saturday night live and the perils of success -- 4/06/18

Today's selection -- from Saturday Night by Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad. In its first five years, Saturday Night Live reached the pinnacle of show business success, which changed the program's producer and stars:

"Working [at the Saturday Night Live offices] was like working in a funhouse filled with mirrors -- always the reporters were there, and always there were more articles about the show, strange reflections of themselves staring back from the pages. Everywhere they went -- clubs, theaters, discos -- stanchions were immediately lowered and they were ushered to the best tables, heads would turn, and people would murmur 'Saturday Night Live' as they swept inside. Sometimes, sitting in restaurants on Sundays, the writers would overhear conversations about the show, at not one but several different tables.

Saturday Night Live cast season 2 (1976-1977)

"The glamour of it all was irresistible, and, in contrast to the early years, for many if not most on the 17th floor the partying was now more fun than doing the show. But inevitably their insularity increased. When they couldn't go out without being mobbed, couldn't go to a party without all conversation stopping when they walked in, the natural recourse was to spend more of their time, if not with equally famous friends, then together. They didn't have to explain to each other what John and Gilda and Billy were really like. ...

"Even the show's annual dinner gatherings for the Passover seder, which had been quietly celebrated on the 17th floor beginning in the second season, went Hollywood. They became 'The Paul Shaffer Celebrity Seder,' complete with specially printed matchbooks bearing that title. It was an ecumenical service for both Jews and gentiles, half religious ceremony, half celebrity roast. Shaffer led it in his sleaziest Las Vegas style. 'For the blessing over the wine, I'd like to call on someone who has a new movie coming out,' he'd say. 'We're all very excited about it.' ...

"The cast and writers grew ever more tem­peramental, aloof even to those who worked with them. Cherie Fortis, who was hired in the third year as an assistant to Lorne's assistant, Kathy Minkowsky, was surprised that for a show that considered itself anarchistic, everyone seemed to be very concerned with hierarchy. Many times she was told that she was not to do something because it was somebody else's job to do it, and she found that she was not to speak to the cast members directly --­ there were those whose job it was to relay messages to them.

"Dealing with the cast wasn't an easy job. One production assistant said that in the first two years, 'if one of the performers yelled at you, you could yell right back. In the fourth and fifth years, that was no longer tolerated.' Another production assistant spent much of her time 'on tiptoe' around the cast and writers. 'We were afraid of them,' she said. 'To knock on a door and ask for a script could get you your head bitten off.' A third person who spent a lot of time on the 17th floor said, 'There was a certain pride taken in not treating people well.'

"Reporters doing articles on the show began to notice that testiness too, and many mentioned how hostile the stars of Saturday Night had become. Jane Curtin developed a passionate distaste for the press. Once she was approached by a reporter who was following the show for several days. 'No one said anything to me about an interview,' she snapped, and stalked off. For the rest of the week, whenever she saw the reporter she glowered. In August 1979, TV Guide ran a devastating article entitled 'Saturday Night Moribund.' In it, reporter John Mariani told of a nasty encounter with Belushi during rehearsals when Belushi grabbed his tape recorder and almost tore it apart. Later, when Mariani asked Bill Murray for an interview, Murray wanted to know if he was writing about everybody on the show or just about him. Informed it was about everybody, he said, 'Then I don't want to be in your article.' Mariani wondered in the piece the same thing a lot of reporters were wondering in those days: 'why everyone in a show generally liked by the media is so suspicious of the media.'

"Mariani provided part of the answer himself when he quoted a production assistant: 'They become paranoid about people wanting something from them.' Another part of the answer was their realization that the media, as they often do, had started looking for ways to tear Saturday Night down, now that it had risen to such heights. Some journalists also started to look for evidence of drug use on the show (although at other times it was the journalists themselves who pulled out the first joint or offered the first line of cocaine). One day when a reporter was in the office, Belushi threw a bottle of vitamin E tablets out on the floor, lay down with his mouth open, pills strewn all around him, and started yelling. 'You want to know about the drugs we take?' he shouted. 'Come here!' "



Doug Hill & Jeff Weingrad


Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live


Belch Tree Books, William Morrow


Copyright 2015 by William V. Madison


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