Book Review: 'Saturday Night Live: The First Twenty Years'
In 1977, Saturday Night Live published its first companion volume, a slapdash paperback with still-dead Spanish dictator Francisco Franco on the cover. The book was a jumble of script pages with snide comments scribbled on them, plus never-aired sketches (”Placenta Helper”), telephone messages (”Censor says you can’t say ‘schmuck”’), and assorted lists such as ”People who dolphins are definitely more intelligent than: Idi Amin, Cybill Shepherd, Prince Charles, Peter Fonda, Phyllis George … ”
It’s a measure of how entrenched a cultural institution SNL has become that it now merits a coffee-table book, Saturday Night Live: The First Twenty Years (Houghton Mifflin, $25), a maddeningly sanitized tome containing alternately too much and not enough information. After a humorless introduction from SNL creator Lorne Michaels, the book opens with its most fascinating (and frustrating) section, a rundown of all the cast members and their most famous characters. Reading the fine print, we can see the genius of Phil Hartman, who impersonated everyone from Donald Trump to Jesus, and the limits of Jon Lovitz, who says all his characters were ”likable jerks.” (He’s only half right.) But the lists of roles often beg for some sort of explanation — anyone remember Jim Belushi’s Hank Rippy? — and the interviews are spotty. Why let Mary Gross recount an endless anecdote about offending Mary Tyler Moore but include no quotes from one of SNL‘s funniest current residents, Chris Farley?
When Twenty Years‘ editor, Michael Cader, isn’t showing bad judgment, he often shows no judgment at all. The 20-page chapter on TV-commercial parodies gives equal weight to classics (Super Bass-O-Matic, Schmitts Gay Beer) and stinkers (Colon Blow, the Love Toilet). And in a misguided drive for completism, Cader flatly summarizes every appearance of a given character (24 Mr. Bills, 18 Hans and Franzes, 10 Sweeney Sisters, four Festrunk Brothers, and a partridge in a pear tree), rather than choosing one great example and reprinting it whole.
Most disturbing, the book avoids the many controversies associated with SNL over the years. Paul Shaffer offers a story about accidentally uttering the F- word during a 1980 sketch (”I shocked myself. It wasn’t like Madonna”), but no explanation is given of Charles Rocket’s use of the same word during a 1981 ”Who Shot J.R.?” parody. This too-vulgar blunder supposedly helped force the resignation of producer Jean Doumanian (for a complete account, see Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad’s superb 1986 tell-all, Saturday Night).
Nowhere is Twenty Years‘ don’t-rock-the-boat quality more evident than in its section on musical guests. Truly spontaneous moments — Elvis Costello suddenly switching songs, John Belushi imitating Joe Cocker behind his back — are lost in a four-page-long, phone-book-like listing of every pop artist who ever performed on the show. Sure, it’s amusing to recall that Anne Murray appeared twice, but wouldn’t you rather know the inside story of Sinéad O’Connor’s tearing up the pope’s picture?
So if you’re hoping for a hard-hitting look behind the scenes of SNL, forget it. While a few survivors hint at the show’s brutal routine (writer Anne Beatts calls it ”a cross between summer camp and concentration camp”), the glossy 22-page photo essay ”A Week in the Life of SNL” makes the job look like a breeze, with quasi-candid snapshots and insipid captions (”Melanie Hutsell and Ellen Cleghorne work on an idea”).
Perhaps the most telling indicator of the book’s chillingly sunny outlook is that the deaths of John Belushi and Gilda Radner are barely mentioned. It’s almost as if some tyrant oversaw Twenty Years, devising an inoffensive revisionist history of SNL. Maybe Francisco Franco isn’t so dead after all. D+