This weekend I devoured the book Live from New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live. For the pop culture enthusiast, this is the ultimate stay up past bedtime (and, in my case, don't get those student papers graded) tome. Shales and Miller include plenty of gossip and talk to virtually every living writer and cast member (Eddie Murphy refused to participate) about the drugs, the politics, the music, the rivalries, and the attempt to maintain a countercultural ethos in the face of success. But aside from the juicy stories about cocaine, the text also has so much to say about the relationship that SNL has established with its audience. I liked learning that Chevy Chase--the closest the book has to a villain--turned down Animal House because of his rivalry with Belushi and his disinterest in doing what he saw as an ensemble comedy when he could be a leading man in Foul Play instead. But I liked even more the opportunity to recall my own history with the show. That's the genius of the book: the ability to entertain the part of you interested in the salacious details, the part of you interested in a cultural history of the 70s-through the present, and the part of you that wants to connect your own story with the story of a pop culture behemoth.
My brother Steve had an SNL record with skits from the first cast and as a little kid, say eight or nine years old, I loved a lot of movies with people I knew were SNL people: "Meatballs" with Bill Murray, "Foul Play" with Chevy Chase, that kind of thing. So by the time I could convince my body to stay up late enough to watch the show, I did. I remember watching Eddie Murphy in the Gumby assassination skits, and the bit where Tim Kazurinky is married to the chimp. I must have been ten years old. I can remember my older brother and sister coming home (they were college age then) and I was just kind of chilling out with SNL. An essential ritual. Years later, I went off to seminary at age 14 and most of the priests were sort of vaguely left-leaning, and they were that generation that saw SNL as something radical, so ordering pizza and staying up to watch SNL was encouraged. The "Wayne's World" years, although my favorite skit back then was Sprockets. A bunch of Catholic teen-aged boys living away from home, contemplating the priesthood, and the show was, once again, a ritual (in a lifestyle and a belief system full or rituals).
First year of college, my friend Jason and I were seeing some bands play at Grounds Coffeehouse one Saturday night and I remember walking through Detroit to get home, me and Jason, trying to make the opening of SNL. That was the night Sinead O'Connor tore up the picture of the Pope. There we were, in the front room of a home where Catholic missionaries lived, watching this shocking thing. After college, first year of grad school, I was earning some extra money cleaning the Youngstown YMCA, working nights, and I remember watching the Christmas episode of SNL in one of the workout rooms while mopping the floors: Molly Shannon sniffing her underarms as the Catholic schoolgirl. Depressing job, but there was that ritual, that constant. I can't believe people don't watch SNL, that people didn't grow up with this crazy, occasionally smart program. The cliche is how the quality varies year to year, cast to cast, a theme this book tackles of course, but even during down years, nothing captures the moment quite like SNL. Yeah, I wish the show still did the avant garde stuff they did during the 70s (look, Sun Ra is on this week!), but I still set the DVR.
Shales and Miller have somehow created a book that does about eight things at once, not the least of which is appealing personally and affectively to the obsessive fan. Check it out folks.