Like punk rock, Saturday Night Live sought to cut through the bloated malaise of '70s pop culture by returning to the raucous, live-wire energy of its medium's early days. For SNL, that meant a return both to live performance and to the sketch-intensive variety-show format, two fixtures of television's Golden Age. Also like many of the punks, SNL has hung around long enough to become what it initially ridiculed. The show's rocky metamorphosis from edgy counterculture brashness to mainstream comedy juggernaut is chronicled in fascinating detail in Live From New York, a compulsively readable oral history of the show by James Andrew Miller and Pulitzer Prize-winning TV critic Tom Shales. As the authors point out in the introduction, SNL has never suffered from a dearth of media attention. Many of the anecdotes and stories related here will be old news to fans, but while Live is stingy with startling revelations, it's long on juicy gossip and stories worth retelling. The authors tend to be fawning and deferential toward the current SNL lineup, as well as the original cast members, who are lionized as mischievous "pirates," some of whom are "in heaven now." But Shales and Miller's tendency toward sentimentality is offset by many of the participants, who are more than willing to tear each other to shreds. SNL's performers tend to have wildly varying takes on the show and its legendary producer Lorne Michaels, and Live thrives on the tension between participants who come to bury Michaels and SNL and those who come to praise them. Considering the huge success of many alumni, it's not surprising that the loyalists outnumber the complainers, but professional cranks like Harry Shearer and Janeane Garofalo spread enough bad vibes to keep the book from devolving into an epic reunion of the Mutual Admiration Society. As the participants readily acknowledge, the show is the real star. Accordingly, only John Belushi, Gilda Radner, and Eddie Murphy (who didn't participate in the book or SNL's 25th anniversary) are able to dominate their sections of Live the way they dominated their eras on the show. Overall, the book depicts a phenomenon in a perpetual state of organized chaos, as gifted, emotionally needy writers and performers strive for airtime that can make or break their fledgling careers. Candid, funny, and incisive, Live exposes the fickle egos, office politics, and manic adrenaline rushes behind what has become, for better and worse, a comedy institution.
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