Dec 22, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Charles Foster Kane thought “It would be fun to run a newspaper.” Did I think it would be fun to write a book? No, I’m not that naive. But the project sounded seductive: a 25-year history of “Saturday Night Live,” the bold and adventurous sketch-comedy series that had lived a roller-coaster existence on NBC but still survived-and in recent years had made a spectacular comeback.
“Live From New York” turned out to be a 26-year history because, well, deadlines are made to be not met. I am also the type to lose faith every few minutes, but fortunately for Little Brown publishers, there was a co-author, James Andrew Miller, who is now executive producer of the Anderson Cooper and Paula Zahn news hours on CNN. He did some heavy lifting on the book project; he had to rouse me from my naps, for one thing.
It was Jim’s brilliant idea to do the book as an oral history, telling the story almost entirely in the words of the people we interviewed, which turned out to be more than 100. Most of the reviews were positive-some very-when the book was published in hardcover late last year. We breathed a sigh of relief when Janet Maslin, a respected name in criticism, said in The New York Times she loved the book. But some loathsome oaf at that paper-perhaps not comfortable with a book co-written by a Washington Post critic getting praised in the Times-ordered up a second review, a Sunday review, which was snotty.
I wouldn’t read it, but Jim told me the “critic” said the book had good material lazily tossed together. Since I’d suffered the equivalent of what used to be called a nervous breakdown working on it, and we both had awakened often at 5 a.m. to work all day editing, re-arranging, eliminating and adding and eliminating again, I considered the reviewer an idiot. She was identified as a “free-lance cultural critic.” Now there’s a job for you. Or rather, there’s somebody who can’t get a job. Anyway, we were 14 weeks on the Times’ best-seller list, so there. The owner of one L.A. book store said she couldn’t remember another title that had so many advance orders.
Comes now, or a few weeks ago, what I call “the digitally remastered director’s cut” in paperback. It’s the same book, only longer, because we interviewed a couple dozen more people. We wanted one of them to be Eddie Murphy, perhaps the biggest star the show produced (emerging, ironically, while Lorne Michaels, the creator of the program, was on his five-year sabbatical from being executive producer). But again, as for the hardcover, Murphy, through approximately 40 channels, said no.
He also said no to attending the 25th anniversary prime-time special and, according to Lorne, refused to attend the 15th anniversary special unless Billy Crystal was dis-invited, which Lorne was dis-inclined to do. We never got a reason from the Murphy camp for his animosity toward the show; we’d assumed he was miffed because David Spade once referred to him as a “falling star” in one of his “Hollywood Minutes.”
But among those we did get was Al Gore, who confirmed on the record-I think for the first time-that he had, indeed, sat down and watched the “SNL” spoof of his first presidential debate because advisors thought it would help him do a better job on the second. He later hosted the show on the same fateful weekend that he announced he wouldn’t run again for the presidency: “By Saturday I had pretty much decided, `Yeah, I’m not going to do it.”’ But he said he would have done the same sketches, including a marathon smooch with wife Tipper, even if he had decided to run. “Absolutely,” he said. “And yes, Tipper and I were really kissing. …”
Jim spent what he called an amiable and entertaining 90 minutes or so with NBC Chairman Robert Wright, who admitted that an anti-GE cartoon by Robert Smigel was pulled from the reruns after it aired live, because, he said, “It seemed like it was too pointed without being funny.” He talked about protests received early in the show’s run-over characters, such as Father Guido Sarducci (Don Novello) and News for the Hard of Hearing with Garrett Morris.
“The show has always been a magnet for criticism,” Wright said, “but I would say honestly less so in the last number of years.” He had a very practical if somewhat dismaying explanation: “I don’t think it’s because the show isn’t daring; I think it’s because there is so much material on television that offends groups one way or the other that they don’t have enough time in a day to write letters to us and the other 200 shows that they’re unhappy about.”
The inscrutable Lorne Michaels, who I’ve known almost since “SNL” went on the air, never interfered with the writing of the book, even though he had sanctioned it and helped us with access to some of the now-unreachable stars who’d passed through its portals. But he also refused to plug the book on the program in any way, which probably cost the struggling authors a lot of money.
Somewhere along the way I got the idea that Lorne thought of the book as a history of (mostly) his years at “SNL” and would time his retirement to coincide roughly with the publication. No, no, a thousand times no. Lorne’s life is still intricately intertwined with the program. When he finally does leave, what then? Something called “Saturday Night Live” will continue to air, but NBC executives will move in and drastically remodel it. A great era will end because, ironically, the inmates will no longer run the asylum.