I’ll admit it. I’m an inveterate gossip. That is probably why I love the ‘behind the scenes’ genre so much. Plus, when you generally get the bonus of show business egos and their appetite for excess. It’s a form of wish fulfillment for all of us commoners. As we’re now aware, I was most interested in the parts of Tina Fey’s book which go behind the scenes at Saturday Night Live. So the obvious next step was to hunt down some related books. That’s what led me to Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live by Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad. In the interests of maintaining all of our sanity I’m just going to refer to it as Saturday Night from here on out.
Saturday Night was published in 1986 and was one of the earliest books about the show itself. Hill and Weingrad had the blessings of the show’s legendary producer Lorne Michaels, which led to unprecedented access to everyone involved in the show. In the Afterward they mention conducting interviews with over 250 people ranging from NBC executives involved in the decision to air the show all the way down to receptionists and crew. Some of them were interviewed as many as four times and Michaels himself was interviewed seven times for the book.
The end result of all this research is pretty much everyone involved in the show and the network look bad to varied degrees. Hill and Weingrad present everyone on the cast and writing staff as spoiled young punks who rebelled for the sake of rebellion, and the network staff are presented as hidebound conservatives willing only to follow the status quo with no interest in pushing the limits or trying anything new. The current esteemed senator from Minnesota, Mr. Al Franken, comes off as particularly loathsome and aggressive. They obviously knew that would be the case, and in the foreword they implore readers to keep in mind that the book is about “highly creative and consciously eccentric people, for the most part – who were operating under extreme pressure”.
Saturday Night presents a lot more detail than Tina Fey did, but the behind the scenes atmosphere seems pretty similar to that depicted by Fey. Fey at one point mentions how the male writers on SNL have a tendency to pee in a cup mirroring a story by Hill and Weingrad in which a SNL writers takes a nap at her desk during an all-nighter only to wake up and find a male colleague relieving himself in the sink by her desk. Fey’s money line is, “Saturday Night Live runs on a combustion engine of ambition and disappointment”. Hill and Weingrad indicate that this atmosphere has been with the show since the beginning. The show is essentially presented as a launching pad for successive stand out cast members starting with Chevy Chase, and ending in the early 1980’s during the rise of Eddie Murphy. Each successive star has their turn as second banana throwing jealous tantrums as they wait for the current stand out to leave the show and clear their way to SNL glory.
The weekly hosts don’t come out much better than the cast. Most of the anecdotes passed on by Hill and Weingrad present the hosts as partiers, strong personalities who insisted on being involved (resulting in resentment from the cast and crew), or inveterate partiers. With the stand-out exception being Candace Bergen who apparently went a long way toward helping the show get off its feet.
I found it to be an interesting read, even if none of the people involved were especially sympathetic. There was great background information on some of the most famous and infamous sketches and recurring characters from the early days of SNL. Their discussion of the famous word association sketch between Chevy Chase and Richard Pryor made me nearly as nervous as watching it in syndicated reruns on my television did, and there is an entire chapter on Chevy Chase’s relationship with the White House thanks to his raising pratfalls to high art during his bumbling impersonations of then President Gerald Ford.
My personal favorite from the early days of SNL is the ‘land shark’ sketch from a Candace Bergen hosted show in season 1. It was a tribute to Jaws II and involved Chevy Chase wandering around in an enormous shark costume. (I’m training my children to knock on people’s door and respond with “land shark” or “candy gram” if anyone asks “Who is it?”.
Saturday Night is a comprehensive look at the early days of SNL and satisfied both my intellectual curiousity and my love of good gossip. It’s a fun read for any current or former fans of the Saturday Night Live.