Forty seasons into "Saturday Night Live" and you just don't hear the old criticisms so much anymore: "It's not as edgy as it was in the 1970s …" "This new cast is not as funny as that previous cast …" "It's such a boy's club …"
Chalk this up to any number of reasons: The shaky relevancy of those old mantras, the memory of a young audience, the understanding that creative ebb and flow happens with any institution. But one thing's for sure: Those old cliches began to lose luster around the turn of the millennium, about the same time, serendipitously enough, that James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales published their definitive page-turning oral history, "Live From New York: The Complete Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live."
It was released in the fall of 2002. Twelve seasons, a Tina Fey, a larger female cast, a bubbling African-American presence and several new superstars later, to say that "SNL" is a different show is to say, well … . Miller and Shales' newly updated edition takes more than 200 additional pages to chart the changes. We asked Miller, who did the bulk of the updating, to explain what a difference 12 years of TV makes.
The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Q: How big of a culture change happened in the 12 years since the first edition?
A: A fundamental shift happened. At no point, interviewing cast, guest hosts, writers, did I feel I was repeating the first volume. I see a few headlines: In the first edition, there was a lot of "boys club" talk, and this time, whether because of Tina Fey becoming the first female head writer, or Tina and Amy Poehler doing Weekend Update, no one mentioned that to me. Instead, repeatedly, the importance of women on the show came up. Also: The first 28 years were healthy with sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, and people told me they were far more concerned with getting an appointment to a personal trainer now. Half of (the cast) are vegetarians. The last thing they care about is going to the after-after-party. And I heard, too, about a collaborative spirit now. There were pretty sharp elbows in the early years. (The past 10 years) was a kinder, gentler decade.
Q: The irony is a lot of them had read your book, they knew the pitfalls, the history.
A: A lot of them. I feel weird about this, but many said they saw it as a manual, the thing they bought and read as soon as they got a job (on the show). Bobby Moynihan has guest hosts and cast sign his copy.
Q: Will you update again for the 50th anniversary?
A: I told ("SNL" creator) Lorne Michaels I would. A lot happens in 10 years on a show like that. Since 2002, there was the rise of digital shorts on the show, perfectly dovetailing with the rise of YouTube. There were two presidential elections. There were cast members like Kristen Wiig, Seth Meyers, Bill Hader, Amy Poehler, Andy Samberg. Right now they seem to be in a transitional phase, but it's very much a living organism, living out in public, changing all the time right in front of us. So someone else will come along.
Q: Sounds like you're describing a sports team.
A: When Phil Hartman left (in 1994), there was a lot of "What do we do now?" Then Will Ferrell comes along. Chevy Chase leaves (in 1977), and Bill Murray emerges. It is a team. A star leaves, they suffer, they regroup. And even when they are having a down year, I am still rooting for them. I want them to be good.