Here’s another booksigning that seems likely to attract a small crowd: It’s "Live from New York," the book by Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller, chronicling the highs (literally as well as figuratively) and lows of the NBC late night comedy show. Both the authors are showing up this Thursday, December 5, at 8 p.m. at Barnes & Noble in MarketFair.
For me it’s another booksigning that sends me down Memory Lane. Last week’s column was about the McPhee sisters, showing up this Wednesday, December 4, at the Princeton University Store. Now Shales and Miller take me back to the early 1980s, and a series of strange tales from 30 Rockefeller Center, the origination point of SNL.
I came not to praise Saturday Night Live but to bury it. It was 1980 and the show had rocketed its founding producer (Lorne Michaels) and original cast (John, Dan, Chevy, Bill, Garrett, Gilda, and Jane) to stardom. But the big lights had begun to burn out, and Michaels had left the show in the hands of the former music and talent coordinator, a woman named Jean Doumanian. She was faced with remaking the show with a practically a whole new cast, not one of whom was likely to rocket the show anywhere. And "rocket" was a most ironic verb, given that the most prominent member of the new cast was a previously unheralded actor named Charles Rocket — yes, that was his real name.
People magazine, sensing a story with some ironic headline possibilities, decided to run a piece on the floundering show. People’s big editorial guns, obviously sensing the revamped show would be a dud, showed no interest in reporting the piece. So the editors called on the freelancer from Jersey. I was thrilled to get the work.
Saturday Night Live, circa 1980, was not an altogether happy place to be. Critics were panning the show; the writers were panning the performers; the performers were panning the writers; and everyone was using whatever comedic wit they had to trash Doumanian. "She’s the Mark David Chapman of the American comedy," one performer sneered, referring to the man who had killed John Lennon.
Another one called her the Ayatollah Doumanian. One of the backstage guys, trying out his own brand of stand-up comedy on me, observed that Doumanian’s career had gone from "talent booker" to "talent hooker." Doumanian tried to keep them all from talking to me, but of course that didn’t work, and only added to the comedy routine: "Jean is like a person with a urinary tract infection — there’s always a leak or two she can’t control."
Still, to paraphrase one of its stock characters from the early days, Saturday Night Live was "bery, bery good to me." Rocket fizzled and Doumanian was dumped, but the show continued and I somehow caught it as a beat. I had to interview one of the newest cast members at his home in Roosevelt, Long Island, where he still lived with his parents and siblings. That was Eddie Murphy. Billy Crystal ended up on a television sitcom playing a gay character. I met Crystal at the spring training camp of the Oakland Athletics — Crystal would be happy to do an interview as long as he could also fulfill a lifelong dream of taking major league batting practice.
John Belushi died and I was assigned to investigate the drug scene that had become part of his life. That made me an overnight expert on dead celebrities — think Jessica Savitch.
Nothing about Saturday Night Live was ever completely normal. A few years after the Doumanian regime ended, NBC tried to restore some sanity in the SNL operation by naming Dick Ebersol as executive producer.
Ebersol was was one of the founders of the original Saturday Night Live in 1975 and he was brought back to right the ship. He did — that and the fact that he was by then married to the actress Susan St. James led People magazine to assign a story.
The reporting takes place the weekend that the couple are hosting a christening for their newborn son (joining St. James’s kids from a previous marriage, named Sunshine and Harmony). Photographer Christopher Little and I are there for People, and we are shadowed by a public relations man who is intent on controlling our every minute with Dick and Susan.
But Dick and Susan are ordinary people who open themselves up to the journalists as if they were long lost relatives from the Midwest. At the end of the long day on Saturday they invite us to come back the next morning for more at-home photographs.
We return and the slow morning turns into a lazy afternoon. Susan excuses herself. Then Dick excuses himself. The phone rings. I answer it and it’s the PR guy. What are we doing there without him? he demands to know. Put Susan or Dick on the line, he demands. "I’d like to," I tell him. "But I’d better not. They’re both sound asleep."
It’s just us, the journalists, along with Sunshine and Harmony. We are not quite live from New York, but it’s definitely Saturday Night.