It’s hard to imagine a behind-the-scenes book more candid and fascinating than Live From New York, which chronicles the iconic television show Saturday Night Live. In creating the book, authors Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller have mostly just compiled a series of interviews from the show's cast members, guests, writers, and other important figures, and linked them together with some short narrative interludes. It’s a great idea, mostly because this show is mostly about personalities –- legends like John Belushi, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner and Eddie Murphy, as well as successful recent cast members, like Mike Meyers and Adam Sandler.
What Shales and Miller do is put the personalities front and center. As a result, the book has a stunning immediacy not usually found in articles or books about the show. Sure, everyone knows that it was revolutionary and exciting when it started, but it’s quite another thing to hear about the show’s birth and other landmark moments directly from the people who lived it. Shales and Miller interview all of the surviving members of the original cast, along with writers, such as Al Franken and Tom Davis, and original executive producer Lorne Michaels. The book also features most of the surviving members of subsequent casts, with Eddie Murphy the only noticeable omission.
The book charts the show’s tumultuous birth as a way for NBC to stop airing Johnny Carson reruns on Saturday (which the star reportedly hated, because he wanted to show the episodes while he was on vacation). Shales and Miller follow the show as it flourishes, then briefly dies in the early 1980’s with the departure of Michaels and the original cast, and then flourishes again, setting what would become a familiar pattern for the show throughout its 25-year history.
Throughout there are countless stories of clashes among cast members, writers, NBC executives and many others. There are the stories you expect (the drug abuse and subsequent deaths of Belushi and Chris Farley), but also much more. What the book excels at portraying are the strong emotions of those involved with the show, from the enthusiasm of the early cast to the stinging disillusion of later cast member Janeane Garofalo. There’s even a whole chapter on Michaels and the wildly ranging feelings he provokes in those who work for him.
The book isn’t without its juicy bits of gossip (Chevy Chase’s alleged temper; the dust-ups caused by guests Andrew Dice Clay and Sinead O’Connor). Still, this isn’t simply a dish-fest, but an incisive look at one of the most influential shows in television history.