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Saturday Night Live has been home to over a hundred cast members throughout the past 38 years. In our column Saturday Night’s Children, we present the history, talent, and best sketches of one SNL cast member every other week for your viewing, learning, and laughing pleasure.
While it's true that The Lonely Island helped kick-start a new era for pretaped SNL segments, the Digital Short is far from a new concept for the show. Following the short films of Albert Brooks and Gary Weis, SNL writer Tom Schiller sometimes injected the show with artsy, often black-and-white "miniature movies." Schiller was also one of the writers to be promoted to featured player for the show's fifth season, but he's much less known for his brief cast member stint than he is for his reverse-prophecy short starring John Belushi, or — thanks to a recent uptick in online appreciation — his never-released oddball sci-fi feature Nothing Lasts Forever costarring SNL alums Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd.
A career as a filmmaker was all but destined for the young Schiller, whose father Bob Schiller wrote for sitcoms and variety shows since the early '50s. Tom spent much of his childhood backstage at his father's gig on I Love Lucy, and he often made movies with friends using his parents' 16mm camera. In his late teens he apprenticed under Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Robert Snyder, and the job led to him meeting Tropic of Cancer writer Henry Miller, who struck up a mentor-like friendship with Schiller and encouraged him to go after his creative ambitions. He also allowed Schiller to film him in his home, which was eventually turned into his documentary film debut set entirely in Miller's photo-filled bathroom called Henry Miller Asleep & Awake in 1975.
Schiller first met Lorne Michaels in 1968 when his father was writing on The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show, on which the 24-year-old Michaels worked as a junior writer and looked to the elder Schiller as a mentor figure. The two quickly became friends — according to Schiller in Live from New York, he once listened to Michaels prattle on about his new TV show idea while tripping on mushrooms at Joshua Tree — and once Michaels began working on his new NBC show Saturday Night a few years later he offered Schiller a job as a writer for its 1975 debut. Schiller would end up working at SNL off and on from the late '70s through the early '90s and was promoted to a featured player from 1979-1980 along with a slew of other writers including Jim Downey, Peter Aykroyd, and Don Novello. His main SNL legacy were his shorts called "Schiller's Reels" and later "Schillervision," but he did appear in bit parts every now and then, whether in his own shorts (see "Hidden Camera Commercials") or live sketches (in the "Stunt Puppy" sketches; as Jane Curtin's husband on Weekend Update).
One of Schiller's earliest but biggest contributions came with the 1977's "Don't Look Back in Anger," an eerie black-and-white short starring an elderly John Belushi as he pays a visit to his former fellow Not Ready for Prime Time Players' graves. Like "Death, the Great Enigma", "La Dolce Gilda" starring Gilda Radner, or "Java Junkie" with Peter Aykroyd and Teri Garr in 1979, "Don't Look Back" and Schiller's other shorts turned the usual style, format, and feel of SNL on its head with their gradual buildups, themes of fame and loneliness, and bittersweet conclusions; they also gave the cast members a chance to show off their talents in Schiller's grainy, dramatic film noir framework, which echoed the work of his cinematic heroes like Fellini, Godard, and Truffaut. His much later short "Love Is a Dream" starring Phil Hartman and Jan Hooks as an old couple who lip sync to Bing Crosby and go back in time through their relationship took on the same theme of dropping SNL players into a highly stylized cinematic universe, and much like "Don't Look Back" went from being just a sweet pretaped segment to a beloved and fitting tribute for another player who tragically died too soon. (Schiller was also behind the "Hidden Camera Commercials" short in 1991, in which Chris Farley throws a raging tantrum after being informed he's drinking Colombian decaf coffee crystals.) On the Hartman/Belushi/Radner shorts in particular, Schiller told The AV Club in 2010:
These were people who — I loved them, and worked right along with them, and hung out, was on TV with them and stuff. So, yes, they’re like the "lost" Saturday Night Live friends that I have. But I'm happy that I made these portraits of them. Without being too pretentious: You have a window of opportunity where you're working with people, and collaborating with them—and those people were the most talented people to collaborate with, and I was lucky to have a camera in my hand.
Schiller's most obscure SNL-related work came during his break from the show during the Doumanian/Ebersol days with the 1984 feature-length film Nothing Lasts Forever, a romantic sci-fi pastiche mashup starring Gremlins' Zach Galligan as well as SNL alums Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd. The film had the potential to establish Schiller as a big-screen director but was never released by MGM. The New Yorker describes it perfectly in a new look back on the film:
Schiller's film is a brilliant pastiche, based on confident youth-on-the-rise films of the forties, of which M-G-M was a major purveyor. It’s a sort of cosmo-romantic science-fantasy that borrows cinematic styles of the forties to tell a story of the early sixties that’s anchored by icons of the fifties—and, in so doing, to reveal something crucial about the eighties.
Though the film was never officially released, you can view it in its entirety (for now) here:
Despite his growing frustration over his lessening creative freedom, Schiller continued at the show through the early '90s and was the mind behind nearly 50 shorts during his entire SNL run, from his "The Acid Generation: Where Are They Now?" to the never-aired Farley short "New York's Strangest & Most Bizarre People: Tortoise Man" in 1993, not to mention his sketch contributions with "Bad Opera," "Bad Ballet," and "Bad Conceptual Theater" hosted by Aykroyd as well as some of Belushi's recurring Samurai sketches.
Aside from his years of work on SNL, Schiller also wrote for Not Necessarily the News from 1986-1987 and directed hundreds of television commercials. Though he's praised the new generation of SNL shorts for their topicality, he said in an interview that "it's different than what I was trying to do, which was mock real films … I'm not sure these guys were inspired — well, they do make fun of certain film genres though. It's a different kind of reference point. But I think they're very popular, and it's good for the audience now." Which sounds like the equivalent of "The lighting was really neat," but for a filmmaker who parodied film tropes on SNL 30 years before The Lonely Island hit it big, perhaps Schiller — a Hollywood-born film student at heart — has earned a bit of "kids today"-style presumption despite never finding mainstream fame of his own.