We’re getting close to pilot season here in LA. After the holiday break, a nervous energy starts to flood the town, and with good reason. What happens over the next few months will affect the shape of TV for the coming year. Millions of viewers, and billions of dollars of ad revenue, hang in the balance.
This is when hopeful writers and creators get to produce one episode of a new show … and wait for network executives to watch it, test it, talk about it … and test it again.
(It’s also when actors audition like crazy for these parts, designers make costumes and build sets and hang lights, and directors and other crew try to work miracles on mostly miniscule budgets. But it’s all driven by the writers, which is why being a TV spec-monkey can be much more rewarding, both artistically and financially, than slogging away as a movie spec-monkey. Your mileage may vary).
It’s also the season when unemployed monkeys like myself start sending out spec scripts in the hopes of getting staffed on a show. According to my industry sources, there are probably thousands of writers vying for any one staff position on a show.
Hey, bartender ... make mine a double.
For my money, 2005 just didn’t produce too many shows that cried out: “Spec me!” My Name is Earl is the only new sitcom I’ve any interest in, and most new dramas (Grey’s Anatomy, Invasion, Prison Break) left me cold. However, I’m guessing that this fall’s hot new spec will almost certainly be Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 7 on the Sunset Strip, a behind-the-scenes look at a TV comedy show not unlike Saturday Night Live. Sorkin reunites here with producer/director Thomas Schlamme, and given what they accomplished on the first four seasons of The West Wing, it’s safe to say that Studio 7 could be one terrific, ground-breaking show.
If you want to prep yourself to spec Studio 7, you could do far worse than picking up a copy of Live From New York, the utterly compelling oral history of SNL compiled by Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller.
I confess: I don’t watch SNL much anymore. It depresses the holy hell outta me. Even with Lorne Michaels – the show’s original producer/creator – at the helm, the show has long since lost its daring comedic spirit. It’s unhoned talent pandering shamelessly to the lowest common denominator. For some of these bland and forgettable cast members, you get the uneasy feeling they’re just using the show as a springboard to stupid movies (which I also don’t watch, because they too just flat-out depress me).
And more often than not, today’s musical guests flat-out fucking suck. Ashley Simpson? Maroon fucking 5? I’m an old fart who remembers Elvis Costello whipping out that last-minute song change, or the late Klaus Nomi singing backup with David Bowie at his most surreal, or Frank Zappa driving his mad orchestra after John Belushi’s improvised scats. (I’m gonna have more to say about the music from SNL – and another almost-forgotten late-night show you can now catch up on – in a post next week.)
So in my bitterness, I’d forgotten how much I used to love SNL until this book brought it all back for me. Live from New York interviews just about every surviving person associated with this show (except Eddie Murphy, who not only declined requests for interviews but also was a glaring absence on the show’s acclaimed 25th anniversary reunion special).
This behind-the-scenes history is wicked. Outrageous. Unbelievable. And it features a huge dramatis personae that’s wonderfully human. The late Gilda Radner and John Belushi are illuminated here with a humanity that’s both refreshing and sad. Chevy Chase sounds genuinely sorry that he turned into a major-league asshole (he and Bill Murray almost come to blows when Chase returns to host after filming several successful movies). Larraine Newman talks candidly about her drug problem, Garrett Morris abhors his token status while admitting his attitude didn't help things, and the acerbic Jane Curtin ... all along she's been the most grounded and professional of all the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players. While everyone abused themselves six ways from Sunday, the steady-and-sober Curtin always made it home in time for dinner with her husband.
Lots of antics abound with that original writing staff, too. Lord, Al Franken’s completely rotten and tasteless practical joke at his wife’s baby shower made me laugh so hard I dropped the damn book on my foot. And it’s one heavy book.
Even later cast members who never grew on me -- Victoria Jackson, Terry Sweeney, Chris Kattan, etc. -- come to life here in unexpected fashion. And that's why I think Sorkin's premise has a chance to provide the basis for a wonderful TV series: there's a story behind the story that is incredibly gripping, addictive, and ripe with conflict. Just like the behind-the-scenes machinations of Jed Bartlett's White House.
Like many viewers, I tuned out of the show during its disastrously unfunny stretch in the 1980s, and only in the 90s did I even manage to watch a few episodes a year. But I'm astounded and pleased to discover that what went on behind the scenes was just as intriguing as anything during the show’s golden age. Hell, I’m gonna fill up my TiVo with whatever SNLs are in reruns, because the epic backstage story illuminates even the weaker seasons in a completely new light.
Live from New York reminded me that, once upon a time, I truly loved and worshipped SNL. And in many ways, I still love what the show represents: a rebellious spirit, a nose-thumbing at the rest of the world. The possibility that, hey, these people have no right to be doing what they’re doing! Who gave them a camera? (...and yet they're doing it anyway).
Maybe SNL itself will never recapture the energy of its glory days. Maybe that was a time-specific magic. Perhaps we’ve gotten all we can from its acid-blasted cauldron, and the most we can do is prop up its artifice as a relic and let today’s kids have their fun with it. Which means old farts like me shouldn’t sit in the back row and grumble about how great things were way back when. No, I should quietly head for the exit door ... which I’ve always regarded as just another entrance to somewhere else.
I haven’t read Sorkin’s script or seen the pilot (unlike some lucky souls in the blogosphere). But I can say this: deep inside me, there’s a wide-eyed teenager who needs something hopeful and rebellious, a show that isn’t afraid to take on our screwed-up world and punch the sucker in the nose … just before it embraces that same flawed planet with the humanity we can only find in humor.
SNL did that once.
Maybe Studio 7 will bring some of it back.