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.