Comedy Mountain: 40 Years of ‘Saturday Night Live’
Pulitzer Prize-winning TV critic Tom Shales, who co-authored the book Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live, looks back on the show’s 40-year history.
“This is my new favorite thing,” Lorne Michaels said to me, gesturing with his glass of white wine toward a corner of Studio 8-H. In a few seconds, cast members of Saturday Night Live appeared there from backstage wearing ridiculous misshapen prosthetic craniums and bang, The Coneheads were born. Pointlessly bizarre aliens from the Planet Melmac, The Coneheads claimed to have emigrated from “France” and clearly liked to “consume mass quantities” of beer and chips.
Around three decades later, Dan Aykroyd, who’d been one member of that group, sat in the living room of a Midtown hotel and recalled that The Coneheads was a 100 percent “weed-driven” sketch, written while happily high with the late Tom Davis, one of the most inventive of all SNL writers. Unlike a lot of jokes that seem funny when stoned and unfunny when not, The Coneheads were invariably hilarious. They’d be back.
In the earliest days of Saturday Night Live it didn’t occur to Michaels, who of course created the show, that they would establish characters and bring them back for repeat sketches, with the conspicuous exception of The Bees, with the “Not Ready for Prime-Time Players” dressed in fat padded bee costumes that had been lying around.
Michaels said later he brought the bees back because the only note he got from network executives after the first show was: “Lose the bees.” So it was that SNL began, defying authority and ever-evolving as a showcase for the best and sometimes bravest American humor. It’s Comedy Mountain.
And they’re ready for prime time now, a huge chunk of it, in fact—spanning four hours. Live, of course, from New York, of course, but “it’s Sunday night,” not Saturday, to celebrate the 40th anniversary. Tonight.
Since everybody who hosted, and many of those who appeared in the cast and have managed to survive, were invited, the special arguably will bring together more comedy superstars in one place than any endeavor since Stanley Kramer’s 1963 movie, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Why “arguably?” Oh, maybe because comedy takes a lot of arguing to create.
During the four decades of arguing, rewriting, frantically brainstorming and screaming that have gone into the show, SNL has been pronounced prematurely dead too many times to count and was actually canceled once—for about 24 hours—by NBC’s then-head of programming, the late Brandon Tartikoff (talked out of killing the show by wife Lily and several TV critics he asked).
Even though he left the show for the first half of the 1980s, and resigned regularly in the early days over disagreements with the network, Michaels has been the show’s great constant—the guiding light, the daring impresario, the brilliant inscrutable swami who can see the funny in all types of comedy and has presented them on the show. One thing he gave the show from the beginning was class, and somehow it stays classy even when doing sketches that star Christopher Walken as a Southern colonel whose name sounds like “cunnilingus.”
For weeks now, as you may have noticed, any journalist, any writer of any kind, just about any air-breathing life form on the planet who ever had the slightest relationship with the show in the past 40 years, has put pen to paper (yeah, right) or rather fingers to keyboard, and indulged in wistful reminiscence. Why bother trying to remain an exception? I have loved that damn show and marveled at the enigmatic genius behind it for most of my TV-watching life.
Lorne and I are boomboys born within two weeks of each other in a November of quite long ago, him in Canada and me in oh-never-mind. Our similarity ends there; he is worth millions, though he’s never seemed much interested in money, and he’s so successful that NBC has given him domain over not just SNL but also The Tonight Show (starring SNL alum Jimmy Fallon) and Late Night (starring SNL alum Seth Meyers).
But other than his wife and children, it’s a truism that nothing is closer to Lorne’s heart than Saturday Night Live. For many years, I had a standing invitation to visit The Maestro when in New York and watch the show from under the bleachers where Michaels then had his lookout post, a rolling lectern frequently abandoned as he roamed the studio, pep-talking the actors and dodging the rolling cameras. It amazed me that no one, including Lorne, was ever killed by the camera-on-a-crane that swoops over the heads of audience members seated on the first floor (most sit in gym-like bleachers that look down on the action).
Now and then a crew member would bark at me for being in the way, but mostly I was able to wonder and wander. As corny as it sounds, there is nothing to equal the adrenaline rush of that shouted 5-4-3-2 countdown-to-air in the studio, followed immediately by the first sketch—the “cold open”—and the taped opening credits.
Energy buzzes wildly through everybody in the place, participant or observer, and even if you have no stake in it whatsoever, you may feel your heart bouncing and a kind of zap going through you. No, not like the lightning blitzing Nazis at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark—nobody melts or deserves to die—but that image still kind of fits.
There’s actually no comparable experience, even if it seems like half the population can now simply Skype themselves out of their homes and into the global village. One of many impressive things about Michaels and his show, in fact, is the way they’ve managed to adapt to social and political change—even to the inter-nutty Internet and all it has altered. SNL seems just unstoppable.
At Lorne’s invitation, I got access to some memorable moments. In the early years, it was traditional for the stars of the show and others who worked on it to rush up to Lorne’s office and watch the whole thing played back—thus stretching until around 2:30 a.m., or the start of the “after party.” One night I watched the replay with then-Mayor Ed Koch and several of the Rolling Stones, including Mick Jagger in the seat next to the mayor’s, toking away cheerfully on a joint. It was not passed to Koch as I recall.
Perhaps too eagerly, and not very journalistically, I began to think of myself as an ex officio member of the company. So when Jack Nicholson sauntered along under the bleachers one night, while Lorne was occupied with changes in the cue cards, I tried to talk the actor into joining the cast onstage for the “good-nights” at the end of the broadcast. “I’m thinking about it,” Nicholson said with that trademark wily smile. But he didn’t do it. And I had no authority whatsoever to ask him to do it.
I was getting too big for my britches. But oh, is that ever another story
I would notice changes, subtle and not, in the way things worked when I’d visit 8-H through the years. One night in the late ’90s I was audio-recording Jimmy Fallon’s wild and inventive warm-up prior to the start of the show; a warm-up reminds an audience how to laugh and applaud, in case it’s slipped their minds. Fallon’s warm-up was mythic, insane, amazing. But a couple of burly brutes, who I took to be special security staff or Lorne’s bodyguards, saw my tape recorder and one of them growled, “You can’t do that.” Oh.
I didn’t complain to Lorne, but once when we chatted about Fallon, I said, “He could walk out of here and host a talk show right now.” Later, of course, he did, though I hardly think I put the idea in Lorne’s head. Fallon’s move to The Tonight Show, shepherded by Lorne, has been remarkably smooth and hugely successful—a smash hit. It’s now accepted as gospel, in fact, that Conan O’Brien might have succeeded, too, as Jay Leno’s replacement on Tonight, if only he hadn’t spurned the opportunity to have Michaels produce the show out of New York where Fallon does it.
But back when his empire consisted of one TV show and several Hawaiian shirts, Lorne was sometimes accused of cunningly currying favor with TV critics as promotional insurance. Few producers or executives ever gave a crap what critics thought or wrote about their shows, so when Lorne befriended critics that he thought were of his generation and mindset, the critics—myself included—felt flattered. But I also felt Michaels was not only brilliant and charming but also refreshingly approachable. He hobnobs with the rich and famous, but he’s not a snob.
At the very moment he and the cast were experiencing their first great rush of success, they came to Washington, where I was then a TV critic, and roamed the city before visiting the White House, where John Belushi was famously admitted even though he’d forgotten to bring any kind of ID with him. He told the guards they’d seen him on TV, and they had.
Earlier in the day, we all strolled along the reflecting pool on the Mall. Actually, Lorne and I strolled; Belushi and best-buddy Dan Aykroyd romped and ran. They launched into one improv bit after another—John grabbing a stick and using it as a cane and Dan following behind with a note pad shouting, “Senator! Senator, please!” Tourists were confused.
John, Dan, Lorne and Chevy Chase’s girlfriend all made me feel welcome that afternoon. The one guy who didn’t: Chevy Chase. He asked Michaels in a hushed voice—hushed but loud enough, he knew, for me to hear—how much longer “this guy,” me, was going to be tagging along. That seemed pretty crummy; the guy wasn’t even a star yet, though it was already clear he would be. But he hadn’t learned, and never will apparently, that you don’t say aloud everything you’re thinking inside.
On Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown, John wanted a drink. He disappeared into a liquor store and emerged with, of all things, a bottle of Lancers red wine in a brown paper bag. He drank from it as if he were one of the town winos, and at one point he stepped recklessly off the curb right into the path of a No. 32 bus on its way up the hill. Loud honk, and I think it was Dan who reached out and pulled Belushi back onto the sidewalk. An era in comedy history could have ended right there.
Over the years, I was joined on the occasional trips to SNL by James Andrew Miller, my best friend and co-author of Live from New York: The Complete, Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live. The book first appeared in 2002 and was recently reissued in an updated edition to include cast members who joined the show after the turn of the century.
It was one of my favorite phone calls of all time: Lorne, from his 17th floor office, asking if I’d be interested in writing a book on the history of the show. It was Jim’s idea to make it an oral history, partly so no one could say they were misquoted. We got every interview we wanted except for one, Eddie Murphy, who had been angered by a joke about his film career made by David Spade on the show. We tried to explain we weren’t “the show” and had no creative input whatsoever, but he wouldn’t budge.
In fact his return to help celebrate the show’s 40th anniversary is the frosting on the cake. It has already created a sensation. Chris Rock says in the book, “Eddie is the biggest star. Anybody who says different is making a racist argument.” He calls Murphy “SNL’s Elvis.” There are many stories about Murphy, of course, including the sad comment that because he was African American he had a hard time hailing cabs down on Fifth or Sixth Avenue—even on one occasion when he had a check for $1 million, from Hollywood, in his pocket.
Backstage, life at the show changed markedly from one generation to the next. It became especially evident when preparing the updated 2014 edition of the book. The cast members had all read the original and expressed astonishment that the original crowd could do so many drugs and lead lives of such sensory excess and still keep to the crazed SNL schedule, starting fresh each Monday, sometimes working overnight and even sleeping (etc.) in the RCA, then-GE Building in Rockefeller Center.
“You can’t think; you just do,” says Steve Higgins, longtime loyal member of the staff who now has the unprecedented challenge of working two jobs: producer of Saturday Night Live and, during the week, announcer and sidekick to Fallon on The Tonight Show. Is he crazy or what? Just young.
By now, everyone knows the show’s most famous backstage story, how when Chevy Chase returned to host the show after leaving it for a movie career, Bill Murray, essentially his “replacement” in the cast, threw a punch at him just before Chase was about to step through the magic door and begin the show.
“I was the new guy, and it was sort of like my job to do that,” Murray recalled years later. “I think everybody was hoping for it. I did sense that. I think they resented Chevy for leaving, for one thing.” Said Chase: “In a sense, John caused that fight with Billy, but we both ended up hitting John by mistake… I’m sure Billy wanted to take me down, you know, and it happened just before I went on the air. It was not very good timing. That was painful for me.”
Chase takes a good many virtual punches in the book. He has a way of alienating people; he may think he is doing a parody of an egomaniac movie star, but it comes off to some as just an egomaniac who is now much less the movie star than he once was.
I have witnessed boorish behavior on his part that went beyond his “whispering” that he wished I would go away during that day in Washington nearly four decades ago. I interviewed Chevy for the book in Lorne’s office once, and was appalled when Chevy started yelling at a young assistant who spilled a drop of tea that he’d brought in on a tray.
Snarling abuse, Chase told the kid, “Why don’t you just piss on it while you’re at it? Go ahead and just piss on it.” The rancor was all out of proportion to the offense. I think Chevy has a kind of emotional imbalance. He’s entitled to all the anger he can express, but berating that poor kid seemed sadistic.
I had one other peculiar encounter with Chevy at the old Schwab’s drug store in Los Angeles. He was there picking up a prescription. Of course. I said hello, thinking he’d recognize me. He gave me the standard brush-off for fans. So I said my name, which he did recognize. He was angry that I’d given a negative review to a post-SNL special he’d done as part of his deal with NBC.
“You guys can really turn on a guy,” he said of critics generally. I said it was nothing personal and he left the store. At that point the very attractive girl behind the counter began berating me in far angrier tones than Chevy’s. How could I be so petty and mean as to pick on a great artist and celebrity like Chevy Chase? That’s what she wanted to know. He certainly does have his passionate defenders.
I had actually been allowed inside a sound mixing room while Chevy did post-production on the special, and heard him ordering the engineer to insert a bigger laugh here, a chuckle there, a guffaw there—it was a scene later played in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, part of Woody’s career-long attack on television (apparently over, since he’s made a deal to do TV again).
Whatever one thinks about Chevy personally or professionally, his incredibly telegenic presence, his absolute comfort in front of a camera, his comic inspirations, were all huge factors in making SNL a nearly instant success that premiere year—the show’s first season and Chevy’s last, because he’d signed on as a writer, not a performer, and had a one-year contract.
Michaels himself has certainly been the target of much criticism, or at least complaining, over the years, but what a feat it’s been just to balance the temperaments of all those temperamental people, in addition to dealing with the tragic early deaths of Gilda Radner, John Belushi, Chris Farley, Phil Hartman, and others on-camera or behind the scenes. Perhaps for his own sanity’s sake, he keeps people at arm’s length—maybe two or three arms—and I was shocked to finally get a show-biz hug out of him back in, let’s see, 2003, I think it was.
Lorne has been often underestimated but then proven himself stalwart and unflappable in crisis after crisis, keeping the show on track throughout changes both seismic and cosmetic in television and show business generally. That includes changes in the corporate regimes that control NBC—from RCA to General Electric to, now, the Comcast Cable empire. A Comcast executive tried summoning Michaels to a breakfast meeting when the company took over but Michaels said that 10:30 in the morning was entirely too early. The meeting was rescheduled for much later in the day.
And yet in his autobiography Where Did I Go Right?, the legendary agent and producer Bernie Brillstein, who was with Michaels practically since the day Michaels arrived in the U.S. from his native Canada, recalls Michaels telling him in the early ’70s that he “wanted to do a television show for people who were brought up on television.” That was how it started. That, and Johnny Carson’s decision to stop letting NBC air reruns of his Tonight Show at 11:30 p.m. on Saturdays.
Brillstein remembered another small incident involving Lorne Michaels that touched him deeply. When Bernie’s father died, services were scheduled for very early in the day in New York. Bernie certainly knew of Lorne’s dislike for doing anything before noon and didn’t expect to see him there.
But when he peeked into the synagogue that morning, he saw that the first person to arrive was: Lorne Michaels. He knows all about comedy, but he knows something about life, too.