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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.

ON SNL

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.


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