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This article by Richard K. Rein was prepared for the December 4, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
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
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.
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
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.
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