The Dirty Little Secret of “Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live”

I’m absolutely fascinated by the history of television, and if I had to come up with a reason, I think I’d say it’s because it’s so short. It’s so short, and so immediate, and so relevant. There’s a sense of being able to watch people figure out the kinks and explore the possibilities of the medium, and an overwhelming feeling of progress to it, of being able to point to something and say, “That led to that thing, and that thing led to this other thing, and so on,” until the other thing becomes television as we know it today. History rarely does that, and it’s really quite considerate of television to be so comparatively tidy. Moreover, television is inevitably a dual story – one, obviously, going on onscreen, but another, equally compelling, happening off. And the combination of those two stories is what gives this history its flavor, the intensity and tartness and sweetness that make it so endlessly mesmerizing.

Saturday Night Live is irrefutably part of that history, and it’s become, pretty much by accident, my latest obsession. I still maintain that I don’t like the show (and that’s all I’ll say on that, because I don’t think it’s fair to heckle something twice in less than a week), but I can’t deny that everything surrounding it has built up a captivating mystique. Watching SNL, especially older episodes, is poking at bits of history, and Live From New York plays on this fascination in relaying the history of the show.

In its guts, Live From New York is a terrific book. It tells every side of every story, even going so far as to repeat stories in order to show different perspectives, and it’s got to be said that that story is pretty compelling. Organized in the style of an oral narrative, with interwoven interviews from cast members, writers, and guests, it employs what has always been SNL’s greatest strength – its sense of community. Even when the show is terrible, it can get by on the sensation that these are people who like each other and like what they are doing, and the book both illustrates this (through its narrative) and demonstrates this (through its form). Live From New York paints a picture of a production that was exponentially more entertaining offscreen than on, and its relentlessly obsessive objectivity lends it complexity and nuance.

But through all of this, Live From New York has a secret, a terribly inconvenient secret, that it tries desperately to ignore, and this secret is that SNL is not good. It has never been good. It has always been mediocre, with a few occasional flashes of brilliance, and those sparks are what people talk about through the nostalgia filter. I tried, I really did – I watched episodes from nearly every era of SNL, from all of it’s so-called “golden ages,” and I saw essentially the same thing over and over. I get all of that stuff about SNL being revolutionary at the time of its premiere – Live From New York does a particularly good job of recreating that excitement so well that I almost forgot my distaste for the reality of the show – but the fact remains that, revolutionary or not, SNL is not and has never been consistently good.

There are parts of the novel that explain this somewhat, as a consequence of behind-the-scenes shenanigans. And, to give credit where it is due, Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller unashamedly include people in the novel saying things that are basically identical to my criticism above. But Shales and Miller are, I think, a bit in love with the idea of SNL, and they are more likely than not to gloss over the very practical issue of the show’s quality (or lack thereof). Yet if there is one dominant characteristic of Live From New York, it is an insistence of the existence of multiple truths. Ultimately, the novel demands that you decide for yourself, and it leaves you with a fantastically thorough account of what is, apparently, simultaneously the most horrible and the most wonderful place on earth.

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