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Josh Reviews Live From New York: An Oral History of Saturday Night Live

July 28th, 2010

My buddy Ethan has been pestering me to read this book for quite a while, and I am so happy that I finally followed his sage advice!

Live From New York is described on the cover as “an uncensored history of Saturday Night Live as told by its stars, writers, and guests.” The book is an oral history of SNL. There is almost no prose to be found in the entire 600-plus pages. Instead, the entire book is a collection of interviews with a dazzlingly dense array of the writers, performers, guest hosts, directors, producers, network executives, music coordinators, production assistants, and many, many more of the folks who worked on Saturday Night Live since the show’s inception in 1975.

Moving chronologically through the years, the books moves from one person’s recollections to another. The interviewed subjects’ comments weave in and out of one another as authors (perhaps they should almost be called editors) Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller piece together the story of the show.

And what a story. To say that Shales and Miller delved deep would be a dramatic understatement. It is staggering to see how many people they interviewed in putting together this book. The result is an incredibly revealing peek behind the curtain of how SNL got made – filled with stories of all the painful struggles and bitter disputes and moments of pure creative genius that have been going on at 30 Rock for the past 35 years.

I feel like I know a decent amount about SNL – I’ve read a lot about the show, and I’ve certainly seen many of the behind-the-scenes specials and retrospectives that have been made over the years (usually to mark one of the show’s anniversaries), but this book was filled to overflowing with stories both hilarious and heartbreaking that I had never heard before. It kicks off with a perfect opening line from Rosie Shuster (former writer for SNL, as well as former wife of Lorne Michaels) that sets the tone for the book perfectly – and things just go from there.

My personal favorite anecdote was Al Franken’s recollection of a terrible, terrible prank that he played on the women assembled for his wife’s baby shower. This page of the book had me literally howling with laughter.

The cover describes the book as uncensored, and it certainly is. Not so much in the sense of being raunchy (though it is at times!), but more to mean that this isn’t a white-washed, everyone-was-happy sort of corporate-approved history of the show. Quite the opposite – Shales and Miller seem to almost revel in all of the juicy stories of arguments and disputes and turmoil from over the years. And I loved every page of it.

I was also impressed with the book’s thoroughness. Yes, the most time, percentage-wise, is probably spent on the first five years of the show. But Shales and Miller don’t brush over any season of the show from 1975 until the book’s publication in 2003. They devote an enormous amount of pages to all of the different eras of the show, from the catastrophic Jean Doumanian season in 1980-81, to the Dick Ebersol years in which Eddie Murphy came to the fore, to the 1984-85 season in which SNL broke with its format to bring on already-famous stars like Billy Crystal, Martin Short, Christopher Guest, and Harry Shearer; to the early, tough years of Lorne Michael’s return to the show; to the years of Dana Carvey, Jon Lovitz, and Phil Hartman; to the more-recent seasons with Will Ferrell, Darell Hammond, Ana Gasteyer, Molly Shannon, and Cheri Oteri… and so many other stops in between.

The book is 600 pages long, and I could have easily kept reading for another 600 pages.

If you have any interest in television… if you have ever enjoyed Saturday Night Live… then Live From New York is not to be missed.

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