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‘Live From New York,’ an expanded update for SNL’s 40th season

Live From New York: The Complete, Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live, as Told By Its Staff, Writers, and Guests

Newly Updated and Expanded for SNL’s 40th Season

By James Andrew Miller

and Tom Shales

Little, Brown; 800 pages, $30

By Ben Siegel

NEWS BOOK REVIEWER

In the future, when television exists in our corneas and writers’ scripts are performed by a host of avatars, pulled from a library of every television and movie star ever born, and every person you’ve ever met – in that indulgent, impossibly perfect, hedonistic version of entertainment – “Saturday Night Live” will still be on.

It will still be relevant, it will still be questioned, and it will still be necessary. It will still be American comedy’s alma mater, where millions have taken master classes on subjects like Annoying Aunts and Uncles, Life-Threatening Consumer Products, Embarrassing Teenage Admissions, Animal-Human Hybrid Species, The Aliens Next Door and Intro to Political Science.

And for as many years as it’s likely to be around, it’s been around, and back. Even though it’s hard to identify a pop-culture peer – the show is currently celebrating its 40th season – its return hasn’t always been an absolute assumption. Of its critics’ lazier annual criticisms is the popular declaration that its current season – or any season – is its worst; that it should have been canceled 15, 20, 25, 35 years ago when it was arguably in its prime. So say loyal fans and their parents, respectively.

But just when you think it’s stayed too long, another decade goes by, and with it, another generation of tastemakers who have earned, if even by a squeak, our approval as heirs to this exalted throne. Executive producer Lorne Michaels has logged 35 of those 40 years, but since he invented it, we can trust that he won’t abandon it.

This is one of many broken records of the ongoing SNL discourse. Everyone’s a critic or armchair quarterback – rabid fans underneath. This alone should be proof of its relevance, if you’re someone who trusts a dictionary’s definition. Media critics James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales contributed a primer to this conversation with their 2002 book, “Live From New York: The Complete, Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live as Told By Its Stars, Writers, and Guests.” It is a dream journal of epic proportions. This is what lifelong fans had been clamoring for: an oral history of its birth and reception, production and creative process, and celebrity and political machinery, as told by the people who were there.

That 2002 publishing, and an expanded paperback edition, would be the most comprehensive oral history to date, but of course, like your grandmother’s finest fur, it would lose its value come next winter. It resided on my “read again, dummy” shelf for most of the last decade when it wasn’t on loan to a trusted friend. Miller and Shales have returned to their tome yet again in a new hardcover edition that is newly updated and expanded for the show’s landmark anniversary.

If you’ve devoured either of the previous editions, you’ll exult about more than 200 new pages. Two new chapters cover seasons 29 through 39, and a third adds a “This Is Your Life” homage to Michaels. It is as compelling to loyalists, reminiscent to occasional viewers, and educational to show novices as any book about this institution is likely to attract.

Diving into the new material, you can’t help but to jump over dead bodies to get to the 2008 presidential election. Tina Fey’s practical objection to portraying vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin comes off as exactly as humble and unwelcoming as Fey and her “30 Rock” alter ego, Liz Lemon, would have us believe:

“It’s funny because I was sort of – arrogantly in my own mind – resisting it, like ‘I don’t want to play that, and I don’t know who’s gonna write it, and what if I don’t like what they wrote, people are going to think that I wrote it.’ And at some point I realize that, like, oh, by the way, no one at SNL has actually asked me to do this,” Fey writes.

Fey and Seth Meyers, her successor as both head writer and “Weekend Update” co-anchor, would negotiate the dual onscreen roles of playing personas of their nonfiction selves, and the creative necessities to playing fictional characters. Both felt more at home in the academic and intellectual kingdom of the “Update” desk. If the Fey and Meyers eras reinforced nothing else to the mainstream understanding of comedy production, it’s that writers rule the medium. Even and especially writers smart enough to hand the right topic to the right colleague, and the right material to the right actor.

This show is a team sport, the only competitor self-defeat. The best material survives the Saturday night dress rehearsal, mere hours before the live show. Michaels speaks often here about this boot camp approach that takes no prisoners, spares no feelings, and musters no imaginary extra time; the show goes on because it’s 11:30, Michaels has many times explained, not because it’s ready.

The Michaels Myth, that he is an unwavering, unsentimental leader of overworked, drama club egos, is addressed convincingly a few times throughout the book. Producer Lindsay Shookus – a 1998 Williamsville South High School graduate – adds heartening insight into the Great Wizard of Rockefeller Plaza: “The lore of the audition process has become that Lorne doesn’t laugh. Everyone says they are warned in advance that Lorne won’t laugh. It’s just not true. … What he won’t do is the polite laugh.”

Coverage of the 2008 presidential race incited a media debate over whether the show’s material on Palin, John McCain, Barack Obama, Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton was enough to potentially influence voter behavior. Brushed off by many inside the “30 Rock” bubble, the show’s real politics lay in the changing of its own guard. In 2013, the show was harshly criticized for not having hired one black performer in its new cast, and that it hadn’t had a black female on the show in years. Producers and writers address this ordeal diplomatically, but fairly, even if Michaels refers to the outcry passively as a “flap.”

The ongoing talent revolutions continue, though. When de facto cast captains Amy Poehler and Kristen Wiig left, in 2008 and 2012, respectively, many threw up their hands as if to suggest the show could never duplicate their success. This is not a new fatigue, however, as fans have always mourned the natural evolution of eras.

“The thing about SNL,” says Poehler, “is that people leave and everybody says, ‘How is it going to go on without them?’ And then the show goes on and it’s such a testament to the structure that Lorne has set up and it’s also a testament to the idea that change can be good, and new, fresh, young, interesting people are always around the corner.”

It remains obvious from these new testimonials that the show’s future remains secure, both firmly at 11:30 p.m. and firmly in our ownership of its legacy. As if, at this point, it’s not even a television show anymore, but a living, breathing, rewarding, disappointing, comforting, devious, frustrating, insane creature.

In promotion of last weekend’s live 40th anniversary special, Michaels confirmed his presumptive presence at the show’s 50th. Whether or not we’ll still have televisions in 2025 remains a mystery, but rest assured, we’ll be watching.

Ben Siegel is a News contributing critic and the editor of Block Club magazine.