Tom Shales on SNL and Lorne Michaels

Posted on February 20, 2015 at 8:00 am

Of all the tributes and critiques of “Saturday Night Live” as it starts its fifth decade, none is more astute than Tom Shales’ for Daily Beast.  Shales is the co-author of Live From New York: The Complete, Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live as Told by Its Stars, Writers, and Guests. In this column he talks about producer Lorne Michaels, and his original idea that the show should be for the generation who grew up on television. It was media-aware and subversive from the beginning.

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.

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Books Critics Television Understanding Media and Pop Culture

SNL Turns 40

Posted on February 6, 2015 at 3:55 pm

Copyright 2015 Taschen
Copyright 2015 Taschen

“Saturday Night Live,” once the brash upstart whose cast billed themselves as the “Not Ready for Prime Time Players” is now an established institution. Performers like John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Al Franken, Eddie Murphy, Martin Short, Billy Crystal, Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman, Chris Farley, Mike Myers, Adam Sandler, Conan O’Brien, Chris Rock, Will Ferrell, Tracy Morgan, Jimmy Fallon, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Kristin Wiig, Seth Meyers, Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, Andy Samberg, and many more all had breakthrough performances as writers or members of the cast. Dozens of memes, characters, and catchphrases originating on the show have become a part of our culture.

Copyright NBC
Copyright NBC

SNL is celebrating its 40th anniversary with a book and a prime time TV special hosted by Eddie Murphy February 15, 2015, with many of the cast members and special guests including Sarah Palin, Kanye West, and Justin Timberlake.

Saturday Night Live: The Book includes over 2,300 images from SNL’s archives, many previously unpublished, an illustrated breakdown of the 6-day week at SNL through the years, with an expanded section for the live show, a seasons reference guide with complete cast, host, and musical guest lists, and an exclusive interview with founder and executive producer Lorne Michaels.

On October 11, 1975 at 11:30 p.m., NBC viewers who tuned in to the network’s new late night show saw a sketch featuring John Belushi repeating, in a thick foreign accent, nonsensical phrases about wolverines being read to him by head writer Michael O’Donohue. Abruptly, O’Donohue clutched his heart and collapsed onto the floor. Belushi paused, raised his eyebrow, and then did the same. Posing as the stage manager, Chevy Chase entered the set and feigned confusion before breaking character and announcing to the camera: “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!”

Copyright NBC
Copyright NBC

In that instant, television, which had long been out of touch with the young and hip, experienced the first seismic tremors of a major paradigm shift. TV comedy as we know it today owes it all to Saturday Night Live, the show that dared to take risks (not least the fact that it’s broadcast live), challenge the censors, and celebrate the work of offbeat writer-performers. Hundreds of gifted and dedicated people have contributed to Saturday Night Live over the years, and this book pays homage to their groundbreaking work. The list of esteemed alumni, most of whom were complete unknowns when they debuted on SNL, reads like a Who’s Who of the past 4 decades in comedy: John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Al Franken, Eddie Murphy, Martin Short, Billy Crystal, Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman, Chris Farley, Mike Myers, Adam Sandler, Conan O’Brien, Chris Rock, Will Ferrell, Tracy Morgan, Jimmy Fallon, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Kristin Wiig, Seth Meyers, Fred Armisen, and Bill Hader—to name just a few.

Now, as SNL celebrates its 40th anniversary, Tashcen brings you the ultimate tribute to the show. To research this book, editor and author Alison Castle was given not only full access to SNL’s archives, but also the rare opportunity to watch the cast and crew at work. She spent the better part of season 39 in the trenches, learning how everything comes together in just six days for the live performance. Part encyclopedia and part behind-the-scenes tour, Saturday Night Live: The Book covers both the making of the show and its remarkable history.

Fans of the show should also read Live From New York: The Complete, Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live as Told by Its Stars, Writers, and Guests by Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller.

Glamour has a terrific, very candid roundtable with the SNL women, who talk about everything from their “terrifying” auditions to writing for themselves to avoid one-line waitress roles, to the ideas behind their most famous characters.

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Books Television Understanding Media and Pop Culture

SNL Adds A New Cast Member: Sasheer Zamata

Posted on January 6, 2014 at 4:34 pm

Saturday Night Live has added Sasheer Zamata to the cast.   She graduated from the University of Virginia and has performed with the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater.   SNL producer Lorne Michaels has been criticized for the lack of diversity in the cast and has recently been auditioning several women of color.  The recent episode hosted by Kerry Washington spoofed SNL’s failure to have a black woman in the cast since Maya Rudolph left five years ago by having Washington keep running off stage to play several different roles.  Sasheer Zamata looks like a terrific addition to the cast and I hope the audition process produced several other candidates we will see later on.

 

 

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Actors Gender and Diversity Television

Five Inspiring Lines from Tina Fey’s Bossypants

Posted on May 2, 2011 at 3:44 pm

I so enjoyed Tina Fey’s book, Bossypants.  It is rushed and uneven in places, understandable given her many full-time roles as producer, star, writer, mother, wife, and America’s sweetheart.  Still, the book is very funny and very, very smart.   Here are five of my favorite lines:

1.  Start with a YES and see where that takes you….The second rule of improvisation is not only to say yes, but YES, AND.  You are supposed to agree and add something of your own….It’s your responsibility to contribute.

2.  There are no mistakes, only opportunities.

3.  A wise friend once told me, “Don’t wear what fashion designers tell you to wear.  Wear what they wear.”

4.  : “The show doesn’t go on because it’s ready; it goes on because it’s 11:30.”  Fey adds, “You have to try your hardest to be at the top of your game and improve every joke until the last possible second, and then you have to let it go.”

5. I suggest you model your strategy after the old Sesame Street film piece “Over! Under! Around! Through!”

 

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