The Best Lines Come From Life
Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live
The Best Lines Come From Life
New books dissected over email.
Oct. 16 2002 6:56 PM

Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live


Dear Tim,

I agree, but I disagree about your exegesis on the word "prick" as it relates to Live From New York. On one hand, I'm with you that SNL gave us humor cooked up by pricks for the enjoyment of too-cool-for-school same.

But I disagree that's anything new in comedy. On an assignment a decade ago, I had to sit at lunch for an hour every day for a year at the New York Friars Club, among nonagenarian comedians who often couldn't remember their grandchildren's names. Yet like the people chronicled in Live From New York, virtually all these comics—born around the time McKinley was considered a promising presidential candidate—never forgot one single grudge of their showbiz lives.

So, what's the difference between Milton Berle berating the never-was yukster who'd said hello at his table because "that sonuvabitch stole my act at the Passaic Theatre in November 1937"—and Billy Crystal, 27 years later, still blaming his manager for getting him bumped off SNL's first show, not to return for a long, long time?

Nothing. Well, there's talent. Or, as they say in professional wrestling (hey, Jesse Ventura is still my governor for a month), the ability to "get over"—win the crowd and make them tune in for more, even if it's pure shtick. Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtin had the Coneheads. Billy Crystal had Fernando's Hideaway. Bill Murray had Nick the Lounge Singer scatting lyrics to the music from Star Wars.

Plus, it takes timing in front of the right people. Bill Murray had it—and still does, unlike so many of the SNL stars who flamed over the years. All ears were always turned to the SNL laff-o-meter, whether the camera was on or off. When Chevy Chase came back to host, he got into a fistfight backstage with Murray, his replacement. In the middle of the brawl, Murray—"foaming with anger," as director John Landis recalls in the book—calls Chase a "medium talent." Landis says, "And I thought 'Ooh boy, that's funny. In anger he says 'medium talent.' So Bill Murray—who is that guy?"

Similarly, back in vaudeville, lasting talents like Henny came up with their best lines by themselves, from life, sans writers. In 1939, while emceeing The Kate Smith Show, the SNL of its day, Youngman tried to shoo his spouse and her friends out from backstage before the show, just as NBC pages would have to do with hangers-on in Studio 8H 40 years later. "Take my wife," he implored a guard, "please."

The joke was real then, and lasted 50 years, just as what was real about SNL will also be funny in 2052. (Sorry to be repetitive from yesterday, but since nobody picks these skits, I still choose among my favorites Eddie Murphy's James Brown's Celebrity Hot Tub. And because no one says anything nice about him in the book or in life, Joe Piscopo's sportscast, where he'd use a dozen teams' bobble-head dolls to dramatize the day's action.)

No one remembers the lousy sketches on Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca's equally epochal Your Show of Shows—but you wish someone back in the 1950s had put together a book like Live From New York. If that biographer had Shales' and Miller's skills, we'd at last glean an idea from the paranoid, megalomaniacal, and brilliant Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Woody Allen, and Neil Simon about who really had to take out the trash on that show—and who had to eat it.

Tim Appelo writes about the arts for Seattle Weekly, the New York Times, and People. Neal Karlen is a free-lance writer in Minneapolis.