probably doing it on purpose.

Most of the famous people leave, and Lorne assembles another new cast. People rotate in and out until you get to the era of Chris Farley. Things stay the same for a while, then eventually you get the era of Will Ferrell. People still can't figure Lorne out.

Aside from the clinical nature of what I just wrote, I did really enjoy the book. It's almost all interviews, so it reads pretty fast. You often get multiple people's takes on a given situation, including actors, writers, producers and, rarely, Lorne himself. Obviously there are a lot of recurrent themes, and it does get repetitive in parts because comedians, for the most part, share a lot of the same neuroses about things. There's quite a bit of he-said-she-said-he-said-he-said (because there are way more men than women), and some backbiting and hurt feelings even after 30some years, but there are also some really touching moments about lost cast members like John Belushi, Gilda Radner, and Chris Farley from the people who probably knew them the best. No, not you, Michael O'Donoghue. You were just crazy.
Profile Image for Joe Valdez.
498 reviews848 followers
November 20, 2017
Journalist James Andrew Miller and television critic Tom Shales compiled the definitive oral history of Saturday Night Live in 2002, a book that was nothing short of a master's program in comedy, writing and stagecraft, as well as the business of TV. Friends with interests in those areas, or who were simply fans of SNL, were lobbied hard by me to read it. Subsequently, and not surprisingly, my copy vanished.

In 2014, in time for the 40th anniversary of the longest running variety series in television, Miller & Shales have published this expanded edition, which includes the last twelve seasons of the show with one-hundred new pages. I'll now commence lobbying efforts on behalf of this must-read book across social media and place my hardcover copy under lock and key. Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live is straight out the best memoir I've ever read.

This is an oral history, which means that except for some chapter setting exposition, Miller & Shales get out of the way and let the history of Saturday Night Live unfold through the memories of the cast members, writers, producers, musicians, hosts, guests and network executives who were there. As you'd expect from the immense reservoir of talent involved in SNL through the years, the insights are priceless.

Paul Shaffer, Musician: I met Lorne up in his 17th floor office. For some reason I have this recollection of him looking at two pots of coffee brewing and saying, "Which of these coffees is fresher?" And I'll always remember that. I thought, "This is a guy who speaks in comedic pentameter." I remember that and the fact that his skin was all broken out, because he was nervous. He was putting this show together from scratch, and he hadn't hired anybody yet.

Lorne Michaels, Executive Producer: When people come up to me at a party at the end of their first year and say, "I can't tell you how much I appreciate this, and I'm so grateful for this opportunity," I always go, "Well, let's talk about this in year six, because that's when it will actually matter. Because now all the power is on my side and you have no power." The test of character is how people behave when they're successful and they have more power. Some people handle it really well.

Chris Rock, Cast Member: How can anyone hate the guy? A lot of people have problems with Lorne. A lot of people I've met from the show come from these great backgrounds, and they're not used to working for people. And you know he hired you to work for him, there's no working with. You're only working with if you count the money at the end of the night. Otherwise you're working for. And when you're working for somebody, you're going to have to do shit you don't want to do.

Al Franken, Writer: People used to ask me about this and I'd always say, "No, there was no coke. It's impossible to do the kind of show we were doing and do drugs." And so that was just a funny lie I liked to tell. Kind of the opposite was true, unfortunately--for some people, it was impossible to do the show without the drugs.

John Landis, Film Director: I went up to the SNL offices. John was giving me a tour, when a very sexy girl walks by. Tight jeans and a T-shirt, no bra, curly hair. "Oh my God, who is that?" And John says, "That's Rosie Shuster. That's Lorne's wife and Danny's girlfriend." Which is true. It was wild. Rosie's the one who coined the best line about Aykroyd. Danny had studied in a seminary to be a Jesuit priest the same time he was doing second story jobs in and around Ontario. Rosie's the one who said, "Danny's epiphany would be to commit a crime and arrest himself."

Buck Henry, Host: There were people outside the cast that I look at and say, "They could have been cast members"--Tom Hanks, Alec Baldwin, John Goodman and Steve Martin. Those four people were essentially cast members, because they really fit into the format and they understood their work, and they were really great guest hosts.

Tim Kazurinsky, Cast Member: One little test I used to do was on a Monday morning when we'd meet the host, I would ask the host if he would be interested in doing a sketch called "The William Holden Drinking Helmet". I would always gauge their reaction, because poor Bill Holden had fallen and cracked his head open and bled to death. So I always thought, if they laughed at that at least, I knew it would be a good week. And if they went, "What?! Aw, no, that's sick," then I thought, "Aw-oh, we're dicked." That was my little running gag to see if they had a sense of humor or if they were going to be a dickhead like Robert Blake.

Ana Gasteyer, Cast Member: I speak to college groups and stuff about being a woman. This era has been clearly less scathed--if that's a word--and if anything, I think we were exalted, for reasons that weren't always clear to me early on, Molly Shannon and Cheri Oteri and I. We got press for it. We got press for being this trifecta of women that turned the show around. I mean, that's what they talked about. I don't think there's such a thing as actual exaltation every day in this place, because there's just too many creative people that need exaltation at any given time. But, you know, we were written up and we were photographed together. That sort of signifies that you've changed a tune, and certainly we heard it anecdotally all the time--that the women are the best thing on the show.

James Downey, Writer: The 2008 election had that really interesting thing going on between Obama and Hillary in the front half, and in the back half you had Tina Fey doing Sarah Palin. I never thought the writing for the Sarah Palin character was particularly great until the last one, the vice presidential debate. But her performance was so incredibly great. It's one of the all-time great political impressions. You just got that "Thank you, God!" kind of break where you had Sarah Palin and Tina Fey on the planet at the same time. You can't count of getting those kinds of things.

I became a fan of SNL at the age of 9 when Eddie Murphy, only ten years older and maybe ten pounds heavier than I was, joined the cast and shot to superstardom. Many viewers discovered the show with Murphy and haven't watched it since he left. I stayed glued for a decade, through Dana Carvey's tenure as Bush, Perot, the Church Lady and later, Garth to Mike Myers' Wayne. I seemed to move on around the time Will Ferrell and others replaced them in 1995. I'd watched The Best of John Belushi and The Best of Dan Aykroyd on VHS tape, but as for the new casts, relied on my mom to recite the latest sketches for me.

One of the reasons that Live From New York makes for such a compelling read -- even for those who'd maintain, "Well, sorry, not a fan of that show" -- is the bigger picture of how what was happening in Studio 8H at 30 Rock Plaza was a microcosm of what was going on in the United States. SNL doesn't invent culture; the show mirrors what's happening in culture and to read this book is to travel across forty years of it: the rise and fall of '60s counter-culture; the struggle by women, minorities and homosexuals for equality in the workplace; shifting attitudes toward sex, drugs and even health.

At 745 pages (not including the indexes), Live From New York would make a wonderful gift for anyone you know with even a passing interest in comedy, writing, performing or social studies. You just can't borrow my copy; I'm keeping this on my shelf for quick reference whenever I need a shot of creativity. My only regret is that Amy Poehler & Tina Fey can't travel back in time to try to mesh with the show in the wild and crazy '70s and stop John Belushi from overdosing. Even comedy heroes of mine have limitations to their powers.
Profile Image for Olive Fellows (abookolive).
611 reviews4,984 followers
December 23, 2022
I was shocked when I found out that the institution that is Saturday Night Live in the comedy world came about exclusively because Johnny Carson didn't want episodes of The Tonight Show airing on Saturday nights anymore (he wanted those episodes to rerun on weeknights so that he could take more vacations). It was an unlikely catalyst, but it set the tone for the haphazard way the show would come together. That whole saga unfolds in Live from New York, a history of the long-running show. It's an intriguing read, but there's definitely an emphasis on the early days and early casts of SNL and I wish more attention had been paid to notable/historical sketches.

Click here to hear more of my thoughts on this book (and other books on movies/TV shows) over on my Booktube channel, abookolive!

Profile Image for Kerry.
519 reviews73 followers
November 11, 2014
Wow, this took me FOREVER to read. It was in my bathroom, so I only read it sporadically, but STILL. I go to the bathroom EVERY DAY.

I think it could have been shorter if it had been edited better. This was only the second "oral history"-stylee book I've read (the other was Gonzo) and it wasn't put together nearly as well. The interstitial writing was so pandering and complimentary that it made me want to barf. And the interviews themselves were very repetitive (newsflash: Lorne Michaels doesn't hand out compliments very often. Tell me one thousand times!) and sometimes poorly edited. Can't you take out all the "likes" and "ums"? I mean seriously.

The stuff about the early years was interesting, but the more recent years aren't very interesting because no one is doing drugs or screwing each other. But there are still just as many pages devoted to them.

All in all, it was okay, but I had heard SUCH great things about this book, and it pretty much shot its load in the first 150 pages. Also it was almost never funny.
Profile Image for Julie Ehlers.
1,111 reviews1,412 followers
November 8, 2014
Well, I feel like I know more about Lorne Michaels--and how people feel about him--than I'd ever want to know. Why did the authors think he needed his own section?

This book was interesting, but the worshipful quality of it was annoying as hell. It's just a TV show. It's not changing the lives of anyone except its stars. But in this book, it's portrayed as one of the most significant things to happen in the U.S. Whoever criticizes the show is wrong, and wrong to do it, and any star who criticizes it or calls is racist or sexist is just wrong. Plus, how did the authors choose which guest hosts to interview? Why so much Gwyneth Paltrow?

Don't get me wrong--this was an entertaining book. But a little perspective is in order.
Profile Image for Jack Chaucer.
Author 9 books160 followers
November 26, 2018
3.5 stars. An interesting look behind the curtains of one of my favorite shows. It's a bit dated (2002), but just modern enough to include Will Ferrell at least. The format features scores of performers, writers, producers and Lorne Michaels himself all speaking directly on how they've put the show together, and all that has gone right and wrong over the years. It is both revealing and tiring, due to repetition and sheer length. I'd recommend it to people who enjoy the show, but that's about it. The book could still use a better editing job either way.
Profile Image for Arthur Graham.
Author 72 books654 followers
June 25, 2023
Over twenty years out of date by this point, but I do recall liking it well enough back when it first came out. I especially appreciated the sections covering 1980-85, during Michaels' hiatus, an all-too-often forgotten period with these episodes kept largely out of syndication. Granted, it wasn't the best period in the show's history (that's putting it nicely), but C'MON:

Profile Image for Lena.
Author 1 book348 followers
March 8, 2014
This is an oral history of the iconic comedy show that interviews performers, hosts, writers and producers from the show's first year in 1975 through this book's publication in 2002.

Like many of my generation, I grew up badgering my parents to stay up late enough to be able to watch such characters as Roseanne Rosannadanna and The Blues Brothers, then abandoned the show when creator Lorne Michaels and the original cast left 5 years later. Though I didn't start watching it again regularly until Tina Fey's resemblance to Sarah Palin set their political satire back on fire, I was surprised to realize what a powerful comedy force SNL remained even during its so-called "bad" years.

What I gained most from this book was an understanding of just how radically SNL transformed both television and American comedy. The book paints an excellent portrait of the historical context in which the show was born, and goes into some detail about the battles Michaels had to fight to get his comedic vision on the air originally and then get it back under his control after his return years later.

While hearing the story from multiple voices can sometimes get repetitive, the technique also offers a unique, multifaceted perspective on the show and its major players. As one might expect a book about a comedy show to be, it is also incredibly funny in some places; I laughed out loud more than once and resurrected a deep affection for cast members I never knew but still claim as my own.

If there is anything this book makes clear, however, it's that producing a weekly live comedy show is anything but fun and games. I learned more about the unpleasant sides of certain comedy heros than I wanted to know, and the stories of power struggles, drug addiction, sexism, and network politics make is appear miraculous that the show ever got on the air at all, let alone continues to have such an impact over so many decades.

There are those who argue that SNL has lost its edge, and no longer takes the risks that it did when it was first born. This is undoubtedly true, but the book does a good job of arguing that part of the reason for this is because SNL was so successful in bringing cutting edge comedy to the mainstream that what used to be so radical is now normal.

That said, the show continues to be a major force in American entertainment, having produced more household name stars than can be easily counted. I completed this book as Jimmy Fallon was launching on The Tonight Show, an event I doubt even Lorne Michaels could have foreseen when he cast him as a Weekend Update anchor shortly after plucking him from obscurity. Where SNL will go from here remains to be seen, but after nearly 40 years, its safe to say it will continue to have an impact as long as its on the air.
Profile Image for Joe.
1,026 reviews29 followers
June 30, 2023
I've been meaning to read this book for YEARS but I'm actually glad I waited so that I could read the updated edition that goes from 1975 to 2014. This book is FASCINATING and eye-opening. It was most in depth on the original cast but did a good job explaining each new generation. I had a few complaints here and there (I felt like Will Ferrell was acknowledged as a comedic powerhouse but they didn't really get into why) but it was mostly small potatoes.

Another small complaint was the style of writing. The authors would just post snippets of interviews with various people. I would rather have had them do one more step and put them into some sort of arrangement that broke down the info in a more straightforward manner.

John Belushi came off horribly and probably with justification. He was a chauvinistic drug monster who doomed himself. Chris Farley came off as hilarious but also doomed in a much more tragic way.

It was interesting reading about the cast members who failed and why. Janeane Garofalo was of particular interest in this regard as was Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

Lorne Michaels came off very poorly but I see him as a complicated figure. The culture he has developed at SNL is toxic due to the competitive nature of the show. Is this culture necessary? Does it help or hurt the creative/work environment? It's hard to argue with the results of this long running successful show that he has, at times, held together by sheer force of will. The true test will be what happens when Lorne retires/dies. I would love to see Seth Meyers take over.

It was my dream to be on SNL as a kid so this book was just wonderful. I still never miss an episode. I can't recommend this book highly enough.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
144 reviews8 followers
July 15, 2013
This is a verbal history of Saturday Night Live made of a tapestry of insiders talking. The only major figure from SNL history they couldn't get to talk was Eddie Murphy, but everyone else is here. Ten thoughts on the book:

1) Writing about music may be like dancing about architecture but talking about comedy is, for me, really, really interesting. Even if you're only getting one more studied pose from comedians and writers, stuff like this and Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee are almost more fun than the comedy itself. I think I just love spending time with funny people, and if I can do that for free without having to leave the house or spend time with actual humans, all the better.

2) Also, writing about music is not like dancing about architecture. We are humans, and we use written language to distill and understand our feelings about things. It is perfectly valid to write about music. It is also perfectly valid to dance about architecture, but I will not be joining you. Unless you're dancing to something off More Songs About Buildings And Food. Or just... oh go on then, let me get my tutu.

3) The weight of the 'classic' first five years cast hangs over everything SNL does since, but the show has always been a mixed bag, slow, shit sketches punctuated by amazing/awful bands, by bits that flop and bits that soar. That's what's great about it.

4) It also makes sense now why the 'best of' comps never really came across well when I used to watch them, having loved various cast members in films. The show works in its format, at the time it's on, after the week that's been. It's a lot more enjoyable when they are sending up things or people in culture that are happening at the time and make sense. So the idea that one cast is 'timeless' or dominant is more to do with how the viewer related to them at the time, and their age, and so on. The love for one cast is Baby Boomer/Rolling Stone/Things Were Better In My Day bullshit.

5) That said, it's interesting that a show that works by being current is also so steeped in nostalgia, with recurrent hosts, old stars dropping in and getting the biggest cheers, and people still coughing up $26 for a t-shirt of a silly sketch where Will Ferrell hits a cowbell. Having got in the habit of watching it now, I'd said it's because it brilliantly creates the illusion of funny friends/family, with the added piquancy of the darwinist 'who's going to make it in this cast'/'who's going to make it afterwards' subplot. Which this book is, of course, magnificently obsessed with.

6) No matter how great your job is (say, writing comedy for good money in a great city, or being silly on live TV), you'll find a way to moan about it if you're that way inclined. There are some deep ass grudges in this book. Thinking about it, I would probably be exactly the same way.

7) The two people who come across best in this book are Jane Curtin, for being brilliant while so above the fray, the drugs, the ego. And Will Ferrell, for just being so unabashedly fucking funny that all other concerns parted like a petty red sea.

8) The 90s was a hard/weird time to do comedy. The ultra-ironic requirements of a post-Nirvanabomb cultural landscape led to the snidey Sandlers and the unengaged, enraged Garofalos. It's a lot easier in comedy nowadays to Just Be Funny, I think. The self-aware irony has kind of settled like dust into the overall grooves of jokes, but it doesn't have to plug them up.

8) The show got it's mojo back in the 2000s by first hiring lots of brilliant women, having Tina Fey as head writer, and thereby being more balanced and smart, not just lots of honking and aggression. (Not that Amy et al can't do honking aggression.)

9) The show stayed good in the 2010s due to having talented but also nice, professional and hard working cast members. Maybe it's 'cause I'm older, or because of my conception of how society would have to be composed for a socialist society to work in practice, but a group of funny, hard-working decent sorts is so much more compelling than selfish, cokey, 'intense' iconoclasts who step on other people's lines.

10) I now feel in a position to decide my top ten SNLers of all time. This is an important milestone for me, and I hope you all appreciate what it's taken for me to get to this point.
Profile Image for Joshua.
96 reviews6 followers
February 27, 2012
I love this kind of "oral history" approach. Everything told through interviews with the people that lived it. And you're left to weave together the truth and the fiction. SNL is an institution, despite the derision it gets from each new generation of viewers. Taking 90 minutes of television out of the hands of a broadcast media elite in the mid-70s and handing it to what was essentially a bunch of kids to do whatever they want in real time on live television was a huge deal. We take for granted the change this heralded for youth culture. The prizing of spontaneity made this then, and continue to make it now, an accessible and precious kind of comedy.

Reading this launched me into a weeks-long binge of old-school SNL on Netflix. It breaks my heart that huge chunks of old episodes are withheld (some cut down to 20-30 minutes long), but the first five seasons are all there in their entirety. Definitely important stuff to watch, I think. And the context that Live from New York provides makes it that much more enlightening.
Profile Image for michael.
57 reviews3 followers
March 25, 2009
this was read solely in the bathroom over several months. dull, repetitive stuff. it was extremely self-congratulatory and basically i wanted it to be a different book. with all these hilarious people being interviewed, you'd think it might be interesting to hear about their tastes in comedy, their writing processes, their favorite moments, but no, this is mostly just about who was taking what or screwing who (literally and figuratively) and who was an asshole and stories about lorne michaels acting aloof and eating popcorn. seems like quite an achievement to make such a lengthy book about SNL devoid of any laughs.
Profile Image for Still.
576 reviews84 followers
September 1, 2015

Best book available about the early to middle years of SNL.
Some very funny stories on almost every page of this oral history.
Recommended to all of my fellow aged baby boomers.
Profile Image for Matt Smith.
295 reviews13 followers
June 26, 2015
Do you have what it takes?

The first time I learned about this book was in looking to find out more about the long and storied history of Saturday Night Live after the 40th Anniversary episode. And a history of the show as told by those who lived it? That's exactly the sort of book I was looking for.

My experience with SNL is remarkably limited. I mostly watched the re-runs in high school when they were on cable and really only with the cast I was most familiar with (late 90s and early 2000s). I did love what I saw, but those episodes (being only an hour long) were edited down and never really captured the full experience of a 90 minute show with all of the trappings (like did you know that they do Weekend Update every week and it's longer than two minutes and can feature more than just a couple of Colin Quinn jokes and will have recurring characters and guests?).

As such, much of this book left me cold in terms of what it talked about. I was unfamiliar with some of the referenced sketches from some of the eras I have seen (the early 90s stuff), and when it comes to the legendary first five years of SNL? Forget about it. I haven't seen much of it at all. Now that I've finished this book, I find that unfortunate and a thing I greatly wish to rectify. There's a part of me that wants to buy the first season of SNL and just watch every single episode as they (more or less) aired. Hell, there's a part of me that wants to own every episode of every season.

But that.... misses the point. Because SNL really isn't LIKE that, is it? Or at least, that's absolutely not what I took away from this book.

Really, there isn't anything out there like SNL. Sure there have been attempts (the book tangentially references MadTV when it's relevant), but few things in the last 40 years (if any) have had the insane cultural impact that SNL has. And part of that is why I find it offputting. Don't get me wrong, I don't mean to sound willfully culturally ignorant, but SNL is... well... it's a safe place. It is a show that is so much about what it's like to be and live in New York City. The entire book I was reminded of something I heard the fabulous Rachel Bloom say in an interview after she moved from NYC to L.A. L.A. is for people who have artistically figured themselves out while New York is about, well, artistically figuring yourself out. It's a city that fosters development and learning. It's no coincidence that many, many of those interviewed in this book reflect on their time on or with the show as "Comedy College" rather than boot camp. It's a place where a never-ending cavalcade of the extraordinarily talented march through the halls learning what their voice is, how to hone it, and how to make it accessible to a mass audience. People join SNL fresh-faced and young, they work their asses off, and then they leave (usually) to L.A. where they make the rest of their career.

But because the show is this proving ground, it can, at times, languish. The book is quick to point out that people were saying "Saturday Night Dead" almost immediately after the departure of Chevy Chase at the end of season one. All it takes is a bad episode, one that has a few chuckles in maybe one or two sketches, and suddenly someone somewhere is decrying the show for having "lost the magic."

Can it, though? This show? Can it truly lose that magic? Because what this book is telling me is that this show isn't about the strength of one episode or even one show. Hell, the strength of the show isn't even about the current season. It's about the legacy. The show has had turnover every single year it's been on the air.

No. The legacy is about how this show nurtures and fosters creativity. It's about how Lorne Michaels and his time find and recognize talent and how that talent (with shocking universality) goes on to fabulous careers. Seriously. It is mindblowing that one person can find that much insane talent and have such an insane track record with it. But that's the byproduct. It's one thing to be on the Tonight Show and have your career start because of one night, but that doesn't guarantee your entire career. Being "called up" is only the beginning of a long and arduous life. You work really hard. You get called. And then the real hard work begins.

And this hard work? It's Saturday Night Live. And I've always realized it about this show but it never really crystalized until I read this book. But go back and watch the show (or watch anything that's currently on now) and maybe you'll see it like I see it. The show is a glorified UCB or Groundlings. That's really ALL it is. It's a bunch of young people writing and doing sketches and acting like buffoons and reading off cue cards. It's not about ACTING. It's about performing, and that's always put me off about the show (because I'm snooty and find I prefer acting to performing). But how else are these young entertainers supposed to entertain people?

(Sorry. Can you tell I've been thinking about this bloody book/show for almost four months?)

Unfortuantely, I found this book more frustrating than not. It's 800 pages of interviews. What I wanted was another version of "Marvel Comics: The Untold Story" what with the INSANE bite that book had to it. That book is nonstop "oh no that person? That person was an asshole." And really, everything up until the late 90s is the stuff that I wanted about SNL. Sure, I didn't know the sketches, but the book was about the people, the history, the controversy, the clashes. After about the turn of the century the book becomes predominantly about how NICE everyone is to each other. And, much as I enjoy people being nice to one another, it does lack the roller coaster ride that is the first 25 years of the show, and the last 30% of this book was languishing, way too long, and too self-congratulatory. I mean, I get that Stefon is cool but did we really need to spend that much time on Stefon? The Digital Shorts invented Youtube, but my god was it a ton of interviews in need of a good editor. And part of that isn't the interviewers' fault. It's just that people don't feel free to talk about the immediate past with the liberal loose-lippedness they can talk about something that happened decades ago.

Then again, the strength of the book is in its interviews. Watching people reminisce about Belushi or Hartman or Farley or Radner is devastating and raw and real in the best of ways. Hearing the conflicting accounts where, say, Harry Shearer will complain about something on the show and then someone will turn around and call Harry Shearer an asshole will always be my favorite thing. Seeing peoples' reflections on their experiences can make them seem like awful people (Chevy Chase) or, perhaps, unfairly bitter (Janene Garofolo) in ways that cast them in poor light when contrasted to the people who thrived out of the show and speak with nothing but warmth and reverence to this insane institution.

But my god, seriously. The last like... 250 pages of this were a real struggle.

As such, I end up liking this book less than I did when I started. All the stuff about the early years, the controversy, the drama, the nostalgia, the drugs, the fighting, the laughter... that was amazing. Watching the show fall on its face COMPLETELY after Lorne Michaels left and took all his cast with him was fantastic and answered about half the questions I had about that era of the show. And yet, true to SNL fashion, even when it was at its nadir it still produced Eddie Fucking Murphy. It's like the show is incapable of being anything less than a cultural institution at even the worst of times. I mean, jesus. Lorne Michael returned to the show and he had one season with Anthony Michael Hall, Robert Downey Jr., Joan Cusack, and Nora Dunn and ALL of those people went off to tremendous success despite being on a singular, rubbish season.

Again, the show is extraordinarily impressive and this book does capture that.

That's what I'm left with. This book interviews forty years' worth of completely batshit insane yet unspeakably talented people who put on a show on Saturday Nights when they were young. That's all they did. That's all Saturday Night Live is (only on a TV budget). And that's the strength of the show: watching new fresh voices in comedy come into their own under the supervision of one extraordinarily talented producer. How the hell this show will POSSIBLY continue long after he goes is beyond me, but until that day eventually comes we can look forward to god-knows-how-many generations of talent will pass through its doors to show us what they're capable of.
Profile Image for B.
764 reviews27 followers
December 14, 2020
Saturday Night Live has never been something I stay up for, or really care about at all. The only times I remember sitting down at 11:30pm and watching SNL were on the weekends my brothers and I stayed at my Dad's. It was this special bonding time between a Dad and the kids he doesn't see often. We'd stay up late, cracked out on buttery popcorn and chocolate goodies bought from Costco, and laugh even at the unfunniest of sketches, happy to be up past bedtime and happy to be with each other.

In adulthood, I only pop onto Hulu to stream last Saturday's episode if:
1. an actor or band I really like was involved
2. the internet is exploding from how funny/whacky the episode was

Why, then, would I even bother with this book? And how did I end up liking it so much?

Miller and Shales aren't simply interested in the funniest sketches and the most destructive people which/who have danced across the stage. Rather, they treat this book as a march through eras of comedy and culture, beginning with the drug-infused 70s, and ending on the granola-and-kale early 2000s. They capture the most touching, the most hilarious, and the most cringe-worthy moments, and they allow every person who has walked into 30 Rock to tell their story.

The structure is pretty fascinating (and I can't even begin to fathom the amount of editing that went on, whew!). Miller and Shales interviewed everyone they could get their hands on, and had these actors/writers/produces/passerbys tell, in detail, the life of SNL while they were there. Once each story has been collected, they are systematically hacked up and sprinkled throughout the book into bite-sized paragraphs, so that the readers get a chronological story; and get several views on the same event all at once.

Really, really ingenious stuff going on here.

The authors were able to nab pretty much all of the heavy hitters (save those who had already passed, and Eddie Murphy. Really, Eddie Murphy? You're too good for this shit? Nevermind the show, you know, made you who you are today but whatever, fine, be that way), [{[{HELLO! IT'S ME FROM THE FUTURE! 2020 to be exact. A good friend told me she was reading this, so I got nostalgic and decided to re-read my review. All I have to say is... wow. Girl. Do some Googling. Eddie Murphy had to deal with SO MUCH RACISM during his tenure on SNL. It isn't surprising he passed on being a part of this book. Be better. Anyway, back to the 2015 review}]}] and, surprisingly enough, were able to get some pretty honest takes on how SNL has evolved, who has been the best (and the worst) to work with, as well as some pretty great behind-the-scenes looks. I laughed out loud, I gasped a bit, and my feelings on some actors will never be the same (I never thought I'd dislike the guy who brought me "Zoolander" and a very good reboot of "Walter Mitty" ... but I sort of want to punch Ben Stiller in the throat after finishing this).

The only negative I really have to say is: the final section on Lorne Michaels? Super unnecessary. Super boring. I found myself a little annoyed with the writers that they slapped it in here, and really only skimmed the end, looking for final anecdotes from the voices I liked the most.

For anyone who appreciates SNL, or comedy at all for that matter, this book is quite simply a must-read. I was interested in this book solely to hear the voices of Akroyd, Curtain, Murray, Fey, Fallon, and Poehler (comedic icons, in my book), but I walked away having respect for so many more past cast members/writers, and respect for the sketch show that has survived so much, and just keeps truckin'.
Profile Image for Nikki Stafford.
Author 26 books84 followers
March 18, 2016
When I was a teenager, there was a channel that began replaying SNL from the first episode in 1975, and my dad would record it and we would watch it every night. I watched all of the material from the 1970s while also watching the current shows in the late 80s, and it was fascinating to watch how much had changed, and what had stayed the same. Because Lorne Michaels wasn't at the show from 1980-85, he never allows that era to be reshown, so that will always be a hole in my viewing knowledge of the show, but otherwise, it's been that one show that I'm always checking in with and watching every week.

This is a fantastic book about the life of SNL, told by the stars, writers, and producers who put it on the air. It was originally released in 2002, I believe, and then updated with the past 13 years added on so it would be ready for the show's 40th anniversary. The early years contain stories from all of the living Not Ready for Prime Time Players (even the loathed Chevy Chase), and they do NOT hold back on anything. It's juicy, exciting, and amazing to read. Then it moves to the 1980s and turns into a lot of vitriol and upset, and then the post-1985 stuff ranges from bitter — seriously, I love Jeanine Garofalo but all she does is bitch about how awful it was working there, and everyone else just bitches about having her around — to boring. Joe Piscopo comes off as a tool who believes his impression of Sinatra wasn't so much comedy as loving tribute, and he reviles Phil Hartman for not being as loving when he did it years later.

The most recent additions were clearly done quickly, and you can tell exactly where the book originally came to a close because of all of the "This is what SNL has meant to my life" stuff that's in there before it switches to the new tacked-on chapter. The final chapter, about Lorne Michaels, has incorporated new quotations with the older ones, but the newer material was rushed (it's the only time in the book where you'll see formatting typos or, in one case, an entire long quotation repeated three pages after it originally runs) and wasn't exactly revelatory. Just a bunch of people saying Lorne Michaels changed their lives (or didn't) and that yeah, those early guys did a ton of drugs and all had sex with each other but we do yoga and eat vegan food. The one exception is Andy Samberg, who is as interesting in the interviews as he was on the show. Though I will admit Rachel Dratch telling the story of breaking during the Debbie Downer sketch at Disney World had me giggling all over again as I remembered watching it.

I would still award this book five stars if it weren't for the oversight of the musical aspect of the show. With the exception of Paul Simon — who is one of Lorne Michaels' best friends — there's almost no mention whatsoever of any of the musical acts, nor did the authors of the book deign to interview any of them. There have been some LEGENDARY musical performances on SNL, but absolutely no mention of any of them in the book. Where was David Bowie? Or Elvis Costello's infamous performance where he got banned for life? Or the Beastie Boys? Or Kanye? So many bands have done iconic performances on SNL, and the authors just skip the music entirely like it's not part of the show at all. I almost want to remove another star for the oversight, but the first 300 pages of the book were so damn good I can't bring myself to do that.

Despite that glaring omission, I would highly recommend this book. The stories in it are amazing, and you'll come away with a completely new understanding of how this groundbreaking show works and has been running for over 40 years.
Profile Image for Kirsti.
2,563 reviews102 followers
October 4, 2014
"Horatio was wiping tears of laughter out of his eyes with a waffle." --Paula Pell, describing the "Debbie Downer" sketch she wrote in which nearly every actor broke character and laughed during the performance

"I always said I would love to have done SCTV. There were smarter producers and smarter people involved." --Tim Kazurinsky

"I like it when people leave because that's what makes Saturday Night Live work. If you had the same cast that you had from the '70s, this show wouldn't be around." --Jimmy Fallon

"Tina [Fey] is everything I want to be. . . . She writes sketches like she's making scrambled eggs, like it's nothing." --Fred Armisen

"I would never be where I am today without SNL. No way. Nobody would have let me be on camera, and then to get a gig like 'Weekend Update'--you just can't get any luckier because you are going on TV every week, as yourself, saying, 'Hi! This is my name and now I'm telling you jokes.' " --Tina Fey

"A 'no-wig' job like that one struck me as a good thing to aim for." --Seth Meyers, describing "Weekend Update"

"Sarah Palin was just pennies from heaven. An amazing gift to comedy, that woman." --Paula Pell

"I have plenty of opportunities to look like a million bucks. I'd rather look like, I don't know, someone's anus or something." --Scarlett Johansson, on hosting SNL

"When I'm doing a movie and it has a particular type of scene, I always imagine it being made fun of on Saturday Night Live." --Robert De Niro

"God, you make so much money doing it--five or six hundred bucks! You can really clean up being a guest star at SNL!" --Jon Hamm

"Fortunately for me, I have always enjoyed mystery and solitude." --Tom Davis, shortly after he received a diagnosis of terminal cancer

"I think Lorne Michaels has done more for women in comedy than anyone I know." --Amy Poehler

"I've never been broke a day since I met Lorne Michaels." --Chris Rock

Very entertaining update of this book, which originally came out 10 years ago. Nice to hear from the younger cast members.
Profile Image for Patricia.
282 reviews10 followers
January 21, 2012
A good guilty pleasure read, but seriously uneven. Five stars for the section on the 70s (drugs! sex! drama! blues bars! all night parties! crazy people!), four for the early 80s (hot mess! intrigue!), and three for the rest of the book (basically, there were guest stars; Janine Garafalo hated the show and everyone hated her; everyone has daddy issues with Lorne Michaels). This waning excitement is probably a combination of the show itself getting into more of a routine over the years and the fact that people who worked on the show more recently are less inclined to air the really good dirty laundry. But the book is SO LONG that the kind of boring part is almost 300 pages.

Also, the short sections written to guide the reader through the oral histories are embarrassingly terribly written, and the book is arranged in such a way that any time someone criticizes SNL, the quotation is followed up by someone else criticizing the dissenter. This is especially true of women writers or performers who call out the show for sexism. Really, the transparency of this strategy got a bit tiring.

But I cannot recommend the first 200 pages enough, and I challenge anyone to read this section and not experience an intense desire to party with Dan Ackroyd, Bill Murphy, and Carrie Fisher circa 1978.
Profile Image for Sarah Beth.
232 reviews16 followers
January 28, 2013
this is the gossipiest book i have ever read. and that's saying a lot, because I read tina brown's biography of Princess Diana.

The beginning is a lot about creating SNL and the not ready for primetime players, which I loved. I have a real thing for Gilda Radner.

The second half, after Lorne Michaels comes back to the show, is just so so gossipy. So gossipy. Not a lot of substance, unless you count backstabbing as substance.

Worth it for the first half, but you can probably quit when you get to the pictures.
OH! I read this on my ipad, which I would HIGHLY suggest, because you're going to want to youtube sketches of Father Guido Sarducci and the church lady and Mary Katheryn Gallagher and Roseanne Roseannadanna and the Blues Brothers, and it helps to have that just a swipe away.
Profile Image for John.
18 reviews5 followers
August 13, 2015
I've been a huge fan of SNL since I was a kid. This book is written in an interesting interview style. Rather than one long interview, it pulls pieces of interviews from MANY people and puts them together in nice little chapters based on subject and time period.

Great read if you're a fan of SNL and love to hear all the details behind the scenes.
Profile Image for Union County Library.
378 reviews34 followers
March 25, 2022
This is a fascinating deep dive into Saturday Night Live’s history. And this copy is the updated one to take that history to 2015, which means there's A LOT in here. It's an oral history, with tons of cast members (no Eddie Murphy, though), so it just cruises along and I was up too late a few nights because it flowed really well.

- Reviewed by Eric M.
38 reviews
September 5, 2022
The book is a marathon, but fun to read and learned a lot about the show, Lorne, and the different casts.
Profile Image for Mary.
438 reviews48 followers
January 3, 2009
This was an engrossing and sometimes infuriating read. SNL is an undeniable force in pop culture, launching career after career and influencing the cultural memes, but I still had a hard time dealing with the self-important tone of the authors and the people they interviewed. The overall impression was that they'd been participating in a cult that still held them and the rest of us in thrall. And Lorne Michaels = Jim Jones.

The book was fun for the bits of insider-y gossip it offered--everybody thinks Chevy Chase is a dick, George Steinbrenner was a terrible host--though many of the interviewees stuck to generalities without talking about specific people or sketches, which kept you wondering who or what they were talking about. You got the history of the controversies, the deaths, and the cycles of "good seasons" and "bad seasons," the network beefs, etc., etc.

Long-time writer James Downey gave some revealing interviews. He's known for writing a lot of political sketches and getting into a huge feud with one of the NBC execs. When Norm McDonald started anchoring Weekend Update in the mid '90s, Downey wrote most of his material. That always seemed like one of the most unfunny things in the history of the show to me. Not surprisingly, Downey and MacDonald had extreme contempt for the audience, more interested in doing what they thought was smart humor than getting laughs. In the book, MacDonald says, "I have more faith in me and Jim that I did in any audience. I just like doing jokes I like, and if the audience doesn't like them, then they're wrong, not me." I suppose many "comics" have that attitude and some express it regularly (hello, Carlos Mencia), but it always seems stunning to me.

That passage sort of crystalized the whole book for me, though, because it addresses the central question: Who and what was (is) this show for? Clearly it was breaking ground when it began (as they will never let us forget), but when the participants reminisce and celebrate and fulminate, they talk endlessly about the pressure, the ideas, the performances, the opportunity, the relationships. It's all inside baseball -- the rarefied air of their club. Many describe the show as a intense training ground for performance and celebrity. Which makes sense: they set it up so only a week's work goes into each show. It's performed live. If they were trying for perfection, they'd do it differently. As a member of the audience, what it amounts to is a weekly exercise in watching people improve their craft. Often it's funny and great and, just as often, it's kinda lame. The book's tone was one of reliving the glory and assuming immortality. But the glory isn't for us, it's for them and their careers. They kinda need to get over themselves.
Profile Image for Drew Grauerholz.
8 reviews2 followers
July 11, 2013
So I feel a little guilty for giving this only three stars because I certainly appreciate the amount of work that went into it, but I've got to stick to my guns on this one. To an SNL nerd like me, the oral history method is a perfect match. Competing memories, disagreements and insights make the reading really dynamic and quick, so even though it clocks in at however many pages it's pretty much a breeze. Here's the thing: Shales nails down the early stuff comprehensively, so even if you don't have much frame of reference for the 70s and 80s it sucks you in. But once you get past that into the time when the show really became an institution, the sheer size of the casts and crews stretches the narrative thin. Obviously there were some who decided not to take part ( a big one being Eddie Murphy) so you end up going "but wait what about this guy? Or that girl?" Whole chunks seem to be missing. Like what happened when Lorne brought down some of the Kids in the Hall to write or perform? Mark McKinney isn't even interviewed. (Not to mention the short tenures of Jay Mohr, Jim Breuer and Adam McKay) And then there is the fact I should probably have mentioned in the beginning, that it only goes up to 2001, so you aren't going to get anything from the 2000's stretch, which is the one I'm most interested in. Is it interesting to hear Rudy Giuliani's view around 9/11? Sure. Do I need six more entries or so about his other thoughts? Nope. Honestly I would love it if it was an even more epic, multi volume work like Carlyle's history of the French Revolution or some shit. And yes, I know how ridiculous that sounds. These are very nerdy complaints, but there is just so much more history to mine. There is much, much more in the 90s but it would be awesome to go further and follow/reflect on the rise of Ferrell, Fey, and Pohler, the political satire of the Bush years, the changeover away from standup back to improv players, the introduction of Samberg and the digital shorts, and especially Wiig, Hader, Armisen and Sudeikis. I mean, I'm sure i'm in the minority but I'm the type of dude who wants to know what happened to Jenny Slate. What the book does well it does very well. You definitely get the sense of the show as a massive living entity. There is a lot about Lorne Michaels that is especially good. People's impressions of him coupled with his own entries make him all the more interesting. In the end, I'm really impressed with the undertaking but it would have been great to have it filled out and balanced. If there was ever to be a volume two I would pounce on it.
Profile Image for Ensiform.
1,370 reviews139 followers
September 20, 2018
560 pages of new interviews with the living cast members, past and present, from Saturday Night Live (no old material from the dead), as well as Lorne Michaels and writers. It’s a fairly interesting bit of reading, going from the show’s origins in ‘75 to the 2002 season, and getting views from everyone except Eddie Murphy, who will not talk about the show ever for some reason. There’s a lot of gossip, anecdotes about the crazy all-night sessions, backstage sex, backstabbing, and so forth. And plenty of tributes to, and aspersions of, Lorne, the literal father figure to so many of them.

The gossip and dirt does get a bit repetitive at times, and a few more insights as to the actual production of the show might have been a welcome relief. A single sentence on Lorne switching the order of sketches and cutting them, for example, whets the appetite for more of how this process works. So this book is more a long puff piece than an investigation of any kind of practical information. Still, as puff piece, it’s quite readable, and amusing at times. It’s interesting to note three constants throughout the show’s history: Lorne lording it over everyone, Chevy Chase being an ass, and everyone hating Harry Shearer. It did occur to me while reading this that a true look at the dirt behind the scenes would involve interviews with the make-up people, prop masters, and stage hands – all people close to actors and totally under their radar. If they were kept anonymous, what sordid stories could they tell?
Profile Image for Daniel.
34 reviews7 followers
August 6, 2009
I liked this book better than a lot of the other books I read about SNL, because it was presented as an oral history. People painted in a negative light in previous books (Chevy Chase & Jean Doumanian, for example) got to tell their sides of the story (Chase is uncharacteristically humble and expresses regret for some of his past actions, while Doumanian is given more than enough rope to hang herself). Plus, since this is a fairly recent book, it talks about more recent backstage drama, such as Norm MacDonald's war with the NBC brass (Don Ohlmeyer comes across as even worse than Doumanian), and the first episode after 9/11. I'd very much like to see Shales and Miller update this book to reflect SNL's restored relevance in the wake of the Digital Shorts.
May 22, 2020
To start off, the format of this book was perfect. It was just the right amount of light but informative storytelling/oral history that I was enthralled.

Some parts of it definitely showed the book’s age, and there were other parts that I wasn’t super into (particularly the last chapter on Lorne Michaels). I appreciated the way the rest of the book had intertwined the veneration for people involved in the show with the rest of the history, so that last bit felt a little dragged out and out of place. Overall a solid read, and definitely worth the few days it took to get through it.
Profile Image for Barnabas Piper.
Author 11 books933 followers
March 19, 2018
It’s hard to rate an oral history because so much depends on the interview subjects’ material, but I really enjoyed this one. I only wish more could have been heard from. Few cast members and more could have been written about some of the most famous bits on the show. Over all it was excellent, though.
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