Recently, I was sifting through the stacks of books I have that are collecting dust, when I found a book that chronicles the history of "Saturday Night Live" from its beginning through 2002. Titled "Live from New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live," it was written by Pulitzer Prize winning critic Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller.
Written as an oral history, the book includes interviews with nearly every significant actor, writer, producer, guest host, and musician to be connected with the program. As someone old enough to remember when the show started, my main interest was the history of the show's first five seasons. However, there is lots of good information about the ups and downs of the program after that.
In the last few years, the show's quality has dipped quite a bit (though I must admit that I don't watch it that much anymore). Maybe because of this, I really appreciate the top notch performers and writers that did the show.
For what it is worth, here are some opinions on folks connected to the show.
Bill Murray – As time has passed, I think we can all appreciate just how talented Murray is. He will always be best known for his work on the show, but in the last few years, he has blossomed into a first-rate actor ("Lost in Translation," "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou," "Rushmore," etc.). If I had to pick somebody as the most talented person ever to work on the show, he would be it.
Chevy Chase – As Murray has aged gracefully, Chase really has not. When watching some of the early shows, his humor has not worn well, and it seems more smarmy than creative. What was all the fuss about?
Phil Hartman – Hartman is easily the most versatile performer in the show's history. He had a great ability to control the inflection in his voice that I believe most of us envy. He could plug a hole in any sketch whether he was doing Charlton Heston or Frankenstein. "SNL" is at its best when it has jack-of-all-trade performers who can do it all without wanting to be "the star."
Al Franken – Franken's political commentary in recent years has overshadowed that he once wielded a comedy blade that was both sharp and funny. The show's humor has always been at its best when it was borderline mean (or in the case of Franken's famous “Limo for a Lame-O” piece, flat-out mean). That may not necessarily be a good thing, but many times, it has made the show undeniably hilarious. However, as Franken's more recent work has shown, an approach that makes a person a successful comedy writer does not necessarily translate to the political arena.
John Belushi – It is impossible to think of Belushi without thinking about what could have been. He was versatile, and he had a ton of charisma. I'm not sure how to define 'stage presence,' but I believe he had it.