In 2002, James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales released Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live. For fans of the show both devoted and casual, the oral history was an incredible read — full of great stories from the show’s raucous early years and beyond. Miller has updated the book, a new version of which comes out today, with interviews from more recent cast members. Vulture’s Jesse David Fox spoke with Miller about how times have changed on the show since the first book came out and whether or not SNL could survive if Lorne Michaels ever left.
How has SNL changed — in terms of content, but also behind the scenes — since the book first came out 12 years ago?
There’s probably three headlines here. One is obviously the emergence of women in a different way. There’s always been powerful female cast members on Saturday Night Live. But the truth is that it was, you always heard, Oh, it’s a boy’s club, it’s a boy’s club. And despite the fact that Molly Shannon and Cheri Oteri and others through the years kept what I think is a strong legacy of female performers going, when Tina Fey became head writer and Amy and Tina did “Weekend Update,” it’s fair to say that there was a paradigm shift in terms of women.
The second headline is that it became a different place to work. It was, in many ways, at the beginning, aside from Chevy Chase, who was always thinking ahead, it was a destination. And in the later years, it became just part of a journey. So I would talk to cast members who had just gotten hired by SNL, and I would ask them, “How do you feel?” “Well, I feel really good. My hope is, you know, do this for five or six years, and then get that sitcom and movie career like Adam Sandler had and like Mike Myers had.” It was very much looking beyond Saturday Night Live. The smart ones didn’t, but there was a real tendency, given the fact that so many people who were on Saturday Night Live went onto bigger things, it was always in the back of people’s minds. I think that became more prominent.
And the third part is the culture of the place changed. Obviously, in the first book, the sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll were quite apparent. And Tina Fey was talking about how everybody [in her cohort] was worried about meeting their trainer on time. And there’s like, “Uh, I’m a vegan, I’m a vegetarian” — not that there wasn’t pot smoke from time to time, wafting through the offices. But the point is, it was a healthier bunch, and there was a lot more cooperation and support for one another. The earlier periods and eras of SNL were quite Darwinian at times.
Conversely, how hasn’t it changed?
It sounds kind of obvious, but when people get there, they don’t really think about it like this: The thing that hasn’t changed is that on Monday night you’re going to be meeting your host, and no matter what, Saturday night at 11:30, the show goes on. It doesn’t go on, you know, because you’re ready; it just goes on. And so the rhythm of the week, is very, very — Lorne has kept the architecture of the Saturday Night Live week very consistent through the decades, and it’s funny because some people say, “Why is there a late-night dinner with a host on Tuesday night, because that’s our writing night?” Well, Lorne has reasons for doing it that way. The pacing of the show is still very much the same. The way that the most important things that go on between dress and show — that meeting in Lorne’s office, and looking at the board and what’s gonna live and what’s gonna die, and what gets moved around and what gets cut, and everything else, that dynamic is still very much the same.
Have you been let into the room during that time between dress and show?
I have been in that room. I have.
What is it like?
It’s interesting because it goes to the nature of who Lorne is, and the type of leader he is. It’s a place for advocacy and it’s a place for passion. And you have to make your case, and you have to make it quick. Because remember, time’s wasting; the director, the cue-card people, everybody needs to understand these answers. But I think there’s a great balance between people being able to advocate and then ultimately everyone knowing that this is not a democracy and Lorne is going to decide in the end. And you need that. You can’t have, like, a three-headed monster in a room like that. Now, there have been times where people like Seth or Tina or other people have had maybe a little bit more influence, and they might have had more influence than others who have been in those roles before. And so Lorne, in his mind, might say, “If Seth feels strongly about it, then I’ll do it that way.” But I think it’s a really interesting balance that’s achieved in that room. Because it’s not like you walk into the room and Lorne says, “Okay, this is what we’re going to do,” and then everybody just sits there. It’s a very, very collaborative process.
So who’s in the room? It’s the head writers and Lorne?
No, it’s certain cast members and some of the people who are involved in the production side. You have the key decision makers and the most important constituencies.
Beyond those people who are looking down the road, how does the new cast member of today differ from those 20 and 40 years ago?
First of all, 40 years ago, or even 20 years [ago], if people missed what you did on the show, then they had to wait around, basically, for a repeat. I remember somebody, years back, in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s, they’d said that they were so excited because they called somebody and they said, “My sketch survived, please [record] it,” and somebody got stuck in traffic, and they didn’t see it. But the cast now, they know that if they score big — and this is obviously something that happened with the Lonely Island guys, and Andy, and Akiva, and Jorma — it’s going to go viral. So there’s a multitude of possibilities that exist for the cast members now to get known and to get noticed and to break out that weren’t there before.
The other thing, because there are so many blogs and so many people paying attention to it and there’s so much social media — when the lord wants to punish you, he answers your prayers. Because if you get picked to be on Saturday Night Live, and you’re a new cast member and you come on, and maybe you don’t have a great night, it can be punishing. I always enjoyed talking to cast members about whether or not they follow themselves online. Do they Google their names, do they have Google Alerts? Whatever. And there’s a variety of different responses. But I think the ones that do pay attention and do look at what people are saying, they definitely have to develop a coat of armor, because the internet can be mean.
But it could be helpful. I interviewed Seth Meyers recently, and Seth admits that he’ll read stuff and that certain cast members are comfortable seeing what worked and what didn’t work.
Absolutely, absolutely. You just got to be able to also distinguish between who’s really trustworthy or who’s actually giving constructive criticism, who has an agenda. You know, it’s a complicated equation there.
I’ve talked to people, and they don’t describe it as not being competitive anymore; it’s just a different sort of competitive.
There were people in previous eras who saw it as kind of a binary existence — either I get on or they get on. Either that or they didn’t really perceive both the 90 minutes of the show and the world of SNL as having unlimited space for everyone. It wasn’t like they were throwing elbows at each other, but there was competition. In earlier eras, there wasn’t this feeling of sisterhood or brotherhood that exists now, and I think part of it was there were a lot of friendships that existed before Saturday Night Live. Amy and Tina knew each other. Rachel Dratch and Tina knew each other. So when you came to the show, or when somebody came back, these were people that you’d known for a long time. And they’re friends, and you want them to succeed, as opposed to — so many cast members have told me through the years, “I didn’t know anyone when I came there. It was rather intimidating. No one spoke to me for the first week.” That kind of stuff.
Another big part of the early days is the party atmosphere. The book does a good job of not just saying they did it, but how essential a lot of them thought it was to the process, and how important socializing was to get on air. And now that that’s less of a facet of the show.
I was looking at the Betty White episode the other day. And it was Mother’s Day and all the women came together, and it’s like, do you think those people are going to go to the after-after-party that starts at 3 a.m.? They were all mothers, and they went home to their kids and to their husbands. I mean, just think about what a fundamental shift that is, just in terms of how people organize their lives. It used to be, of the original seven, everybody was going crazy and going to the bar and going out, but Jane Curtin would go to the opera with her husband. So she was a total outlier, right? But now it’s totally reversed itself, which is that there’s lots of people that have families or significant others and children, and they don’t need to be going to the after-after-party, and I also think that they believe that the show is more of a meritocracy, so if they come up with something good on a Monday and a Tuesday and work on it and share it at a table read on Wednesday or whatever, it doesn’t matter whether or not they [went out after the show].
Have you run into anyone from the last ten or so years who kind of wishes that they had come up in one of those previous eras? Who thinks of themselves as someone who would have been better as a Darwinian, hard-partying type of guy or girl?
Absolutely. There are two groups. I talk to a lot of the cast members from the last 12 years about this. But there’s two groups: One is, “I wish I’d been around. Can you imagine the parties they had?” The other group, and this is the majority opinion, is, “Thank God I wasn’t there then, because I wouldn’t have been able to do it.” Do you know how many people, cast members said to me, “I don’t know how they got the show on”? That’s one of those lines that you kept on hearing. “I don’t know how you do it. I can’t drink that much, I can’t smoke that much, I don’t wanna screw around that much.” When you read Tina’s book, you start to realize she’s not the female John Belushi. Obviously it was a great book, you get a sense of her sensibility. She says she doesn’t think she’d fit in particularly well back then. And I think that’s true for a lot of people.
How’s the cast relationship to Lorne changed over the last 10-15 years?
Lorne, even when he was the same age as the cast or sometimes even younger, he’s always been a practicing adult, in part because he’s the boss, but in part because of the way he projects himself. But I think that now — Maya Rudolph was talking about how comfortable it is now to be able to say anything to Lorne, to be able to talk to him about anything. People feel much more comfortable about approaching him. And I think he is settled into a role as the godfather of it all. He’s very, very generous with his time when people need him. And they know that. There were times, there were a lot of cast members in the ‘80s and ‘90s who spent a lot of their time trying to figure out Lorne and trying to get noticed by him or trying to get responded to by him or that were afraid to talk to him. There’s less of that now.
It reminds me of a story from when I interviewed Bill Hader a few years back. He said, a few years in, Lorne came up to him and was like, “You know you can work here as long as you want.” It was this moment where, with complete transparency, he told someone that he was completely fine. Is that something he ever would have done before?
If they did, a lot of people were quiet about it because that’s the kind of assurance and stability and security that a lot of people desperately wanted from Lorne, but didn’t get. I don’t think he was purposely trying to be withholding. I wouldn’t be surprised if he said that to Will Ferrell at some point, or Mike Myers, or something.
You talked a little bit about the internet and the media coverage. Do you think Lorne and the show weren’t prepared at how incessant the media onslaught was going to be over the whole conversation last fall about not having a black female cast member?
Look, this happens a lot. Sometimes [it happens] with companies, sometimes it happens with the White House. Every day, every week, probably. You think you know your business and you think you know your audience, you think you know how people could react. But sometimes things happen, I mean, they become bigger than you could imagine. They’re not naïve at Saturday Night Live, so I think they understood that this had the potential to be discussed on a broad level. And it was! But I also think that they didn’t overreact and they didn’t lose their cool. They methodically went about doing what they needed to do, and there was a lot of pressure on them about other things. So it wasn’t just like, all of a sudden, the next day, somebody surfaced. There’s a really interesting quote in the book from [producer] Lindsay Shookus [who oversees casting] about the response of the creative community pitching African-American artists. So that was something to be factored in as well.
Can you explain that a little more?
Just in terms of how many people she was hearing about from agents and managers. Even when she was asking for candidates. It wasn’t like there were hundreds of tapes arriving every single day. So I don’t think it’s fair, within context, to say they never considered it or never wanted it or were never looking, ‘cause those kinds of things are totally unfair.
Yeah. There’s the quote about how they had reached out to Sasheer before and she didn’t audition.
So you don’t think that has changed how they went about their casting process this summer?
I don’t know if there’s a dotted line running between the two. I know that there were a lot of people, veteran SNL watchers, me, even, that thought that there might have been more of a house cleaning. And I think that at the end of the day, Lorne understands development arcs, and for all we know, there might have been something in a particular sketch that Lorne saw of somebody, and he may have been ready to let them go. And he saw something in one sketch and thought, Okay, wait, if they can do that, that’s worth holding on to. We’re going to get them to the next level. And: They’re not there now, but they’re worth keeping. You know, it’s not always, Well, they didn’t have a breakout character, so let’s get rid of ‘em. It’s much more complicated than that.
Does Lorne give any sense of thinking about stopping?
No, I’ve never heard that.
Do you think it could operate without him?
So, we have to, I guess, play the antecedent game. ‘It,’ let’s talk about what it means. Could Saturday Night Live operate without Lorne Michaels? Technically, yes. I mean, now they’re too big for it, but let’s just take Tina and Seth. They could have executive-produced the show in the sense of getting the show on every week. But Saturday Night Live is, first of all, just one part of the whole Lorne Michaels empire. So I don’t think there’s someone who could walk in and do all that. But the second thing is, there’s getting the show on and keeping the show alive. And getting the show on week to week, I have no doubt that somebody like Tina or Seth, back when it was theoretical — ‘cause now obviously Tina’s got her own empire and Seth’s got his own show — but they could have delivered the show during that week. But there’s so many things about the show, in terms of dealing with the network and dealing with the finances and the budget of it and dealing with the delicate things that go on that nobody knows about between Lorne and a host or Lorne and a potential host. There’s a multitude of things that are separate, from “Let’s put this sketch on” and “This sketch should be 30 minutes and 50 seconds,” and “This is where it goes in the show.” The bottom line is, it’s a bigger job than people realize.
Yeah, I know, and I think he aged into skillsets that you can’t just throw someone who has the creative mind for it. Seth has been a comedian all his life, and then you have some managerial roles as a head writer, but to be a businessman is not really something he’s really had experience doing. I feel like the names you always hear are Seth and Tina. Was there anyone else that anyone’s ever thought could do it?
Let’s just say Lorne all of a sudden decided, “You know what? I’m done. Good-bye.” And so let’s say you get it in June, and then NBC launched a search and they picked somebody that wasn’t from the SNL universe. And that to me seems incredibly prohibitive. It’s not a question of finding where the bathrooms are, but it’s a question of, there’s an incredibly particular rhythm to the week. There’s a lot of institutional memory that goes on [that] you have to know in order to get the show done. I think that would be really bad. So then you’re left with people at the show. I think that the show is broken down into skillsets. So you have specialists, and one of my favorite people in the history of the show was [supervising producer] Ken Aymong. And Ken knows everything about the studio and the set and the budgets and the finances. And he works with the directors, and he works with all the cue cards and everything, and he’s not a writer. He’s not a writer. And then you could take a great head writer and you could say, “Well, but they don’t know some of the things Ken does.” Or, “Look at what Lindsay Shookus does with casting the show. Well, Ken doesn’t know a lot about that. The head writer may not know a lot about that.” So you’ve got a lot of different specialists with Lorne really being the only person who knows all of it.
Yeah, I agree. So one last, maybe fun question. Do you have a favorite classic member and a favorite current member?
Oh my gosh. It’s like asking me to choose amongst my children. Let’s just talk about right now, the current cast. There’s something going on right now with Kate McKinnon, which is really interesting because I know people are talking about, “She’s the new Kristen.” And there’s always that thing that “Will Ferrell was the new Phil Hartman.” But I think that Kate is bringing a very distinct sensibility that’s just her own. And I think she’s a lot of fun to watch. Also, I think she can make average material better just because she’s performing it, which means that sketches can be saved sometimes. Which I think is great. In terms of previous eras, I guess there’s never going to be anything like, for me at least, watching John Belushi do Beethoven. Or John Belushi as a samurai. Maybe because I was so young at the time and it became hard-wired. Or whatever. But he just always seemed larger than life and larger than the show. That just, to me, was amazing. The good news is that there’s a lot of great ones to choose from.