Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live

If you want to know why and how Saturday Night Live came to be…this is the book. It covers the first 10 years of the show but is primarily about the first 5 years and the one terrible year after the classic cast left. It was written by Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad and they interviewed practically everyone connected with the show and it is surprising on how objective they are throughout the book.

Working on the show was/is not for the thin-skinned. It was rough and no one was spared…not even the stars at first. The book goes into detail about how the show started a pattern of work that continued through the decades. The troubles the female writers went through trying to do their job. The endless drugs that fueled many of the all-night writing sessions.

The atmosphere could be very sexist, insulting and aggressive. Michael O’Donoghue was the key writer and gave SNL the edge but he could be difficult. When he left the show he was missed. When the original cast, writers, and Lorne Michaels left, Jean Doumanian took over the show for a year. Things didn’t go well, to say the least. The book details the transition then to Dick Ebersol.

The show went from an ensemble show trying new ideas to a star-driven formulaic show under Ebersol. Maybe the show was destined to do that anyway and it would never be the same again.

I’ve read a few books on SNL but as far as the creation and original cast…this is the one to go to.

 

 

 

Andy Kaufman an original

I like original people…Andy was that completely.

He covered the bases…Mighty Mouse, Foreign Man, wrestling women, Elvis Impersonator (I think the best), Tony Clifton, bongo player, Great Gatsby reader and generally pissing people off, boring them or making them laugh. He was a performance artist – a comedian who sometimes was uncomfortable to watch but great as well. He was not a joke comedian…not remotely close.

I remember seeing him on a clip from the Tonight Show… as the very innocent childlike foreign man talking for a while and doing terrible celebrity impersonations and then suddenly shedding that character like a used coat and he started to do his Elvis impersonation…no, he WAS Elvis… I’ve read where Elvis said that Andy was his favorite impersonator but whether that is true or not I don’t know.

His first SNL performance… All he did was to get on stage with a record player playing the “Mighty Mouse” theme and mime along in certain spots. He made it work. He was only doing what he did growing up alone in his room as a child…he translated that to a national audience.

He loved to be the bad guy… At his performances, he would sometimes threaten to read the Great Gatsby…the complete book…just to piss everyone off…He would read a chapter or so and then ask the crowd if they wanted to hear some music from his record player….the audience, thinking of Mighty Mouse would applaud and he then would start playing a record of him reading The Great Gatsby from where he left off right before.

Andy grew up loving wrestling. After he achieved his fame he started to wrestle…wrestle women. I’m sure many people at the time were baffled.

That led to the infamous guest shot on The David Letterman Show with wrestler Jerry Lawler in 1982. Jerry slapped Andy off a chair who had a neck brace on already…at the time people really bought into it. Lawler says he still gets hate mail to this day from people who think he caused Andy’s death. Of course, both planned this and they were friends.

A couple of years before his death he made a film with Fred Blassie a wrestler Andy admired. He filmed it at a restaurant and called it “Breakfast with Blassie.”

Andy once played Carnegie Hall and took the entire audience out afterward for milk and cookies. Being Andy, some probably didn’t believe it but he had 20 buses waiting outside for them and they all went to have milk and cookies.

He will be remembered best for Taxi and his character Latka Gravas. It amazes me that he was on Taxi…that he was on any normal show…though Taxi was great…It worked out well that they found a place for Andy’s foreign man character…but Andy wasn’t always happy being on the show.

He also had an alter ego character he played called Tony Clifton. Tony was a loud, obnoxious. sleazy lounge singer that would rip the audience. Usually, the person getting ripped was Andy’s writing partner and friend Bob Zmuda. Later on, to really mess with people’s minds…Andy had Bob to play Tony Clifton and they would appear together. “Tony Clifton” even got himself thrown off of the Taxi set.

Some people loved Andy, some hated him, some thought he was irritating and some all three. I just appreciated the fact he was different.

Andy died in 1984…or did he? Bob Zmuda has said that Andy did say he was going to fake his death and said that he actually helped Andy plan it. More people have come forward saying the same thing. Every few years we get an Andy sighting in Albuquerque or somewhere else. No, I don’t believe he did fake it…but hey I would love if he popped up well and alive anytime in the future. The world needs original people. You know he would be loving the rumors about him being alive…if he is alive or not.

REM had a song that was based on Andy called Man on the Moon. It was about questioning everything like the Moon landing, Elvis dying, religion, Andy dying and etc… from REM’s bassist Mike Mills “He’s the perfect ghost to lead you through this tour of questioning things. Did the moon landing really happen? Is Elvis really dead? He was kind of an ephemeral figure at that point so he was the perfect guy to tie all this stuff together as you journey through childhood and touchstones of life.”

In 1999 a movie called Man on the Moon starring Jim Carrey was released about Andy’s life. I went to see it when it came out and enjoyed it. I’m not sure how close Carrey got to Andy’s non-public side because of course, I didn’t know him. Marilu Henner said that he was a warmer person than the movie portrayed and Judd Hirsch said that while not performing, Andy was a very normal, quiet guy but Judd admits he really didn’t know him. I do think Carrey did a good job portraying him.

I like one-off people like Andy Kaufman and Keith Moon. Expect the unexpected…it keeps life interesting.

First SNL Appearance

Andy on Letterman

Milk and Cookies

Elvis

Saturday Night Live

It started out as Saturday Night… Saturday Night Live title belonged to ABC for a show hosted by Howard Cosell who was out of his league. ABC let Saturday Night have the Live part after Cosell’s show was over.

Who was the best cast through the years? This is a question that is debated over and over again. The people arguing usually picks the cast they grew up with. I grew up with Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo. Personally, I always thought the original cast was the best and it wasn’t even close. John Belushi, Dan Ackroyd, Chevy Chase (though I liked his replacement better…Bill Murray), Gilda Radner, Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris and my favorite overlooked cast member Laraine Newman.

Why do I like the original cast the most? They tried new things and went out on a limb. Some of the skits succeeded some didn’t but they were different from anything on TV at that time…and also at this time. That cast pushed the envelop to use a worn-out phrase but in this instance it is true. Lorne Michaels guided the show and even the musical guests were usually hip bands and artists unknown to the general public and some are legendary now. No way would Michaels ever dream of that now…he usually gets whoever is the most popular to draw in the ratings. He could not do what he did in the 70s anymore because of ratings…and it is sad. Michaels also used the complete ensemble. It was not the Eddie Murphy and the Joe Piscopo show of the early eighties. It was about getting an unknown cast and building them and all of them having a shot…not a star-driven show that gave all the best bits to the stars.

A lot of the skits are now famous… Ackroyd’s Bassomatic, the Samurai, the uncomfortable but funny Word Association with Richard Pryor, The Mr. Bill Show, Weekend Update, Roseanne Rosannadanna, Land Shark, Bag of Glass, The Wild and Crazy Guys, the Coneheads, The Lounge Singer, Mr. Mike, The Blues Brothers and many more.

The writers for the show were not in the Carol Burnett comedy vein..they were not in the current SNL vein either. The style was more aggressive, especially with Michael O’Donoghue. He was a comedy trailblazer with National Lampoon and added dark humor to SNL. Other writers were Franken and Davis, Rosie Shuster, Alan Zweibel, Marilyn Miller, Anne Beatts, Herb Sargent, Tom Schiller and also Ackroyd and Chase.

The two members that didn’t get as much publicity as the others were Newman and Morris and are not as well remembered today. Newman and Ackroyd were the best character actors on the show…they could play anyone.  That cast tried to test all the limits. SNL has turned into just another comedy show through the years. The original group also did some serious skits along with comedy and trips into the bizarre (See Mr. Mike). …It separated the original from any other cast.

There were other great casts but none resonated like the original to me. It was also the timing of when they debuted…and look at the talent in that cast…

The host each week was usually under the radar actors, writers, musicians and sometimes athletes. You usually didn’t see A-list actors but if you did they were carefully chosen. The one big mistake was Milton Berle…how he got to host I don’t know but that is the only show of the first five years I will try to avoid… He was that bad.

I like the feel of underground the first five years had but you can only be that for so long…popularity takes over. Those first 5 great years (the first four were great…the fifth good) set the foundation that holds to this day…just without the daring and danger…in other words, it has become vanilla like the rest of the world.

Cheers to the show that introduced Acapulco Gold to a television audience.

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The Bassomatic…something you cannot explain with words.

The best Star Trek parody…

A few things from the 70s

If I could have been a teenager in any decade it would have been the 1970s. I barely remember the 70s  I grew up mostly in the 80s. I was always envious of people who grew up in the decade before I did…. Great music, split level houses, earth tones, funky clothes, cool cars, great tv shows and bad variety shows…so bad they were great…. Everyone and everything had their own personality. It was a decade where all generations intersected with each other. You had a  with Tim Conway, Kiss, Florence Henderson (singing That Old Black Magic no less) Donny and Marie!, Margaret Hamilton and the eternal Betty White. What other decade would have that and Saturday Night Live….with Laraine Newman, John Belushi, Jane Curtin, Gilda Radner, Dan Aykroyd, Garrett Morris, and Chevy Chase…

I’m not saying anything bad didn’t happen…they did… Jonestown, Kent State, Watergate, Iran hostages, inflation and gas shortages and more. But every decade has its tragedies and bad things.

Really good things were no cellphones, no AIDs, we had vinyl records and we would study the front cover art or picture and the fold out for hours, real honest to goodness rock stars who had talent, no auto-tune, pictures that were not doctored so much you weren’t sure they were real, Intellivision, Atari games, libraries were still relevant, hanging out with friends after school, not nearly as much commercialism (fewer choices to make), more freedom, individualism, you could tell a Ford from a Chevy, Now everyone wants the same things because we are hit with ads 24/7 to be like everyone else.

The 1980s is when commercialism really started in full earnest.

In the 70s people and companies were not afraid to take chances to do something different and new…like movies, houses and cars….even if you didn’t like them (AMC Pacer!) at least you weren’t seeing the same thing in different colors. Yes disco was there but I still like it better than boy groups now. Real musicians played on them. I will admit the lit dance floors were pretty cool…that’s all I will give disco. You could go and see The Who, Led Zeppelin, Paul McCartney, The Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder for 12 bucks and under…sometimes cheaper.

Many people would disagree with the 70s but I still like the chaise lounge chairs with the groovy fuzzy feeling (I have one), green shag carpet the dark restaurants and Star Wars! Before the awful….for the most part Star War prequels.

I can think of many more things both good and bad. I just wish I could have seen more of the seventies at an older age than I was then. But I enjoyed what I had of them…I just wished we had more individualism now.

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Can’t forget the Pacer (rolling fish aquarium on wheels)

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The best Peanut Butter ever…KOOGLE… it came in 4 flavors and Banana was my favorite. I so wish Kraft would bring this back…I really miss this…