Saturday Night Live: The Book
by Alison Castle
2015 • 500 pages • Taschen
Having worked in a bookstore, Taschen, the boutique art book publisher, is practically legendary. When I worked at the bookstore, we had a few stands to display art books out of their shrink wrap for customers. The James Bond Archives held court for several months, a gorgeous book so heavy I could hear its fall from clear across the building. I sometimes dawdled and flipped through it, deeply reverent of the paper’s very finish. Taschen books are often about art, but each volume is a work of art in and of itself—the codex itself as art.
So when I discovered that there was a Taschen outpost in New York, I immediately visited. (While Rory Eccleston, my erstwhile laptop, was being held hostage at the nearby Apple Store, I spent a lot of time there.) And it was everything I hoped. Even the paper bags they provide customers to tote their purchases home features art from one of their many art books.
Of course, Taschen books cost a pretty penny, although they do have an annual sale to clear out their warehouse. (Pro-tip: it’s actually better on their website than in the store.) While I always wanted a Taschen, I knew that my first Taschen would have to be worth it.
And then they announced they were doing a Saturday Night Live book for the show’s fortieth anniversary. I took one look at the book’s listing on the sight, starting tearing up because Stefon’s wedding means a lot to me okay?, and decided that it was going to be baby’s first Taschen. On my birthday, I retrieved my copy and carried it home. It took me weeks to open it, because I needed to be in the right space and have time to go over it. (It’s hardly commute reading, as you can imagine.) Which explains why I’m getting around to reviewing it now, in June.
Saturday Night Live: The Book is crammed with information. It’s not as nitty gritty as, say, Live From New York (either the Miller and Shales oral history, whose updated edition sits on my bookshelf, or the Nyugen documentary), but what it lacks in gossip and thrills it makes up for in sheer minutiae. Minutiae implies dullness, but what Castle understands is that the accumulation of it is what transforms a sketch show created because Johnny Carson didn’t feel like letting NBC running his show at night into a cultural institution worthy of a coffee table book like this. The back of the book lists each season, detailing each episode, each cast, and a few highlights. And true, this is all information you can get on Wikipedia. But it’s the presentation that makes it a delight, being able to see it all at once. It feels like, more so than anything I’ve encountered in my Saturday Night Live fandom so far, a fair encapsulation of everything the show has been.
(This might be because it actually covers the Lorne Michaels-less Jean Doumanian years in equal measure with the rest of the forty years
Said presentation includes over two thousand new images, which is the main draw to the volume. (Although a gallery of the bumper photography is deliriously delightful. This would be a great time to mention that the current bumpers are by photographer Mary Ellen Matthews, who has been hitting it out of the park recently. To wit: most of my desktop backgrounds are her photos at the moment.) A lot of it is new perspectives on familiar material—like the previously mentioned photo from Stefon’s wedding because I am nothing if not obvious in my tastes—and a fair amount covers material that never made it to air. (Due to how the show is put together, all the photos are from dress rehearsal, which means that a few details here and there are different.) The idea that I was robbed of Kate McKinnon as a pumpkin bong-hitting Janis Joplin in a “Vincent Price’s Halloween Special” sketch is tragic. But the most interesting material is a gallery of artifacts associated with the show—namely, a selection of notes hosts, cast, and crew have sent to Lorne Michaels over the years.
It’s so easy to think of Michaels as presiding over an entertainment empire—which he does—that it’s easy to forget that he’s pretty intimately involved in the careers of everyone who passes through Studio 8H. Amy Poehler (who, we have established, tells all the best stories) has a great note, but it’s the late Phil Hartman’s that made me cry. It reads simply:
It was not without its blood, sweat, and tears; but the thrills and the glory remain prominent in my mind.
Thanks for the opportunity to serve.
And that’s what this volume excels at: collecting all these tiny moments until they cohere into the institution we know Saturday Night Live to be.
I bought this book from the Taschen store.