BOOKS

Televised subversion

SATURDAY NIGHT: A BACKSTAGE HISTORY OF SATURDA Y NIGHT LIVE By Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad

Brian D. Johnson April 14 1986
BOOKS

Televised subversion

SATURDAY NIGHT: A BACKSTAGE HISTORY OF SATURDA Y NIGHT LIVE By Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad

Brian D. Johnson April 14 1986

Televised subversion

BOOKS

SATURDAY NIGHT: A BACKSTAGE HISTORY OF SATURDA Y NIGHT LIVE By Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad

(Macmillan of Canada, 510 pages, $26.95)

On the eve of The Rolling Stones’ 1979 guest appearance on Saturday Night Live, an assistant to former secretary of state Henry Kissinger phoned the TV comedy show’s NBC offices and requested tickets for Kissinger’s son. According to Saturday Night: A Backstage History, one of the show’s writers, Al Franken, cheekily replied that, “they would gladly have complied had it not been for Kissinger’s role in the Christmas bombing of North Vietnam in 1972."

That spirit of comic insolence and guerrilla morality made Saturday Night Live one of the most controversial shows on television.

Still on the air a decade after its debut, the show has lost its edge. But for a while it served as TV’s most dangerous public intersection — a place where politics, drugs and rock ’n’ roll collided before a live audience. And it fostered a new generation of comedy stars, including Chevy Chase, John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray. With Saturday Night: A Backstage History, authors Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad provide an engrossing chronicle of a TV revolution that was swallowed up by its own success.

Created by Canadian producer Lome Michaels, Saturday Night Live originated as the comedy underground’s assault on network television. In fact, the authors offer considerable evidence that the show was both inspired and defeated by the drug culture—from the spring of 1975 when Michaels mapped out the SNL format after eating magic mushrooms in California’s Mojave Desert to the night in 1982 when SNL alumnus John Belushi died

from an overdose of heroin and cocaine in a Hollywood hotel room. Hill and Weingrad compare the show to “a passing of the communal joint around a circle that spanned, through television, the entire country.” But with success and fame, much of the SNL team traded the communal euphoria of marijuana for the ego-enhancing luxury of cocaine: the book’s account of Chase’s coke-fuelled rise to stardom and conceit lends new meaning to his trademark quip, “I’m Chevy Chase —and you’re not.”

While drugs serve as a backdrop for the tragicomic tale of SNL’s rise and fall, politics provide the drama. The authors document the heated battles between the producers and the network censors, who were often powerless to stop the live program. One night Franken even unleashed a deadpan attack on his own boss, then-NBC president Fred Silverman, calling him “a total, unequivocal failure.’’ And during the 1976 presidential campaign, SNL carried its subversive antics all the way to the White House: persuading President Gerald Ford to tape some lines for a show, the producers lured his press secretary, Ron Nessen, into hosting it. Sportingly, Nessen participated in sketches satirizing Ford’s legendary clumsiness. But the rest of the show featured such raunchy material as a commercial parody for a carbonated douche named “Autumn Fizz.” The President was not amused.

Without making moral judgments, Hill and Weingrad devote a wealth of diligent reporting to what is essentially a story about public morality in America. Crisply written, their book succeeds in demonstrating that its subject’s significance is worth its weight in research. But what makes it most compelling is the sheer payload of high-level gossip that it promises—and delivers.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON