I always associated the term “primary source” with a dodgy thumbnail of some stuffy old text from the Renaissance reprinted in my history textbook. Those days are over, though, because I’ve found my new favorite primary source. (Though, to be fair, I never really had an old one, unless you count the Declaration of Independence or something. ‘Merica!) Tom Shales and Jason Andrew Miller’s Live from New York is an incredibly engaging, exciting, fascinating read about Saturday Night Live that I’d venture to say will go into more depth than any memoir written by the cast. And that’s because, in this book, everyone talks–about the drugs, the sex, the sexism, the sleeplessness, the competition, the camaraderie, the adrenaline, the brattiness, the brilliance, the brain-deadeness, and most of all, the resilience of the show.
The book is an exhaustive compilation of quotes from all generations and roles of SNL-ers, starting with the Not Ready for Prime Time Players and finishing in the Fallon/Fey era; the book was published in 2002. We hear from the performers, the writers, the producers (Marci Klein!), the celebrity hosts (Gwyneth Paltrow!), the successful, the burned, the sane (David Spade!), the crazy (Victoria Jackson!), and most of all, we hear from Lorne Michaels, the primariest of all the sources. Not all the stories are told consistently, and not all the facts add up, but that’s sort of the point. The disagreements paint that much clearer a picture of what it was like, and what it is like, in studio 8H in Rockefeller Center.
To me, SNL is mecca, a place where all the comedy gods become immortal (R.I.P. Belushi), and this book certainly caters to those who feel the same way. But it doesn’t glorify the experience, either. I mentioned “burned” before, and I really meant it; several performers, like Garrett Morris, Janeane Garofalo, Harry Shearer, and Damon Wayans, didn’t have the same career-catapulting experience that, say, Eddie Murphy, Will Ferrell, Chevy Chase, and Bill Murray had, though everyone went on to their own successes anyway. The aforementioned performers never really got off the ground at SNL for a variety of reasons; the takeaway is that the show isn’t built for every personality. It’s a machine, and some are cogs, and that’s the brutally honest way it is. There are plenty of complaints made and bitter tastes still left in the mouths of the burned, but their stories live on in print, preserved in cyanide. It’s sort of sad, but it’s juicy and fascinating at the same time.
The praise from the beloved is, as you might imagine, well represented in the book, too. Gilda Radner and Phil Hartman received universal praise, while other performers like Chris Farley, Will Ferrell, Dana Carvey, Martin Short, and Adam Sandler were sources of jealousy first, humor second, for most of their fellow castmates. And the egos! My god. Rarely did anyone leave with a smaller head than they came in with, and the writers had the most to say about that. Everyone from Jim Downey to Al Franken weighed in on who wanted to be written for, who couldn’t be written for, and who wrote for themselves.
All this drama adds up to a page-turner of a book, if you’ll pardon the cliche phrase. It’s over 500 pages, and hardcover at that (in my case), and I still brought it on the treadmill with me. I’d rather not spoil it too much more by giving away the gossip that fills its pages, and just say that if you’re a comedy nerd, surprise surprise, you’ll eat it up. But I wouldn’t be done talking about it if I didn’t memorialize a few good pull quotes, would I?
p. 130 // Steve Martin: “I found that, in performers and sometimes movies, and especially art, that it takes a while to come to something that’s new. A a lot of times when the resistance finally turns to acceptance, it makes you a greater supporter of it or them.”
p. 168 // Buck Henry: “But you also get the feeling that people are there because, first and foremost, it’s their launching pad or stepping-stone or way station or whatever, not as a destination in itself. They all know that it’s a franchise which leads to making bad movies.”
p. 229 // Tim Kazurinsky: “When did it become about the prostheses? And isn’t the parody in the writing and the wit, rather than the Rick Baker makeup?”
p. 324 // Kevin Nealon: “People need that occasional catchphrase in their life.”
p. 378 // David Spade: “I was just an unknown guy making fun of million-dollar celebrities for no reason, just to take their legs out. A year or two later, it was less interesting, because I had turned into one of them.”
p. 395 // James Downey: “I always thought that if comedy is going to confuse anybody, by rights it should be the stupider people. You shouldn’t be punished for knowing more.”
p. 399 // Fred Wolf: “No one goes to Hollywood for the right reasons. No one goes to Hollywood to meet their future husband or wife and buy a house and have kids. They all go to Hollywood because they’re kind of damaged and there’s something they’re searching for.”
p. 427 // Steve Higgins: “If you like everything in the show, then that’s not a good show.”
p. 483 // Robert Smigel: “A guy writes one play and everybody knows who he is, even if it’s a lousy play, but you can write a hundred great sketches and still be anonymous.”