By 1975 television had become this cold, vacuous, manipulative medium. Then you came along with a canny, comedy-oriented show that had a warm, likable company – and all the headaches of live television. It was a gallant gesture, but you must have been a little nuts to have attempted it. Whenever I think of the potential hazards, I remember the time in 1977 that you booked the Sex Pistols.
Hmmm. I know what you mean. They backed out with less than a week to go. I mean, we can only pay scale. So some harsh words were exchanged, and we called Elvis Costello and he came on and did the show instead.
I heard you were quite upset when Elvis suddenly stopped at the beginning of his second number and began playing another song.
Yeah, it was a rough week, but the wonderful part was that he seized his moment. We always let the musical acts pick their own songs. But we spend a lot of time on rehearsals; we block out every camera shot, 'cause every second counts. So on the second tune, Elvis does a few bars, then stops. I thought," Here it is, a TV hijacking. He's gonna sing, 'Kill all the niggers, kill all the Jews!'" Or some other apt punk statement. I was stunned, but then I smiled 'cause I knew I wouldn't have to take the heat, and anyway, there it was in front of me – live television.
Will nothing be as good as live television?
One of the reasons I was so curious about live television was hearing about The Jack Parr Show and The Tonight Show – how they worked around the clock. It all seemed fairly romantic, which it is indeed. When I work on something, I have to do it all the way. And so far, I've found that the thrill of being seized by something and swept along by it is an overwhelming and exhilarating one.
Do you think the pressures of doing a live show like Saturday Night Live have a destructive quality?
Yes. The cost in human lives is great. No one can withstand the pressure. The odd part is that you can see everybody else going under; you never see yourself going under. If I paused longer than a day and thought about the toll it takes, I probably would never do it again. I don't think any of us would.
Were you surprised when Danny and John decided to leave?
I was not surprised at John. Emotionally he was very much still tied to the show, but I think that last year right from the beginning, he had the feeling that it was his last. We had pretty much discussed that and agreed. As far as I'm concerned, John Belushi fulfilled his contract to NBC. He more than lived up to my expectations, and he did well by the show. There were times when I wanted to kill him, but there is with almost everyone on the show and I don't mean to single him out. I also think that in an odd way, John was one of the strongest supporters the show ever really had.
Danny I was more surprised at, because even after the last show, he had, I thought, decided to come back and perform, but not to write, because he was going to be writing movies. I was surprised and upset. Danny is a highly honorable man and I think it pained him to make the decision to leave. Obviously both will be missed. John was a strong personality and Danny was a fine ensemble player, great at dialects, impersonations, characterizations. I've been through this before, with Chevy. But we'll get by. Actually, I think we'll do more than get by.
As individuals became more popular, people wanted to see more of them. The very fact that Danny and Bill and Garrett and John and Laraine were in a piece added something more to it. And so last year I felt that we got away with a lot of stuff that we would not have gotten away with if we were being judged as strangers.
As for John leaving, it was the curse of ensemble work, I think. When you work and become successful in an ensemble, you eventually want your own show, and the networks always give in to that pressure, and for good reason. By doing twenty shows a year, you get rapid growth, but you also never get to rework a piece. The cast of Saturday Night Live has done, at this point, close to 100 shows. And in those 100 shows they have experienced that bonding that comes with being there to anticipate another performer in trouble or somebody being there for you. It's working without a net.
And yet you do provide a net, in that you've created a strong sense of family loyalty and support among the cast and crew. The idea of an extended family can be very consoling and very seductive. For instance, I recall Gilda telling Tom Snyder that leaving the show right now would be like slapping a parent in the face.
Ours is a more hectic process than movies, for instance, which have a much more slow and gentlemanly process, I think. The very fact that there's a live audience and the show must go on is a theatrical tradition that dominates Saturday Night Live. Everybody – the cast, the crew, the writers – needs everybody else, so it becomes more family like.
Yes, and you've created a work environment that develops that team spirit, but it does not allow for the fiercely independent. I know that there was a lot of tension between you and Belushi, and he often came off as a wayward son. Tell me how you met him.
Chevy, actually, was urging me to hire John. And Chevy was a writer at that point, not a cast member. John and I have a kind of grudging respect for one another. Belushi came in for a meeting with me and he was heavily bearded at the time. And he had this stance – he was a radical actor, he wasn't going to do television. And I said, "Thank you very much, that's fine. Why are you here?" Well, he'd heard that I represented something new in television. But the more he would talk about how television was shit, the more I would say that I loved television. He only made me harden my position. It's been the story of our relationship. I'm continually making him harden his position – and someday we'll get married.
Your kidding doesn't disguise your intense feelings about the importance of the show.
Saturday Night is very, very hard work for very small rewards, both financial and otherwise. It requires a certain dedication that is harder and harder to maintain when somebody in films will give you $1 million or $2 million and treat you real well.
I'm trying to second-guess and it's a stupid thing to do, but I think working on 1941, with a budget of $25 million or $30 million and different kinds of toys, was, for Danny and for John, a much more pleasurable experience than working on Saturday Night Live.
I think last year was a very confusing time for John, and I think his life was very crowded, partially because of Animal House, the Blues Brothers, being on the cover of Newsweek and signing a film deal with Universal. There just always seemed to be an entourage around him and it became very, very hard for me to penetrate that at all. I tried on a couple of occasions, but I think we both sensed it was the end.
Why do you think the Blues Brothers record did so well?
That was the very first Dan Aykroyd product. If you've loved Dan for four years, it was the very first opportunity to buy him. John had other things that had come out before, but I think that it was the power of them together, plus the fact that we put it on the show and we even made the distinction, which I think was significant, that they were the musical guests that week. They were not billed as themselves.
The record companies feel that the show can sell a lot of records.
You have to have the goods. All I can do – all the show can do, rather. Did I just say that I was the show? Jesus! All that you can do in presenting someone is try to present them real well. But in the same way, in a musical act, the sound can be wonderful or terrible, but a smile on a close-up that shows the person is not taking it all that seriously, or that they're enjoying it, or some warmth comes across, then that tends to sell.
Leon Redbone has sold a lot of records as a result of an appearance on Saturday Night Live.
It's much easier to present and shoot Leon Redbone than it is to do the Grateful Dead. Because Leon is intimate, you can get in real close. The simple music comes across great out of the small speaker. Whereas, what the Dead are trying to do is so diffused. It's powerful and incredibly exciting in the studio, yet there's no focus to it because the performance isn't the star. The music is the star.
I remember Gilda telling me at one point last summer that you sometimes encourage people to take things from their personal lives and use them on the show.
Yes. In the first year we did a cold opening once where Buck Henry couldn't get into the studio and I had to come down and get him. That was based on reality. It wasn't Buck who it happened to, it had been Elliott Gould.
I thought the best of those were the "Judy Miller" skits. Everybody could appreciate them.
The "Judy Miller Show" was one of the best collaborations between Marilyn Miller and Gilda.
It was Gilda and Marilyn sharing their childhood experiences with the audience.
As was the slumber party, which was all the girls' pieces. As is Todd and Lisa, the nerds, in a certain way. Those are things I tend to be proud of. It's now to the point where those pieces get an ovation for just showing up. But the style of the show has been to kill off its successful things. It is done out of the continuing hope of taking chances and not just doing a successful variety show.
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