TV Eye

'Saturday Night' Reading

TV Eye

Think creating a live variety show week after week is like that chummy writers' den on the Dick Van Dyke Show? If so, Live From New York: An Uncensored History of 'Saturday Night Live' as Told by its Stars, Writers, and Guests (Little Brown, hardcover, 594 pages) may shock you. Comedy isn't pretty.

Written by Pulitzer Prize-winning TV critic Tom Shales and journalist James Andrew Miller, the writers interviewed nearly everyone involved in the show from the beginning, including the show's usually reticent creator, Lorne Michaels. The result is a revealing and often riveting oral history of how a few renegades reinvented late-night television.

It's hard to remember when SNL wasn't a staple of Saturday night TV. After 27 years, including some creatively fallow stretches, it's easy to forget the show's enormous impact. However, SNL may have never happened had it not been that NBC was anxious to please the then-reigning king of late night, Johnny Carson. Carson had asked the network to stop airing reruns of his The Tonight Show on Saturday nights. After some consternation, network executives decided to develop a new late-night show for Saturday -- uncharted territory in the early Seventies -- and hired a young, largely unknown Canadian writer to executive produce. The young man was Lorne Michaels, and the rest is, as they say, history.

Live From New York is as much a tribute to Michaels -- although not always a tender one -- as it is an insider's view of how this once iconoclastic program was launched, proved itself against the odds, and radically changed the face of late-night television.

"There was a feeling even before it started that something important was happening," says Neil Levy, a production assistant (and Lorne Michaels' cousin) who joined the production at 19. "It was almost like all the leftover spirit of the Sixties found its way into this show -- that spirit of rebellion, of breaking through whatever boundaries were left. Nixon had just resigned, the Vietnam War had just ended and America wasn't laughing. And this show came along and said it's okay to laugh, even to laugh at the bad stuff. It was like a huge release."

Who slept with whom, "he said, she said" testimonials, and the well-publicized personal tragedies of some of the show's brightest stars (John Belushi, Chris Farley, Gilda Radner, Phil Hartman) are included in the book. However, some of the most compelling information occurs in Live From New York's opening chapters. Here, the interviewees, along with interstitial text by the authors, describe painful clashes between comedy's old and new order in bringing to life the seismic shift SNL caused.

Though he resisted at first, Lorne Michaels agreed to invite the legendary comedian Milton Berle as a guest host ("How could we not?"). The show was a bomb. Berle upstaged and overplayed whenever possible. When Michaels discovered Berle had hired plants to start a standing ovation after his musical number, he made sure the cameras did not cut away.

"I have a great affection for old-time show business. But it had become corrupt. It wasn't what it had been. The show was trying to get away from that," Michaels says.

No, SNL is not as cutting-edge as it was in its early years. The show that introduced Kate Bush, Andy Kaufman, and other off-center performers to a national audience is a thing of the past. But head writers Tina Fey, Dennis McNicholas, and crew have breathed life back into SNL, and the show's signature Weekend Update segment is as sharp as ever, earning the program an Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Music, Comedy or Variety series at this year's ceremony. It was the show's second. The show's first trophy was in 1977, during the show's well-acknowledged heyday.

Live From New York, An Uncensored History of 'Saturday Night Live' is scheduled for an Oct. 7 release. Matt Damon guest hosts Saturday Night Live's 28th season premiere, with musical guest Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, on Oct. 5, 10:30pm, on NBC.


Austin Sounds

Austin City Limits, the premier national showcase for music on public television, returns for its 28th season on Oct. 5. A recent press conference announced that Schlotzsky's Deli has become the first Austin-based company to underwrite the show. That's all fine and good, but there's a twist. Instead of those bland, "brought to you by the generous support of ..." bumpers that bookend the show, locally produced spots featuring local musicians (Andrea Perry, Glover Gill, to name two) will run. But whoa! Isn't that kinda like a commercial? Not quite, according to KLRU General Manager John McCarroll.

"PBS has to pass on all underwriting spots that go on the air, and they made a few changes" McCarroll explained. No-nos include showing someone using a product -- though showing the product in all its photogenic glory is okay. And that's not a commercial because ...?

Oh hell! Austin City Limits has always been a maverick, bringing nothing but visibility to Austin and excellence to PBS, which doesn't provide a dime to the long-running series. Bending the rules? Maybe, but they do it with style and that takes bunz.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Austin City Limits, Schlotzsky's Deli, underwriting, Live From New York: An Uncensored History of 'Saturday Night Live' as Told by its Stars, Writers, and Guests, Lorne Michaels, Tom Shales, James Andrew Miller

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