You don't have to agree with the premise of this book to enjoy it. You don't have to believe that Saturday Night Live was "revolutionary" or that it "sparked a renaissance in topical, satirical, and political humor both on television and off it." You may even consider "It's Pat!" to be an early sign of the Apocalypse. But none of that should stop you from relishing Live from New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live (Little, Brown; 594 pages), a guilty pleasure of the highest order. The authors, Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales and journalist James Andrew Miller, interviewed dozens of writers, actors, television executives, musicians and assorted other celebrities and assembled their testimony into an oral history spanning the show's 27-year lifetime. The result is something funnier, sadder, seedier, more moving and more alive than Saturday Night Live itself ever was.
SNL's hectic weekly schedule and live format have kept its cast and crew in a state of barely controlled mania since the first show in 1975. The pressure-cooker atmosphere helps explain why Dan Aykroyd ended up sleeping with producer Lorne Michaels' wife, not to mention with Gilda Radner, who developed an eating disorder, and Laraine Newman, who was snorting heroin. It led to Julia Sweeney and Dana Carvey weeping in their dressing rooms, and Chris Farley running around naked and defecating out of a 17th-story window. Not to mention Bill Murray and Chevy Chase throwing punches moments before the opening monologue. (Chase is almost unanimously portrayed as insufferably rude and insulting.)
There's something touching about funny people when they drop the comedy and get serious. The deaths of Farley, Radner and John Belushi loom large over the book, and the sense of wartime camaraderie among the big stars of the early 1990s--Farley, Chris Rock, Adam Sandler and David Spade--is often heartwarming. But there's anger in these voices too. Relying on some Darwinian theory of comedy--survival of the funniest--Michaels pits the cast members against one another in a bitter competition for air time, which once drove a shaking Victoria Jackson to stand on a chair and call fellow performers Nora Dunn "a bitch" and Jan Hooks "the devil."
At its trashy worst, this is good gossip. At its best, Live from New York is a frank, perceptive group biography of smart, ultra-verbal people loving and hating one another under intense pressure. Ralph Nader, who once hosted the show, chalks up SNL's success to the decline of civilization: "When the culture decays and the communications media decay," he remarks, "then something as weak as ... Saturday Night Live shines." Live from New York shines as well, and perhaps that's cultural decay too. But maybe it's because what happens on Saturday night is never half as interesting as the aftermath on Sunday morning. --By Lev Grossman