Culture

A Backstage Look at Saturday Night Live's Corporate Counterculture

Otto von Bismarck, the father of the welfare state, is often credited — apparently erroneously — as saying that “Laws are like sausages — it is best not to see them being made.” Often, that’s also the case with books about show business. Very often, the finished product is inversely proportional to what bastards the artists who produced it were.

For as Woody Allen — of all people — once told his biographer about five minutes before he became synonymous with the name Soon Yi:

“Talent is absolutely luck,” he said one day while talking about his early fear of performing. “And no question that the most import thing in the world is courage. People worship talent and it’s so ridiculous. Talent is something you’re born with, like Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] is born tall. That’s why so many talented people are shitheels.”

And there were plenty of artists who inhabited the original edition of Saturday Night Live who fit both halves of that equation, combining varying overlapping degrees of talent and schmuckiness. Which is why the book Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live by Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad, first published in 1986 and recently made available on the Kindle (and selling for under six bucks as of the time of this article), is sometimes reminiscent of Woody’s and Otto’s warnings. In a way, Hill and Weingrad’s book works on a similar level as movies like The Godfather, Scarface, or Goodfellas. In modern-era gangster movies, as long as the cameras keep the audience within the point of viewer of the mobsters, they seem sleek and cool. It’s only when you consider the damage done to the innocent people just off-screen that you begin to appreciate the level of brutality the mob inflicts.

Knowing what we now know of the culture wars that began in the mid-sixties, there’s a sense of that in A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live, though it’s sometimes only tacitly referenced, in this otherwise extremely well-researched book. It’s an excellent read — as the Associated Press noted in a blurb from the book’s original edition, “It reads like a thriller and may be the best book ever written about television” — and based on the quality of writing here and the research and interviews that went into it, that’s not exactly hyperbole.

Don’t Trust Any Boom Operator Over 30

To understand how SNL changed television, it helps to understand the era before its debut. Hill and Weingrad explore that extensively from the point of view of late sixties and early seventies underground comedy. But as far as the TV industry itself, the best source is likely Ben Shapiro’s 2001 book Primetime Propaganda, which has a lengthy section that charts the history of the growing leftward tilt of the television industry in the 1960s and early 1970s.

It’s safe to say that by the mid-1970s, there probably weren’t a whole lot of Republicans left at NBC, and certainly not in the more prominent roles at the network. We know that much of the on-air talent on its various shows, such as Johnny Carson, James Garner, and news readers such as Tom Brokaw and Bryant Gumbel, were liberals to one degree or another. The union crew members who built the sets, manned the cameras and aimed the lighting rigs were likely majority Democrat as well. But they were of the old-school middlebrow left, where a classy and polished product was still the goal. And as Hill and Weingrad demonstrate, there was a hard culture clash between the old school liberals who worked at NBC in the mid-1970s, and the young radicals who made up the production staff and on-air talent at Saturday Night Live.

When he first began producing the show, demonstrating a lingering hippie-era mindset that was already passé back in the real world, Lorne Michaels demanded that no one over 30 be assigned to the show, Hill and Weingrad write. Michaels’ edict included not just the writers and performers, but the technical crew who manned the cameras, lights, and sound equipment, and the unit managers who oversaw SNL’s budget. By the time Lorne reached the graphic design department, Hill and Weingrad note, Michaels “simply walked in and said, ‘Give me the youngest person you’ve got.’”

Lorne’s demands did not go unnoticed at NBC, Hill and Weingrad observe:

The show’s writers and performers emerged from their isolation on the 17th floor [of Rockefeller Center, where SNL’s offices are located] in the early fall [of 1975] to go to work in the studio. Their arrival was greeted by the crew in 8H — cameramen, prop men, technical engineers, stagehands, and the like — with all the enthusiasm of decent townspeople witnessing the invasion of a Mongol horde. The crew had heard about Lorne’s demands that no one over thirty work on the show, which hadn’t made the best of first impressions, since most of the crew members had been working at NBC since the days of Milton Berle’s Texaco Star Theater, the Kraft Television Theatre, Your Show of Shows, and all the other live programs from television’s Golden Age. The true outrage, however, came when the crew met the freaks Lorne Michaels did choose to work with.

It was a classic generation gap. The crew was characterized by one of Saturday Night’s writers as “a bunch of Archie Bunkers” who on the political spectrum fit “somewhere between the Klan and the Mafia.” [That’s an awfully broad spectrum, as we now know — Ed.] For their part, the crew members spent much of their time snickering at the Saturday Night people in disbelief and disgust, muttering, as they watched the rehearsals, such comments as “This gang just came from Woodstock!” Every day the snack table outside 8H declared the differences between them: The crew had the usual doughnuts and coffee; Saturday Night had fresh fruit, vegetables, and nuts.

When the crew saw the material the show was working on, they were even more outraged. There were words, jokes, a whole attitude that to them bordered on the obscene. They couldn’t believe that what they were hearing would go on national television. After some sketches were rehearsed, crewmembers turned to one another and said, “Are you kidding me?” Sometimes they actually booed.

It’s easy to picture yourself as Michaels, or as one of the stars or writers of the show. But imagine if you were a middle-aged crewman who spent eight hours a day on the lighting scaffold of an untried network show. How would you feel to be treated like that?

Once SNL took off though, the tone of network television would never be the same. If Bill Maher can call Sarah Palin a c*** with impunity, if Cee Lo Green can cheerfully sing a song titled “F*** You” at a Democratic Party fund raiser, well, the tone of the liberal overculture had to first be lowered from Leonard Bernstein on CBS’s Omnibus, Bob Hope hosting the Oscars, the swankiness of the Kennedy-era Rat Pack, and the Carson-era Tonight Show to get to that point. The original SNL was, in retrospect, one of the most powerful of the early battering rams in the New Left’s war on culture.

In A Backstage History of Saturday Night, Hill and Weingrad highlight the infamous first season episode of SNL hosted by Ron Nessen, Gerald Ford’s press secretary, who stupidly agreed to appear on the show, only to find himself set-up to fail by SNL’s monolithically left-liberal writers and producers. Or as Rosie Shuster, an early SNL writer who was also married to Michaels at the time, said, “The President’s watching. Let’s make him cringe and squirm.”  (You can read a lengthy excerpt of Hill and Weingrad’s coverage of that debacle here.)

The Not Ready for Kindle-Edition Footnotes

Comparing the Kindle edition to my dog-eared, autographed (Weingrad spoke at my college shortly after the book was out) and heavily read copy of the original version, I found a few curious omissions in the Kindle edition. The original edition of the book had occasional footnotes at the bottom of pages. And while Kindle can support footnotes by using hyperlinks to jump back and forth between the primary text and the notes, in the Kindle edition of Saturday Night, the book’s original footnotes have been worked into the article, with a few curious deletions along the way. These were likely excised because the authors thought better of some of their original observations, or someone or his lawyer complained after the original book went to press.

These are minor, but for the record, the name of Don Ebersol’s first wife, Susan Stafford, who was Vanna White’s predecessor on the pre-Pat Sajak 1970s edition of Wheel of Fortune, was removed; she’s now just “the Wheel of Fortune girl.”

In a passage regarding Lorne Michaels’ elite friends at the height of his power in the late 1970s, the authors mention a gentleman named François de Menil, whom the authors describe as “a heir to the vast Schlumberger fortune.”  The original edition of the book added a footnote that said:

Schlumberger Ltd., which manufactures tools for finding and drilling oil and other high-technology equipment, is one of the best-known major multinational conglomerates. Its stock market value is exceeded only by such corporations as AT&T, IBM and Exxon, yet several of its executives are avowed socialists. [Ahh, the innocence of 1986 — Ed.] François de Menil’s mother is the daughter of one of Schlumberger’s founders, his father is the former chairman of the company. The de Menils in the 1960s were among the principal financial supporters of Martin Luther King, Jr.

And perhaps the funniest deletion, if you know that it was there in the original edition of the book, is a footnote referencing Burt Reynolds’ appearance during the fifth season of SNL. “His Hollywood screen-idol ways did not go over especially well on the 17th floor,” the authors write. “The biggest joke of the week was the assertion by the costume people that Reynolds had lifts in his tennis shoes.” Were the authors right the first time around? Only Burt’s chiropodist knows for sure.

Reynolds hosted the April 12, 1980 edition of the show. A month later, SNL’s original version was finished.

How Al Franken Killed the Original SNL

In the fifth season of SNL, with John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd already gone, and Lorne Michaels feeling unloved by NBC, writer Al Franken (yes, the same Al Franken who’s now a Democrat senator representing Minnesota) put the final knife into the original show with this monologue on the May 10th edition of Weekend Update:

Okay, so I get in the cab and I start thinking, “How did this happen to me, Al Franken?” And I figured it happened because I was trying to get a cab — I should have a limousine. I mean, let’s be reasonable. Here I am, Al Franken, one of NBC’s few bright spots, and I’m forced to compete for taxis with you ordinary people out on the street. So I start thinking, “Who does NBC give limos to, anyway?” Okay, now there are some cast members here on Saturday Night Live who do get limousine service from NBC, and I’m not going to complain about that. These people are my friends, and it would seem a bit petty. But Garrett? [Morris, the original SNL’s only black cast member — Ed.]

Okay, anyway, I found out that NBC gives limousines to Tom Snyder and to Gary Coleman. Now, taste aside, these guys do star in their own shows, so I can’t really complain about them either. But now get this: You know who gets complete, door-to-door limousine service from NBC? Fred Silverman. Now, here’s a guy who is a total, unequivocal failure. The guy’s been here two years, and he hasn’t done diddly squat, and he gets a limo. Now, here’s a list of the top ten rated shows this season in TV. Now there’s some A’s there, some B’s, some C’s, some S’s [for ABC and CBS shows], you see those? You see any N’s? Not one N. Why? ’Cause Silverman is a lamo. But he still gets limousine service. I like to call it “a limo for the lamo.”

Okay, now this is where you come in, and you can help me, Al Franken. I want all of you to write NBC and pressure them to get me a limousine. Just send a letter or a postcard to: Get Al Franken a Limo, care of Fred Silverman, NBC-TV, 30 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, New York, 10020.

As Hill and Weingrad note, Silverman was livid. During this period, with many of his primetime shows dying in the ratings, he had been conducting TV’s equivalent of Cold War brinksmanship, trying to find some way to keep Lorne Michaels on as producer or SNL, and/or bring SNL star Gilda Radner to primetime, with Lorne as her producer. After the “Limo for the Lamo” sketch, Silverman abandoned Michaels, and Michaels and virtually all of SNL’s original staff decided to call it a day, paving the way for SNL’s disastrous sixth season, and a long period in the wilderness, until Michaels returned in 1985.

Who Shot SNL?

Hill and Weingrad’s book makes for an excellent companion to the DVDs that Universal issued a few years ago of the show’s glory days, the first five seasons. Not surprisingly, they haven’t begun to issue complete editions of the show’s later years, including the 1980-81 season, after Michaels left, a year-long debacle that nearly devoured the show, particularly when, as  Hill and Weingrad write in their book, this infamous moment occurred:

It happened on the February 21 show. The host was Charlene Tilton, one of the lesser lights on Dallas. The musical guest that night was Prince. While Prince was singing one of his suggestive numbers, it seemed to those in the control room that, although the words were hard to make out, he might have said “fuckin’” — a violation of the ultimate network television taboo.

In the control room, Neil Levy turned to censor Bill Clotworthy. “Did he say ‘fuckin’?” Levy asked.

Clotworthy, knowing when not to go looking for trouble if he didn’t have to, shook his head. “Nah,” he said. “He said ‘friggin’.’”

Charles Rocket was the focus of a running bit that night that parodied the famous “Who Shot J.R.?” episode of Dallas. The idea was that all the cast members had some reason for wanting to kill Rocket, and near the end of the show an unidentified assailant shot him. A few minutes later, onstage to wave good night, Rocket was seated in a wheelchair, his head bandaged, the cast and host standing around him. There was a minute or so left till sign-off and those onstage were signaled to fill time. Charlene Tilton turned to ask Charles how he felt.

“Oh man, it’s the first time I’ve been shot in my life,” he answered. After a brief pause, looking right into the camera with a smirk on his face, he added, “I’d like to know who the fuck did it.”

He stumbled a bit on the word “fuck,” but there was no mistaking he’d said it. Charlene Tilton slapped her hand over her mouth, gasping. Several members of the cast giggled, all of them looking around in wide-eyed disbelief. Rocket sat calmly in his wheelchair, smoked a cigarette, and grinned. They seemed like a bunch of schoolkids wondering what the teacher was going to do now.

In the control room there was a moment of dead silence. Censor Bill Clotworthy’s head was in his hands. “Nice going, Charlie,” he said. Dave Wilson muttered, “I don’t believe this,” and ordered the credits to be rolled. Someone asked if Charlie really said “fuck.” “No,” Neil Levy joked, “he said ‘friggin’.’” Nobody laughed. After the show went off Dave Wilson stood up quickly, threw his script down on the control console, and stomped out, commenting to no one in particular as he went, “Well, that’s the end of live television.”

Fred Silverman happened to be at home watching the show. He didn’t want to believe what he’d heard. He immediately called Dennis Considine, a programming executive who worked with Saturday Night, and said, “Did I, or did I not, just hear Charles Rocket say ‘fuck’ on the air?” Considine answered, sadly, that he did.

However, if you’re determined to watch this moment for yourself, at least at the moment, Rocket’s streaming epithet in question can be streamed on Netflix by clicking here, finding the sixth season episode hosted by Dallas co-star Charlene Tilton, and fast-forwarding to near the end of the show. Of course, if you’d like to see how badly the show had fallen and how quickly after Lorne initially left, watching the whole show might be instructive — it’s anthropological, if not, unlike the best of the show’s first five seasons, entertaining.

SNL Becomes Garde

But these days, the original episodes of SNL are now as much an anthropology dig as they are fun viewing. SNL changed America — and not necessarily for the better. SNL changed network television — and definitely not for the better, no matter how awesome its first few seasons were, by opening the floodgates to a level of vulgarity that was inconceivable to network programmers prior to its launch. And America itself has changed since SNL’s glory days — and with a few exceptions, not necessarily for the better.

Today, you can’t even call Saturday Night Live countercultural anymore — it is the culture for live shows at NBC and its spin-off network MSNBC; all other programming at the network simply amps SNL’s tone up or down. Which symbolizes both the permanently freeze-dried nature of what passes for today’s pop culture, and, as Hill and Weingrad note, ‘70s-era SNL writer Anne Beatts’ observation that you can only be avant-garde so long before you become garde.

And SNL quickly became garde. Lorne Michaels returned to the show in 1985, and has been there ever since collecting a very lucrative paycheck, and using SNL to funnel work to his Broadway Video production facility, as Hill and Weingrad note.

The comedic sensibility of SNL in the 1970s, once a fresh and new — if frequently raunchy — commodity, spread quickly to the rest of live (and live-to-tape) television as well, to the point where it now seems permanently affixed. As Hill and Weingrad note in their book, David Letterman took the spirit of SNL, some of its staff (including Paul Shaffer, associate director Pete Fatovich and several former SNL writers) and brought SNL’s sensibility to the once-moribund talk show format. And not coincidentally, Letterman’s show was originally produced by Johnny Carson, who somehow made his peace with SNL’s worldview, after first dismissing it, as Hill and Weingrad note:

Carson’s distaste for NBC’s other late-night show (shared by many if not most comedians of his generation) was well known within the network. It surfaced publicly in an August 1976 interview with Tom Shales of The Washington Post, when Carson blasted Saturday Night for relying on drug jokes and cruelty. He also dismissed the cast as hopeless amateurs who couldn’t “ad-lib a fart at a bean-eating contest.” Saturday Night retaliated the following season with some anti-Carson jokes on Weekend Update. In one, reporting that Carson had announced plans to do the Tonight Show live instead of on videotape, anchorwoman Jane Curtin noted that he had been “doing the show dead for the past fifteen years.”

Carson’s anger with SNL stemmed partially from his discovering that Chevy Chase, during his meteoric rise during SNL’s first season, was being sought by NBC’s brass as a potential successor to Carson as host of the Tonight Show. No wonder Carson started grooming Letterman a few years later as a defensive measure.

And even more so than Letterman and, in his role as his producer, Carson, Jon Stewart of Viacom’s The Daily Show stole massively from SNL. Journalists who share Stewart’s establishment-liberal politics have declared him the second coming of Edward R. Murrow; the New York Times asks, “Is Jon Stewart the Most Trusted Man in America?”

Chevy Chase, to whom Stewart owes his persona — and arguably his career — at least understood that he was playing a mock journalist on a comedy show when he hosted Weekend Update. But Stewart’s postmodernism goes Chase one better — unlike Chase’s anchorman persona, Stewart, when the clown nose is off, actually believes his own BS, as President Obama would say.

But none of that could have been foreseen 37 years ago, when Lorne Michaels outlined his plan to turn a moribund timeslot that had originally been filled with Johnny Carson reruns into a countercultural alternative at a once-staid TV network. But to get a sense of how SNL became formula, one need only bookend two passages from the start and close of Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live. Early on in their book, Hill and Weingrad write:

The only thing that mattered to Lorne, he told his friends, was that he be able to put on a show he himself would watch, and respect. He used to say there was nothing worse than a show that tried to be hip and wasn’t, and he was obsessed with saving himself, this time, that humiliation. Saturday Night would be done his way or not at all.

When Michaels returned to the show in 1985, Hill and Weingrad write, his reasons for returning “was a subject of much speculation among his friends:”

Few doubted that the money had something to do with it. While Lorne was not poverty stricken by any means (he has made, according to NBC sources, $2 million or thereabouts from his share of the profits from the syndicated version of Saturday Night), he had a rather lavish life-style, and he needed a cash flow to maintain it.

And there you have it — what started out as a countercultural alternative to the staid network television product of the 1970s became, in the end, just another cash cow for both the network and its once starry-eyed producer. You can only be avant-garde so long before you become garde.