An Updated ‘Live From New York’ Goes Inside the Last 12 Years of ‘SNL’ History
If the update of Live from New York from journalist James Andrew Miller and TV critic Tom Shales succeeds in one thing, it’s disproving the perennial, cliched criticism that Saturday Night Live is no longer funny or relevant. The additional 200 pages added to this already-hefty volume are a revealing reminder that the most recent years of SNL have been just as memorable as the eras long past.
Covering the period from 2002 to the present, the update takes on the show’s engagement with recent politics, the rise of Lonely Island, and the internet’s effect on both the players and the general reception of the show. It features interviews from long-time SNL favorites such as Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Fred Armisen, Kristen Wiig, and Biller Hader, and briefly dives into chats with more recent cast additions Taran Killam, Cecily Strong, and Kate McKinnon, among others. And of course, it adds to the lore surrounding Lorne Michaels without coming closer to unwrapping his enduring enigma. Regardless of the storyteller, though, the majority of the interview excerpts remain press- and show- friendly, and outside of recounting the show’s more memorable recent moments (like Betty White’s popularly-requested hosting gig in 2012), there’s relatively few fireworks.
Most exciting are sections on things that have gone disastrously wrong in sketches — like Andy Samberg busting his face open in a dress rehearsal when he dove through a window — and the genesis of Hader’s Stephon character. Viewers may have loved watching Hader crack every time he did the Weekend Update character, but it’s even more endearing to know how hard he was on himself for doing so, and to learn of the rapport he shared with Seth Meyers on camera and John Mulaney and Andy Samberg off-camera, who both actively tried to make him crack. There’s also a full accounting of Fey’s 2008 impression of Sarah Palin, though it largely retreads territory already covered in Fey’s Bossypants. More interesting is the discussion of the show’s mutually beneficial relationship to politics, with Fey’s Palin impression causing her to eclipse Palin herself.
Live from New York also takes on SNL’s changing (or rather glacially shifting) racial diversity, discussing the controversy of the last year with both Kenan Thompson and Jay Pharoah’s noted criticism of the show’s lack of women of color that resulted in the hiring of newest addition Sasheer Zamata. Long before that, though, the book’s new pages cover the rotations of Weekend Update anchors, delving into the too-short but historic woman-woman anchor team of Fey and Poehler. Most revealing is that after Fallon left the show, Michaels encouraged Fey to do the gig with Poehler, but Fey took a couple days first to consider taking it on alone.
The update also focuses on SNL entrance into the YouTube age with none other than the Lonely Island. The recollection of the group’s rise and their unique position on the show will probably be the most interesting story for comedy aficionados. As Akiva Shaffer tells it, the group’s initial pitches didn’t go well in table reads, and their background making their own videos led them to an important realization. “When we first decided we were going to make some short films, we specifically didn’t want to go pitch and go write it for the table… more to stay under the radar in case we failed.” Even after the success of “Lazy Sunday,” they had doubts as to the strength of what would become their most popular digital shorts. As Shaffer again says of “Dick in a Box,” they were almost embarrassed to show Justin Timberlake the script, “The joke was crass and stupid. We were not confident in the least. Timberlake was… the only one who didn’t have doubts.”
This oral history also tackles the downside of the internet. Newer cast members face a harsher scrutiny when they go online, in addition to working with the knowledge that a sketch will live long past its air date. As Kate McKinnon explained, “As I’m rehearsing throughout the week I’m thinking how this is going to live forever — not in some archive but on the Internet and on blogs people are going to write things about. I don’t think SNL was in the paper every week in 1995.”
Miller and Shale thread together the show’s history almost seamlessly, transitioning from topic to topic much like the show itself does with its ever-changing cast. But on occasion, the authors make us trudge back through the same territory. How many times can current and former cast members opine about how crazy it is to see themselves within the SNL pantheon and lament how tough it is to leave the show? The way the authors cut up their interviews, the answer is: endlessly. But overall, the update to Live From New York is a fun trek back through the show’s most successful moments in recent years, and combined with the rest of the original book, it shows SNL’s stunning willingness to reinvent itself during its four decades on the air.
Erica Lies is a writer and improviser in Austin, Texas. Her work has appeared in Bitch, Rookie Mag, and Culture Map.