The Changing Tides of Saturday Night Live with James Miller

LIVE FROM NEW YORK

 

Saturday Night Live is getting ready to launch its 40th season on September 27th.  That’s 40 years of making comedy history, television history, and influencing the culture of the country– and the world– in ways too numerous to count.  But if you want to try to understand the reach of the show, one place to get a good start is by reading “Live From New York: The Complete Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live as Told by Its Stars, Writers and Guests.”   Authors and historians Tom Shales and Jim Miller conducted, compiled and edited the massive collection which tells the story of SNL through (as the title suggests) uncensored interviews with the cast, crew and guest hosts. Even at two lbs, and 800 pages, it’s the kind of book you can’t put down with its fill of historical record, touching moments, fights, love, hate, and even backstage gossip.  The original edition covering the first 25 years of Saturday Night Live was released in 2002, but a brand new release brings the book up to date covering the entire 40 year history.  We couldn’t wait to talk with author James Andrew Miller about the new edition, and the changes that have taken place during the last decade and a half.


 

The IBang: Congratulations on the update to the book. You have a real piece of history here.

James Miller: Oh thank you, well its only been 40 years [laughs].

The IBang: How many years have you been working on the entire book?

James Miller: I think the first one took about two and a half years, and this one was less than a year. I started to think about the 40th anniversary and started to think about how much had happened to the show over the past 12 years and one of the goals of the book is to be a book of record about the show and so it felt like it definitely warranted an update.

The IBang: It really is a book of record, not just about the show but a reference on comedy.

James Miller: Thank you. There were two cool things that happened. First, I found out that a lot of cast members ask other cast members and guest hosts to sign their copy of the book, which I thought was really cool, and then the second thing was Fortune magazine called it one of the 75 smartest business books ever written and I thought, well, that’s kind of cool because it’s playing on that level too. I was always interested in the organizational behavior, and the cultural anthropology part of it aside from the obvious broadcast and comedic parts. So that was fun.

The IBang: It is a marker for a lot of what goes on in culture over the past 40 years. When you interviewed the newer cast members, I would imagine they’ve seen the book?

Yeah, they call it the manual. A couple of cast members– as soon as they found out they were accepted into the cast ran out and got the book

James Miller: Yeah, they call it the manual. A couple of cast members– as soon as they found out they were accepted into the cast ran out and got the book– or they’ll say ‘when I was trying to audition for the show I kept reading the book over and over again to try to figure out any hints’, and yeah that makes me feel good.

The IBang: Did anyone say it helped them to manage their expectations of Lorne Michaels? The newer cast members seem to have a different relationship to Lorne. There seems to be less of the need to be loved and accepted than some of the earlier cast members.

James Miller: One cast member, and I can’t use their name because they said it on background to me, said that after reading the book they promised themselves that they weren’t going to go down the path that others had obviously gone down, which was wanting and needing Lorne’s approval all of the time, because they felt like it proved to be an exhausting errand.

The IBang: One of the changes over the years, has been the change of the role of women and how the show seems to have become a launching pad for women in more recent years. But the role of men on the show and the culture of the male cast members also seems a lot different in the last ten years than in previous year.

One cast member, and I can’t use their name because they said it on background to me, said that after reading the book they promised themselves that they weren’t going to go down the path that others had obviously gone down, which was wanting and needing Lorne’s approval all of the time, because they felt like it proved to be an exhausting errand.

James Miller: I think it’s a much more collaborative supportive bunch. When you look at people like Bill Hader and Will Forte and Seth Meyers and Andy Samberg, I kind of evaluate people through two silos; ego and paranoia. Those guys have low levels of both with is pretty extraordinary for celebrities. I think that when you don’t have somebody walking around strutting like a big peacock, and taking up a lot of oxygen, that not only informs the environment in a positive way, but I think it lends itself to a different kind of creative process. Which means that you’re not afraid to go into their office and say ‘hey what do you think about this?’ And,’hey can I run this by you?’ During the 2008 presidential campaign, Seth talked about — and mentioned to me several times — that they were just walking around and asking a lot of people, ‘what do you think about this?’ and ‘can anybody make it better?’ In fact, he credits the “and I can see Russia from my house” line [said by the Sarah Palin character in a sketch] to Mike Shoemaker who wasn’t a cast member and was more of a producer than a writer. So I think that just shows that when you are that kind of person, I think it really helps the show.

The IBang: Is it tougher to break out without having the bigger-than-life persona or bigger-than-the-show persona?

James Miller: Comedy can be this kind of weird meritocracy don’t you think? If you’re funny, if you get on a show and you’re funny, people are going to respond to you. In previous eras at SNL, if you didn’t watch the show on a Saturday night then you’d have to wait until summer for the repeat. Now…it goes viral. Someone is tweeting it out half an hour later, or 5 minutes later and the next morning it’s on all these blog posts, so you’re going to be seen. I don’t think you have to have some sort of big ego or be a prick to others in order to get noticed outside the show.

The IBang: So, would a John Belushi or a Michael O’Donoghue or Bill Murray type of person, would they have trouble excelling in this environment?

James Miller: Well, Michael might have had trouble with the HR department, lets put it that way; there is that part of it. But, I think that if John Belushi were on the show now, and let’s take the exact same John Belushi of the 70’s and put him in the show now. I think that what he probably would have done is there would have been much more of a duality to his life, he would have had a little bit more of a manicured life inside 30 Rock and he would have been more of the real John Belushi outside of that. I’m not sure if today’s world would be open to some of the exigencies and activities that occurred earlier.

The IBang: Saturday Night Live — and NBC in general — restricts availability of their clips, which is unusual in this social media climate. But does social media change the way people write for SNL?

James Miller: I know Lorne wanted SNL.com, and that wasn’t going to happen. If you look at their twitter handle its @NBCSNL. They are inextricably linked with the network and I can understand why the network wants to do that. In terms of the way the show operates, it was perfect synchronicity that Lonely Island, Andy, Akiva and Jorma and their digital shorts took off right when YouTube was taking off. If ever there was a perfect marriage in the history of Saturday Night live, that was fantastic. They were able to utilize that new technology and then further integrate into social media in a way that was truly impressive. So, the number of, even people at the show were quite surprised by the number of hits that the digital shorts were getting and of course that migrated into great sketches that went viral and appearances that went viral.

The IBang: Lorne has become more of a brand, his expansion has been enormous. Is anyone concerned he has spread himself too thin?

James Miller: Sunday night is the only night that there isn’t a Lorne Michaels show after local news because Saturday Night is SNL, and then Jimmy Fallon Monday through Friday and then Seth after Jimmy. So to your point, it’s a pretty big landscape, not to mention the fact that he does movies and tv shows. But the thing that I really believe, and I think history proves this correct, is that Saturday Night Live is first among equals. This summer, Lorne was producing a movie that was shooting in North Carolina. Jason Sudeikis was in it, Zach Galifianakis; he went down to the set and he visited the set and did what ever he had to do. But he wasn’t enmeshed in producing that movie the way he produces Saturday Night Live. The same goes for the Jimmy Fallon Show, the same goes for Seth Meyers’ show. I think Lorne is very careful about triage. I think he understands what his bandwith is and I think he has placed a lot of faith in other people to do things that he doesn’t want to do. But the thing that he really wants to do– if you are watching Saturday Night Live when they cut during these commercial break, you know these moments in and out of a commercial, they’re like little interstitials, you’ll see Lorne in front of the set. And if you were to go backstage between dress rehearsal and show at 11:30 you’ll see Lorne is still firmly in charge of whats actually going to be on the show, and the order of it, how long it’s going to be, so…the short answer is, nothing gets his attention as much as SNL.

The IBang: Is that the reason he’s been able to succeed where so few others have? In tv sketch comedy?

James Miller: I think that’s part of the reason. I think part of it also is that he loves it and part of it is that he understands…if you look at SNL over 40 years and you were to graph it in terms of not only Nielsen ratings success but also in terms of perception, it would look a little bit like an EKG. There are great years, then there are bad years and there are transition years or whatever, and I think one of the other keys, to Lorne’s and the shows longevity is that you know, Saturday Night Live is a marathon. And so Lorne understands that when Will Ferrell leaves, or Kristin Wiig leaves, or Bill Hader leaves, no matter who is coming on board there’s going to be a transition and you have to hang in there and you have to develop talent and you have to do things in a certain way and you key up a little bit more on big superstar guest host coming on board…but it’s a very interesting dynamic he’s constructed and I think that keeping your eye on the long-term has been a really important thing that he’s done.

The IBang: There have been cast members who didn’t necessarily succeed in the environment of Saturday Night Live but did very well after. Like for example, Jay Mohr. Which cast members in the last 10 years were in the shadows but have a really big future?

NBC executives were pressuring Lorne to fire Adam Sandler because they didn’t think he was funny.

James Miller: Your question is an interesting one, and I’ll give you what I consider to be even a more dramatic example than Jay Mohr, which is Chris Rock and even Adam Sandler. NBC executives were pressuring Lorne to fire Adam Sandler because they didn’t think he was funny and then obviously look what he went on to. And I think anybody watching Chris Rock on Saturday Night Live, I mean Chris was obviously funny but you couldn’t have predicted just how great he was going to be afterwards. So those are my two examples in the past. But in the past ten years, I’m not sure because– Bill Hader is going to go on to have a great career but he was great on the show. What’s interesting now is the people on the show who are obviously doing comedy, whether or not you can tell that they are able to do dramatic roles. When Will Forte was in Nebraska, I think there were a lot of people who walked out of the theaters going ‘woah, are you kidding me? I had no idea! That’s like, that’s MacGruber! Wait a second, how did he pull that off?’ And Bill and Kristin Wiig now are going to be in this movie that opens in a couple of weeks [The Skeleton Twins] and those are not “capital C” comedy roles. So that’s just another way that cast members on Saturday Night Live are stretching themselves, not just the odd sketch/comedy/sitcoms/movies, but in dramatic roles and I find that fascinating.


 

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James Andrew Miller is the author of Running in Place: Inside the Senate, Live from New York, and Those Guys Have All the Fun. He has also written for the New York Times, Life, the Washington Post and Newsweek. His various positions in television include Senior Executive Producer of “Anderson Cooper 360” and Executive VP of Original Programming at USA Network. He lives in Bucks County, PA.

You can order Live From New York: The Complete, Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live as Told By Its Stars, Writers and Guests, from Barnes and Noble.

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