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Nine Revelations from the Saturday Night Live Oral History

Nine Revelations from the Saturday Night Live Oral History: Photo credit: NBC

Photo credit: NBC

On September 27th Saturday Night Live will begin its 40th season on NBC. The show is one of the most influential in television history. It’s launched the careers of numerous movie stars and created a plethora of pop culture references. In 2002 James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales released Live from New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live, a 549-page oral history of the iconic show featuring interviews with cast members, executives and even the show’s creator/executive producer/overlord Lorne Michaels. In honor of the 40th anniversary, the authors updated the book with stories from the past 12 years of SNL. I asked Miller for the nine most important things he learned while researching the past decade of the show’s history.

1. Women grabbed the spotlight in a way never seen before

“When Tina Fey became head writer and began doing Weekend Update with Amy Poehler, women had a much more impactful role on the show. Not to say they didn’t have any role before on the show, but they hadn’t enjoyed the prominence, power and influence that they did once Tina became head writer.”

2. The 30 Rock-n-roll hard-partying days were gone

“The culture of the show changed. It was less sex and drugs and more collaborative. I think some of the cast members are just different than in the past. Some of them are slightly older or married or have children. If they were around 20 years ago they would’ve had a hard time fitting in or keeping up with that lifestyle.”

3. No one expected the Digital Shorts — from Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone’s Lonely Island — to take off like they did

“They knew the content was good, but it was at the early development of YouTube. It was the perfect synchronicity between content and technology that enabled sketches to be seen by people who didn’t even watch the show. People weren’t talking about how many hits something got. They were quite surprised by the reaction.”

4. Lorne Michaels is no longer so cold and distant

“He was the show’s parent before he was old enough to be one. Now he’s old enough so he’s definitely the parent. It’s both perception and reality that he is the wise boss, the Godfather of it all. He’s more accessible. The cast of recent times feels like they can go to him and he’s there for them more than previous eras.”

5. Cast members fully expect to go on to something bigger and better

“In the early days they would film a movie in the summer if they were lucky but there wasn’t this expectation that you were building towards something. People didn’t obsess about that. But given the enormity of success that previous cast members have had, it’s not totally out of the world for current members to think, ‘Wow, this is going to be a great thing for my career and if I do it right more great things are going to happen for me.’”

6. The competition — from The Daily Show or The Colbert Report — isn’t on their minds at all.

“I don’t think they have Daily Show envy. Jon Stewart has the time to go deeper and deliver a much bigger agenda for what they say about the news. Weekend Update first and foremost wants to be funny. I don’t think they look at those shows and think, ‘We need to do more of that.’”

7. No one expected the media firestorm around the lack of a black female cast member

“The whole thing took off in a way no one expected and, frankly, in a way I don’t think anyone intended. I don’t think Kenan [Thompson] and Jay [Pharaoh] intended to start such a huge firestorm [by publically speaking out against the show’s hiring practices]. The show did go about its business to try and figure out a plan. Having Kerry Washington play all those African-American characters when she hosted the show was a really good way of handling it.”

8. Yes, they know it’s a rebuilding season

“If you’re on the cast or a writer and Kristen [Wiig] or Bill [Hader] left, you automatically understand what you’re losing. I think everyone recognizes you don’t just replace people like that overnight.”

9. Lorne is not leaving anytime soon

“I could never imagine NBC taking the show away from Lorne. If Lorne has a succession plan, then it’s worthy of the NSA because I don’t think anyone knows about it.”


Live from New York : The Complete, Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live is available now in bookstores and online.

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