SNL Chronicled by Academics, for Academics
Reading Saturday Night Live & American TV is something of a surreal experience of déjà vu. When one starts with the introduction, entitled “Situating Saturday Night Livein American Television Culture” (as written by the book’s three editors, Nick Marx, Matt Sienkiewicz and Ron Becker), the impact is something akin to watching a movie preview on a DVD and, in fact, many of the DVD extras before actually watching the film itself. The introduction literally presents condensed versions of each subsequent chapter in the book, explaining what each contributing author will discuss in their article and serving as something of a “Cliff’s Notes” edition of the book at large. Reading the actual chapters continually gave me the weird feeling of “Where have I heard this before?” until I realized I had read this in the very book I was holding.
In truth, however, a great deal of the facts and events covered in this book are common knowledge and easy enough to obtain on the internet or in any of the many documentaries and other books that chronicle the impact of SNL on television in general. This isn’t to say that Saturday Night Live & American TV is a waste of the reader’s time. The book was released by the Indiana University Press’ Office of Scholarly Publishing, and the contributors are all professors and PHD students, not entertainment writers as we commonly see in such a case.
Accordingly, the book avoids such standard pitfalls as simply telling the history of the show and recreating the SNL Wikipedia page in book form. Instead, this volume begins by examining the television landscape that gave birth to Saturday Night Live, including, but not limited to, the “variety show” precursors on both television and radio, and the state of late night television (particularly Saturday night). As for the sketch comedy precursors, not only is Monty Python name-checked, but England’s radio precursor to that program, The Goon Show. Further, SNL’s strong connection to New York City, and many of the more edgy and turbulent parts of the show’s early years (including the argument that Saturday Night Live’s true father might not be Lorne Michaels) are explored in great detail. And this is just the first part of the book, entitled “Live from New York on NBC”.
Instead of continuing with a straight history of the show, Part II, “Staying Alive on Saturday Night” details the politics that the show has played with even from the beginning (a great deal of attention is paid to the popular campaign and debate sketches the show has done so well). This, almost naturally, blooms into a discussion of September 11, 2001 and the way the New York centered show led the nation in learning how to be funny again, after such a devastating terror strike. The Live music of the show and the occasional controversy that has spawned (yes, the Sinead O’Connor incident is discussed and pictured) is also touched on in this chapter.
A continued controversy with SNL’s audience has been the way the show has handled African American actors as well as audiences over its years in production (this criticism was recently spoofed in a 2013 episode hosted by Kerry Washington). Saturday Night Live and American TV handles this in the same academic style as the rest of the book, addressing the issues and the complaints without offering criticism, answers or excuses. This same academic approach carries all the way to the final essays which reveal the show’s influence beyond the TV screen, including its digital shorts by Andy Samberg and his Lonely Island group to the internet, often in real time when the show has aired.
However, this is, after all, a comedy show that the book is attempting to discuss in great detail and the colorful variety of the show is often done a disservice by the intelligent, informative and often dry writing style of the academics who created the book. Yes, this collection goes far beyond the encyclopedia entry that it could have been, but while the zeitgeist is captured in each of the detailed eras of the show, the color and humor rarely is. Appropriately, each of the many photographs printed in this book are in black and white and on the page, not on glossy inserts.
Truly, Saturday Night Live and American TV is among the most thorough and engrossing chronicles of SNL’s four decades (so far) on air, and the book gives detailed time to each of the many eras in the program’s history (while Lorne Michaels is clearly given his due as the show’s creator and main shepherd, the Dick Ebersol years are also addressed). Readers looking for an informative collection of essays from challenging vantage points will find a lot to love here. Those looking for a great read with the kind of humor that the show has given us over the years won’t find what they are looking for here.
However, “academic” is clearly the point here, considering that the publisher is, in fact, a university. This is a well-done book written by academics for an intelligent audience, as opposed to “the masses”. In that respect, vive la différence. On the other hand, giving away virtually the entire book in the introduction is a hard sell, in fiction and nonfiction alike.