The Novels That Came Out of ‘SNL’
Saturday Night Live is a product of its medium. Sketches are written overnight on Tuesday, on air by Saturday, and, due to their often topical nature, sometimes outdated by Monday. We know this schedule because SNL memoirs are almost a genre of their own. (see Bossypants, Yes Please, Gasping for Airtime, that really depressing one by Darrell Hammond, etc.)
But over a 42-year history, some show writers sidestepped the memoir and sought to create a more lasting work: the novel. Most of these were written after their stints at SNL when they could write a long-form narrative that expanded their ideas much farther than a six-minute sketch written and produced in five days without time to even solidly construct an ending.
Novels written by SNL writers include:
With the exception of the Ebersol years, Al Franken was a consistent presence as a writer and performer from the show’s inception in 1975 until 1995 when he left after losing out to Norm MacDonald for the Weekend Update spot. After leaving, he took his skills as a political observer, which would have served him well in the Update seat, and wrote three books of hard-edged funny essays: Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right, and The Truth (with Jokes). He also published Why Not Me? which is about a fictitious Al Franken that becomes President despite being terribly unqualified.
(Fun fact: In the book, Franken demonstrates his complete lack of political skill by stating that John McCain is not a war hero because anyone can be captured. At the time, this seemed comically offensive but is now something Donald Trump says straight faced while on the campaign trail.)
The novel is farcical and sometimes blunt but these books were actually the first steps in reinventing Franken as a political commentator and eventual Senator.
World War Z by Max Brooks
As the son of Mel Brooks, Max may have seemed like an natural comedy heir. However, on a recent Nerdist podcast Brooks said his two years at SNL felt unnatural. He left comedy for horror with a specialization in zombies and wrote books and graphic novels about the undead including the best-selling World War Z.
World War Z is impressively stylish as he manages to shift voices and create a page-turning narrative through a series of interviews with veterans of a worldwide zombie outbreak. The format of a fictional oral history with a sprawling cast makes it worth shelling out the extra dollars for the audiobook.
He is currently writing a novel about Minecraft.
The Stench of Honolulu by Jack Handy
Jack Handy is best known for SNL’s Deep Thoughts, which consisted of him reading short surreal jokes that were almost zen koans in their simple perfection. It was unlikely that these simple one-liners could be expanded into a haiku much less entire a book. In fact, Handy seemed to mock the idea in the less popular follow-up to Deep Thoughts, “My Big Thick Novel”, which purported to be excerpts from a lengthy disjointed book by Handy.
In addition to work at SNL, Handy also wrote short funny essays for publications such as The New Yorker or Outside. These were eventually collected into 2008’s What I’d Say to the Martians and Other Veiled Threats. His first novel, The Stench of Honulu: A Tropical Adventure, was published in 2013.
The book is a mere 240 pages long and more or less plotless but it’s a relentless mixture of non-stop gags and the smug, misguided condescension of the moron Jack Handy persona that makes this worthwhile.
Candy by Terry Southern
Southern wrote celebrated, boundary pushing books like
However, Southern’s work on SNL mostly amounts to being an answer to a trivia question.
SNL head writer Micheal O’Donaghue was a bit of a boundary pusher himself and looked up to Terry Southern. So much so that early in his career O’Donaghue wrote Phoebe Zeitgeist, a raunchy comic strip inspired by Candy. In the 1981-82 season O’Donaghue managed to hire Southern, even though his required pay rate was higher than most of the other staff writers. Unfortunately, by this time Southern was an escalating drug and alcohol addict. Combined with the fact that he was a soft-spoken novelist unaccustomed to weekly television production, he produced very little that was broadcast. One of his few sketches that made it to air was a parody of Dr. Strangelove.
Elliot Allagash by Simon Rich
Simon Rich worked as a writer from 2007–2011, where he was one of the youngest writers in the show’s history. He since went on to produce two seasons of Man Seeking Woman, based on his book of short stories, for the FXX network.
He also comes from a literary family. His older brother is novelist Nathaniel Rich, his father is Frank Rich of the New York Times and New York Magazine and his stepmother is New York Times reporter Alex Witchel. Perhaps being surrounded by a family of writers instilled a strong work ethic about writing or maybe just made the craft seem less intimidating but Rich went on to put out four books of short prose and two novels.
Elliot Allagash is an eighth-grade version of Pygmalion wherein the incredibly wealthy Elliot Allagash transfers to a new school and transforms schlubby Seymour into an elite man of power. Much like the TV show Man Seeking Woman, Rich’s writing starts with a simple one-joke premise, like one of the quick cutaway jokes that would appear on Family Guy, and pushes it much further than seems possible while mining every possible angle until he has pulled an entire sitcom episode or even a full novel from it.
Firecracker by David Iserson
This one is a little different than these other novels as it’s a young adult novel marketed towards 12-year-oldss. But it still leans more towards SNL-like wackiness than the typical After School Special moralizing sometimes associated with the genre, as the protagonist is a spoiled rich girl. How rich? She lives in a backyard rocket ship – and is so selfish she needs therapy. She does eventually grow up, as per YA requirements.
Iserson wrote for SNL during the 2003-2004 season but is a bit of a television genre jumper as he went on to write for shows like Mad Men, Mr. Robot, and New Girl.
The Shroud of the Thwacker by Chris Elliot
Chris Elliot is somewhat of an exception here as he was technically never a writer; he was hired specifically as a performer for the 1994 season. He later raised objections as his contract and pay only reflected his work as a performer but he was still expected to write for himself. So it seems fair to include him as an SNL writer turned novelist.
Elliot never had a problem playing to a small, specific niche audience with strange, sometime unsettling, performances that broke the fourth wall and commented on the medium. He once performed a one-man show about the life of Franklin Roosevelt where he made no effort to look or sound like FDR or even be factually accurate and would make appearances on Late Night with David Letterman like the one where he was actually an animatronic creation.
His two novels are just as surreal and meta. 2007’s Into Hot Air was a parody of Jon Krakauer’s true Mount Everest disaster tale Into Thin Air, which was pretty straightforward but it was his first novel — The Shroud of the Thwacker from 2005 is where he really indulged himself. The Shroud of the Thwacker is somewhat of a parody of mystery writer Patricia Cornwall’s book Jack the Ripper: Portrait of a Killer — Case Closed where she purports to have identified the Victorian murder. In his book, Chris Elliot is a modern researcher investigating the case of Jack the Jolly Thwacker. He eventually chases the murderer through time and encounters the likes of Yoko Ono and steampunk wooden cell phones. In SNL terms, it feels like a bizarre but engaging ten-to-one sketch that runs for over 300 pages.
While none of these novels have ever overshadowed SNL, they are interesting side roads into a more resonant and long-form style of comedy. They are also intriguing as books. Each of the writers here have chosen to play with the form, structure, and basic plotting of a novel. They often subvert genre expectations, break the forth wall, or cast themselves as characters within the pages. Perhaps being freed from the limitations of budget and a short turnaround time during a live television production allowed their imaginations to really run wild. As a result, these short excursions into novels have produced works that stand on their own.