We gave it an A
One thing you may want to know about ”Saturday Night Live” is that, from copious evidence offered in Live From New York, a lot of people, no matter which cast of any era, disliked Chevy Chase. Chase — the first Not Ready for Prime Time Player to both become a star and leave the show — was ”resented,” says Bill Murray, who once got into a fistfight with him when Chase returned to host ”SNL.” In the mid-’80s, Chevy hosted again; when openly gay cast member Terry Sweeney asked, ”What would you like me to do for you?” Chase replied, ”Well, you can start by licking my b—s.” Tim Meadows says, ”He has no qualm about telling you you’re an idiot…treating people real bad.” Will Ferrell, who recently left the show himself, says, ”The worst host was Chevy Chase…. [He’d] scream and yell and you would look at him, and he’d see you were looking at him and he would smile like, ‘I’m just joking.’ We’d be like, ‘No, I don’t think you are.”’
”Live From New York” is an oral history compiled — with occasional pert interstitial chronology added — by Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller. They have crafted a constantly entertaining and instructive document; among its many virtues, ”Live From New York” is a better manual on how a business really works than all those cheeseball who-moved-my-Camembert books smushed together. That’s because Shales and Miller haven’t just interviewed the stars; nor have they merely come up with the most thorough examinations to date of the haunting, untimely deaths of John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Chris Farley, and Phil Hartman — no small feat, to be sure. Rather, Shales (who’s a Washington Post TV critic) and Miller dig deeper, seeking out generations of ”SNL” writers and producers, NBC TV executives, and guest hosts. Most important, they’ve quizzed the show’s creator, Lorne Michaels, and thoroughly debriefed nearly everyone involved about the pull — at once Zenlike and paternal — that this tidy, deadpan Canadian has exerted on so many people.
To be sure, there are many priceless moments in ”Live From New York” that don’t directly involve Michaels. Early on, for instance, the authors have fun contrasting quotes from Robert Klein, Albert Brooks, and Billy Crystal, each claiming in separate interviews that he was asked to be the permanent ”SNL” host when the show launched in 1975. Shrewdly, Shales and Miller are just as interested in the cast members who didn’t last long as they are in the superstars the show created. Chris Elliott claims his 1994-95 season was ”literally the worst year of my life,” while Janeane Garofalo whines so copiously, so poisonously about her lack of face time on the show that even ”SNL” writer Fred Wolf, who considered himself a friend, calls Garofalo ”an infection on that show.” By contrast, Murray and Chris Rock show a canny, and funny, understanding of one of TV’s longest-running cutthroat competitions. The book quotes from a spontaneous eulogy Murray delivered in May 2002 after the death of ”SNL” producer Audrey Peart Dickman: ”Audrey’s gone, Gilda’s gone, Belushi’s gone, and there’s so many other people that should have gone first. A lot of them are in this room today.” He then asked the crowd, ”Anybody here that wants to admit that they should have died ahead of Audrey?” and some folks actually had the grace to raise a paw. Rock chides bitter ”SNL”ers who forgot that Michaels ”hired you to work FOR him, there’s no working WITH…. And when you’re working for somebody, you’re going to have to do s— you don’t want to do…. That’s what working for people is.”
Ultimately, everything comes back to Michaels. Toward the end, the coauthors assemble a verbal collage of Lorne — as hero, villain, strutting peacock, gnomic mastermind, and, ceaselessly, as ”father figure” (frequent guest and pal Paul Simon), ”Daddy” (writer Marilyn Suzanne Miller), ”like…your dad” (David Spade), and ”distant father” (Ana Gasteyer). Jane Curtin puts it most coldly: ”I think he picked the right profession, because he gets to lord over people…and he doesn’t acknowledge them — which makes them work harder.” Bill Murray puts it most generously: ”He got the network off our backs…he kept us away from everybody, he gave us the independence that we needed so we didn’t feel like we were under a microscope. And it worked.”
Whoever Daddy Michaels really is, what he did was create one of the most interesting examples of survival and invention in the history of the medium, and ”Live From New York” does that achievement full justice.