Wednesday, December 14th, 2011

It's Too Late, the Cones are Built: Inside the Strange, Writer-centric 1977 SNL Book

There is a book I love and it is not clear to me what the name is, but I think it is just Saturday Night Live. If you’re looking for it, you should search for Saturday Night Live, Host: Francisco Franco or maybe Saturday Night Live Franco but not James Franco edited by Anne Beatts and John Head Avon Books 1977 it is green? In any case, you should look for it!

With the (great) oral history of SNL by Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller and with all the early seasons available to stream on Netflix and Hulu, it is maybe a little easier now to see what might have been interesting and new and galvanizing about the show when it first came on. But I started seriously watching SNL in the late Ebersol period, when Christopher Guest and Billy Crystal were on, and when I’d see something from the first season it was basically impenetrable to me.

Part of this was just youth, but I also had no other “in”: I was too young to have seen the movies to which the early season cast members had “graduated” (although it being 1984, I was about to know Murray and Aykroyd from Ghostbusters and work my way back). I knew Jane Curtin from Kate & Allie. John Belushi was dead and his wife was on the cover of People. And that was it. The stuff I saw from the first seasons didn’t even read as funny to me: what was (is?) the joke of the Coneheads?

But this book got me there. It has a lot of the Dadaist non-sequiturs-with-zero-follow-through that we now know as “most Tumblrs,” but it also goes deeper, is legit funny and edgy, and maybe most importantly — and this is probably because it is co-edited by Anne Beatts (and has Michael O’Donoghue as creative consultant) — it emphasizes the writers as much as the performers.

Much of the book consists of typed scripts that are covered with scrawled rewrites or notes (or lunch orders) (or a list of 55 people who dolphins are definitely more intelligent than), and also just other Stuff. What it really feels like is a samizdat scrapbook from the first couple years of the show.

The book walks through what we now think of as a “typical” episode, starting with a script for a Chevy Chase cold open and a Paul Simon monologue, and then some sketches, some of which include:

  • the Jimmy Carter call-in show with Dan Aykroyd (and Dan Aykroyd’s moustache)
  • a Franken & Davis commercial parody for Placenta Helper, which at least as of this book was banned by the censor (although I feel like I’ve seen it?)

  • The “Lifer Follies” sketch in which Peter Cook auditions inmates for a production of Gigi
  • a quietly perfect piece by Marilyn Suzanne Miller called “Slumber Party”
  • two weekend update scripts (one for Chevy, one for Jane)
  • The Last Voyage of the Starship Enterprise
  • An end-of-show Good Night, with Dan Aykroyd interrupting Elliott Gould to ask viewers to help him locate some 1971 Electra Glide Harley Davidson Police Special Fat Bob Tanks
  • And seriously like twenty more

Some of the non-script things that are stapled or taped or drawn onto the script pages include:

  • Notes! Edits! Stage directions! Costume and Set design!
  • A recipe for tabouli and where to seat everyone when it’s served

  • A photomontage of Eric Idle disrobing (fans of butts and/or tube socks: take note)
  • A certification that director Dave Wilson was elected the funniest kid in New Jersey in 1950

  • A postcard from the Muppets
  • In fact, lots of correspondence: letters to and from fans; kind letters from Ms. Magazine and Gene Roddenberry; a “back soon” note from Franken & Davis; and a confirmation copy of a previously phone-delivered telegram from Michael O’Donoghue:

  • Hand written running times and writer credits on the top of every script, which probably reaches an apex with the “Lifers” sketch, which is initially credited to “everybody” but then has penciled in sections that say “Michael O’Donoghue wrote this,” “Lorne Michaels wrote this,” then is interrupted by an Update sketch where Chevy Chase appears to be identifying under duress the parts he didn’t write, and then back to the sketch, where next to the part when Belushi sings “That’s Life” it says: “Paul Anka wrote this.”

And this insistence on the writers was a key for me: the scripts themselves reveal their craftsmanship on the page, and all of the ephemera in the book is there in support of the scripts. And it’s that (I guess pretty obvious) idea — that there were brains making this stuff, and they got tired and punchy and irritable but also they were all there trying to make something that hadn’t really been done before — that got me to appreciate it.

One page toward the end has a list of 19 esoteric book titles under the heading “TO READ” with a note at the top from Dan Aykroyd to John Belushi:

The Coneheads still don’t make any actual “sense,” but, for me, that note from Aykroyd to Belushi — we must think and work constantly — for me, that makes perfect sense.

Patrick Mortensen lives in Chicago because real estate. More of his writing can be found here and on his hard drive where it quietly waits rejection from the Quality Lit Game.

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  • P Bu

    I wonder if Don Novello played a role in this book or at least naming the still-dead Franco as host. I think Novello was writing for SNL by 1977, and, if the Lazlo Letters is any indication, he had a fascination with Francisco Franco.

  • William Ham@facebook

    No, Franco's still being dead was a Weekend Update running gag all through Chevy Chase's stint on the show, well before Novello started writing for it.

  • bassknives

    That (pre-internet) multimedia, multidimensional style was developed at the National Lampoon magazine during the early seventies. Go read "Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead" next.

  • Anthony Coro

    I found a copy of this a few years ago at a used book store and never really knew what to make of it…it feels sort of Kaufman-esque in that the whole vibe I get from it is it's a bunch of stuff written by people trying to amuse themselves that someone saw fit to publish for some reason. Like, I dunno. I never really read it from cover to cover or anything just because it threw me off so much but maybe I'll pull it out and take another look because I really don't remember anything about it other than it feeling a little off-putting at the time.

  • Terry Childers@facebook

    I found this book in a used store in about 1986 while on vacation in florida. i was 9 or 10. i wore it out and eventually tossed it and have regretted it immensely. i have since become a total dork/completist for SNL. thanks for posting this, whenever i tell people about it i can never remember what the title is. you have solved a riddle of my childhood and now i can get on with my life. thanks Patrick!

  • beermestrength

    Finding this book in a used book store a few years back, while giving me an SNL boner, also made me sad because I don't know anyone else who would have felt the same about something this strangely awesome. So thanks for this article…we can all commiserate in our SNL nerd boners.

  • tadaforever

    I bought this because you told me to. Do you understand the sway splitsider holds over my reading habits? DO YOU!?

  • Tom Graney

    SNL's Coneheads made sense at the time. I guess you had to be there when there was a bit of a post-1960s hangover in the air. A little indigestion from trying to absorb all the social changes that were happening so very, very fast. What better illustration than a family of super-intelligent/rational/humorless aliens to drop in (straight from the 1950s?) on the over-medicated Me Decade? At it's heart, The Coneheads were just fish-out-water flopping around in the blow blanketing Studio 54. Mepps!

  • http://recursivebee.blogspot.com Patrick Mortensen

    If anyone is interested, here is the list of books Aykroyd recommends in his note:
    (1) Journals of Lewis and Clark; (2) Heavy Equipment Rentals; (3) How Wall Street Doubles My Money Every Three Years; (4) Fish and Actors; (5) Italian Dictionary; (6) Practitioners’ Conferences; (7) Scarne on Card Tricks; (8) Technological Man; (9) The Psychoanalytic Review; (10) The Constitution of the United States; (11) 1973 World Almanac; (12) Year Book of General Surgery 1944; (13) New Conceptions in Science; (14) The Complete Compendium of Human Knowledge; (15) How Things Work – The Universal Encyclopedia of Machines Volumes 1 and 2; (16) The Book of the Sacred Magic of Abra Melin; (17) Management with Computers; (18) Glenn W Turner – Con-man or Saint?

    Legend has it that if you read them all, you will understand Nothing But Trouble.

  • CarolJude@twitter

    I'm looking at my copy of this across the room in the bookcase, bought when I was 11 or 12 way back when. This and the Monty Python 'Big Red Book' were sacred texts for my friends and I; we'd never seen books like these before, that gave a look behind the scenes, sort of. Sometimes I thumb through mine and remember how white-hot SNL was, when even the bad sketches were new and different.