SNL on the Page and Screen

It can come as absolutely no surprise that Funny Guy is inspired by Saturday Night Live. Not in the sense that the characters are based on any specific performers or writers–I’m fighting a losing battle, I realize, but let me repeat: no, Sam is not supposed to be Pete Davidson–but in the sense that SNL has cast a long shadow over my life.

I first discovered the show in the early 1990s while at a sleepover. I was a recent transplant from Montana to Dallas, Texas, and I felt like the shabbiest of country mice. When a friend I was trying to impress insisted that we should stay up and watch it, I was only too happy to oblige. And I found myself tuning in for most of the 90s and early 2000s.

So many of the jokes my husband and I make originated on SNL. I can’t say lover without saying it in Rachel Dratch’s voice. Without fail, if I ask my husband what a dish I’m cooking needs, he’ll respond, “More cowbell.” “Lazy Sunday” gets stuck in my head all the time. If the show has lost a little of its edge over time–where’s today’s “White Like Me” or even “Who wants to eat“?–but we do still get viral moments such as Bowen Yang’s iceberg.

That said, if you want to read about SNL, what should you pick up?

Last year, I perused all or parts of almost two dozen books about the show. I have recommendations, which I’ll break into three categories: histories of the show, cast memoirs, and fictionalizations.

Histories of SNL

If you’re only going to read one book about Saturday Night Live, it should probably be Tom Shales and James Allen Miller’s Live from New York. The only caveat is that it’s an oral history, a format I tend to love as a magazine feature, but which can get tedious when considering that this one is more than 600 pages long. There were times when I wanted an authorial point-of-view, particularly when the memories of various cast members diverged or conflicted. I also got the sense that the casts from the pre-1995 seasons were being more candid, whereas the more recent ones (most of whom are still working) were more circumspect. But there’s a reason there isn’t another book-length history of the show. This one is really good.

If you want photographs, I would recommend Saturday Night Live: The Book by Allison Castle. I wanted more narration (again), but the images had a profound effect on how I imagined the world of Comedy Hour.

I should also mention Bob Woodward’s Wired here, though I do not recommend it. The book finds Woodward leaving his typical DC setting to try to understand John Belushi. Try is the key word there. Pretty much everyone who was interviewed for the book hates the final product and considers it to be exploitive and inaccurate. I have wondered whether the mess that is Wired has made other entertainment journalists loathe to write about SNL, because this one is repellent.

SNL Cast Memoirs

By a substantial margin, the largest pile of SNL books are the cast memoirs. Your enjoyment of these will likely depend on how you feel about the writers and the balance you want between their years on the show and the rest of their life. That said, the two that I liked the most were Yes Please by Amy Poehler and Gasping for Airtime by Jay Mohr, and this SHOCKED me.

SNL is, admittedly, only one small slice of Yes Please. This book is not the best or most illuminating window into the show, but you do get a sense of what SNL does to the cast members and their lives. (It is not pretty.) What I loved about the book was that Poehler gives genuine advice about how to be a creative person and believe in yourself in a hostile world. This is somewhat mortifying, but I actually cried at times reading Yes Please.

The most interesting section, though, is one in which Poehler describes getting a letter from the wife of a friend who, gently, takes her to task for a sketch Poehler wrote mocking a developmentally disabled child. Poehler initially doubles down and defends the sketch before apologizing. She dissects the incident with clinical detail, and she’s unsparing in her assessment of what she did wrong. It made me respect her as a person and think about the ethics of comedy deeply.

But if I went into Yes Please inclined to like Poehler, I went into Gasping for Airtime inclined to loathe Mohr. This is probably unfair, but I have trouble separating Mohr from the kind of smarmy, besuited guys he seems to play (see, frex, Jerry Maguire). And to be clear, this book didn’t dispel that notion. It enhanced it.

Mohr comes across as whiny and resentful. He is clearly still pissed that some of his fellow cast members, often in spite of intense personal problems and debilitating addictions, were more successful on the show than he was. And that perspective was absolutely fascinating.

Pretty much every other SNL cast memoir was written by someone who wrote and appeared in iconic sketches. Someone, frankly, famous. The fact that Gasping for Airtime isn’t makes it stand out in the field. It’s also the most focused on SNL of all of the cast memoirs. It is totally about the show: writing it, fighting about it, making it. If you want to understand what it feels like to be on SNL, or at least what it felt like in the mid 90s, this is your book. No, really.

Fiction Inspired by SNL

The most notable fictional takes on SNL are, ironically, two shows that aired on NBC in the mid 2000s: Tina Fey’s 30 Rock and Aaron Sorkin’s short lived Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. This is the place where you probably expect me to gush about 30 Rock, but I feel only meh about it. Some of it has not aged well (frex, repeated uses of blackface), and generally, I find the tone to be a bit more tart than I like. But if you say, “fictional SNL,” this is probably what most people picture.

But before there was 30 Rock, there was Studio 60. This show is admittedly a mess, but if you like the regular rotation of Sorkin players–Bradley Whitford and Timothy Busfield among them–you’ll probably enjoy it. Actually, scratch that, if you enjoy those folks, you’ve probably already seen this.

I would be remiss not to mention Curtis Sittenfeld’s Romantic Comedy in this category. I have not yet read it, but I’ve heard really good things, and now that my semester is over, I have the time. Yay!

And of course…Funny Guy. My own fictional version of SNL drops next week. You can grab it in ebook, Kindle Unlimited, paperback, and audio at Amazon, and I hope you do.

3 thoughts on “SNL on the Page and Screen

    1. This looks AMAZING. Thank you for the recommendation. I’m bookmarking to read this next week after my release is done and I have time.

      1. I’m looking forward to finding out how accurate the world of the fic is! It did seem like the writer put in a lot of effort to make it at least quite plausible.

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