Friday, January 2, 2009
Shut Up, SNL
Live from New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live was an engrossing and sometimes infuriating read. SNL is an undeniable force in pop culture, launching career after career and influencing the cultural memes, but I still had a hard time dealing with the self-important tone of the authors and the people they interviewed. The overall impression was that they'd been participating in a cult that still held them and the rest of us in thrall. And Lorne Michaels = Jim Jones.
The book was fun for the bits of insider-y gossip it offered--everybody thinks Chevy Chase is a dick, George Steinbrenner was a terrible host--though many of the interviewees stuck to generalities without talking about specific people or sketches, which kept you wondering who or what they were talking about. You got the history of the controversies, the deaths, and the cycles of "good seasons" and "bad seasons," the network beefs, etc., etc.
Long-time writer James Downey gave some revealing interviews. He's known for writing a lot of political sketches and getting into a huge feud with one of the NBC execs. When Norm McDonald started anchoring Weekend Update in the mid '90s, Downey wrote most of his material. That always seemed like one of the most unfunny things in the history of the show to me. Not surprisingly, Downey and MacDonald had extreme contempt for the audience, more interested in doing what they thought was smart humor than getting laughs. In the book, MacDonald says, "I have more faith in me and Jim that I did in any audience. I just like doing jokes I like, and if the audience doesn't like them, then they're wrong, not me." I suppose many "comics" have that attitude and some express it regularly (hello, Carlos Mencia), but it always seems stunning to me.
That passage sort of crystalized the whole book for me, though, because it addresses the central question: Who and what was (is) this show for? Clearly it was breaking ground when it began (as they will never let us forget), but when the participants reminisce and celebrate and fulminate, they talk endlessly about the pressure, the ideas, the performances, the opportunity, the relationships. It's all inside baseball -- the rarefied air of their club. Many describe the show as a intense training ground for performance and celebrity. Which makes sense: they set it up so only a week's work goes into each show. It's performed live. If they were trying for perfection, they'd do it differently. As a member of the audience, what it amounts to is a weekly exercise in watching people improve their craft. Often it's funny and great and, just as often, it's kinda lame. The book's tone was one of reliving the glory and assuming immortality. But the glory isn't for us, it's for them and their careers. They kinda need to get over themselves.
at 8:55 AM