What does ‘Saturday Night Live’ have in common with German philosophy?
Lorne Michaels, the creator of “Saturday Night Live,” was married to one of the show’s writers, Rosie Shuster. One day when the show was still young, an assistant named Paula Davis went to Shuster’s apartment in New York and found Dan Aykroyd getting out of her bed–which was puzzling, not just because Shuster was married to Michaels but because Aykroyd was supposedly seeing another member of the original “S.N.L.” cast, Laraine Newman. Aykroyd and Gilda Radner had also been an item, back when the two of them worked for the Second City comedy troupe in Toronto, although by the time they got to New York they were just friends, in the way that everyone was friends with Radner. Second City was also where Aykroyd met John Belushi, because Belushi, who was a product of the Second City troupe in Chicago, came to Toronto to recruit for the “National Lampoon Radio Hour,” which he starred in along with Radner and Bill Murray (who were also an item for a while). The writer Michael O’Donoghue (who famously voiced his aversion to the appearance of the Muppets on “S.N.L.” by saying, “I don’t write for felt”) also came from The National Lampoon, as did another of the original writers, Anne Beatts (who was, in the impeccably ingrown logic of “S.N.L.,” living with O’Donoghue). Chevy Chase came from a National Lampoon spinoff called “Lemmings,” which also starred Belushi, doing his legendary Joe Cocker impersonation. Lorne Michaels hired Belushi after Radner, among others, insisted on it, and he hired Newman because he had worked with her on a Lily Tomlin special, and he hired Aykroyd because Michaels was also from Canada and knew him from the comedy scene there. When Aykroyd got the word, he came down from Toronto on his Harley.
In the early days of “S.N.L.,” as Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller tell us in “Live from New York” (Little, Brown; $25.95), everyone knew everyone and everyone was always in everyone else’s business, and that fact goes a long way toward explaining the extraordinary chemistry among the show’s cast. Belushi would stay overnight at people’s apartments, and he was notorious for getting hungry in the middle of the night and leaving spaghetti-sauce imprints all over the kitchen, or setting fires by falling asleep with a lit joint. Radner would go to Jane Curtin’s house and sit and watch Curtin and her husband, as if they were some strange species of mammal, and say things like “Oh, now you are going to turn the TV on together. How will you decide what to watch?” Newman would hang out at Radner’s house, and Radner would be eating a gallon of ice cream and Newman would be snorting heroin. Then Radner would go to the bathroom to make herself vomit, and say, “I’m so full, I can’t hear.” And they would laugh. “There we were,” Newman recalls, “practicing our illnesses together.”
The place where they all really lived, though, was the “S.N.L.” office, on the seventeenth floor of NBC headquarters, at Rockefeller Center. The staff turned it into a giant dormitory, installing bunk beds and fooling around in the dressing rooms and staying up all night. Monday night was the first meeting, where ideas were pitched. On Tuesday, the writing started after dinner and continued straight through the night. The first read-through took place on Wednesday at three in the afternoon. And then came blocking and rehearsals and revisions. “It was emotional,” the writer Alan Zweibel tells Shales and Miller. “We were a colony. I don’t mean this in a bad way, but we were Guyana on the seventeenth floor. We didn’t go out. We stayed there. It was a stalag of some sort.” Rosie Shuster remembers waking up at the office and then going outside with Aykroyd, to “walk each other like dogs around 30 Rock just to get a little fresh air.” On Saturdays, after the taping was finished, the cast would head downtown to a storefront that Belushi and Aykroyd had rented and dubbed the Blues Bar. It was a cheerless dive, with rats and crumbling walls and peeling paint and the filthiest toilets in all of New York. But did anyone care? “It was the end of the week and, well, you were psyched,” Shuster recalls. “It was like you were buzzing, you’d get turbocharged from the intense effort of it, and then there’s like adrenal burnout later. I remember sleeping at the Blues Bar, you know, as the light broke.” Sometimes it went even later. “I remember rolling down the armor at the Blues Bar and closing the building at eleven o’clock Sunday morning–you know, when it was at its height–and saying good morning to the cops and firemen,”Aykroyd said. “S.N.L.” was a television show, but it was also an adult fraternity house, united by bonds of drugs and sex and long hours and emotion and affection that went back years. “The only entrée to that boys club was basically by fucking somebody in the club,” Anne Beatts tells Shales and Miller. “Which wasn’t the reason you were fucking them necessarily. I mean, you didn’t go “Oh, I want to get into this, I think I’ll have to have sex with this person.’ It was just that if you were drawn to funny people who were doing interesting things, then the only real way to get to do those things yourself was to make that connection.”
We are inclined to think that genuine innovators are loners, that they do not need the social reinforcement the rest of us crave. But that’s not how it works, whether it’s television comedy or, for that matter, the more exalted realms of art and politics and ideas. In his book “The Sociology of Philosophies,” Randall Collins finds in all of known history only three major thinkers who appeared on the scene by themselves:the first-century Taoist metaphysician Wang Ch’ung, the fourteenth-century Zen mystic Bassui Tokusho, and the fourteenth-century Arabic philosopher Ibn Khaldun. Everyone else who mattered was part of a movement, a school, a band of followers and disciples and mentors and rivals and friends who saw each other all the time and had long arguments over coffee and slept with one another’s spouses. Freud may have been the founder of psychoanalysis, but it really began to take shape in 1902, when Alfred Adler, Wilhelm Stekel, Max Kahane, and Rudolf Reitler would gather in Freud’s waiting room on Wednesdays, to eat strudel and talk about the unconscious. The neo-Confucian movement of the Sung dynasty in China revolved around the brothers Ch’eng Hao and Ch’eng I, their teacher Chou Tun-i, their father’s cousin Chang Tsai, and, of course, their neighbor Shao Yung. Pissarro and Degas enrolled in the École des Beaux-Arts at the same time, then Pissarro met Monet and, later, Cézanne at the Académie Suisse, Manet met Degas at the Louvre, Monet befriended Renoir at Charles Gleyre’s studio, and Renoir, in turn, met Pissarro and Cézanne and soon enough everyone was hanging out at the Café Guerbois on the Rue des Batignolles. Collins’s point is not that innovation attracts groups but that innovation is found in groups: that it tends to arise out of social interaction–conversation, validation, the intimacy of proximity, and the look in your listener’s eye that tells you you’re onto something. German Idealism, he notes, centered on Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel. Why? Because they all lived together in the same house. “Fichte takes the early lead,” Collins writes,
inspiring the others on a visit while they are young students at Tübingen in the 1790s, then turning Jena into a center for the philosophical movement to which a stream of the soon-to-be-eminent congregate; then on to Dresden in the heady years 1799-1800 to live with the Romantic circle of the Schlegel brothers (where August Schlegel’s wife, Caroline, has an affair with Schelling, followed later by a scandalous divorce and remarriage). Fichte moves on to Berlin, allying with Schleiermacher (also of the Romantic circle) and with Humboldt to establish the new-style university; here Hegel eventually comes and founds his school, and Schopenhauer lectures fruitlessly in competition.
There is a wonderful illustration of this social dimension of innovation in Jenny Uglow’s new book, “The Lunar Men” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; $30), which is the story of a remarkable group of friends in Birmingham in the mid-eighteenth century. Their leader was Erasmus Darwin, a physician, inventor, and scientist, who began thinking about evolution a full fifty years before his grandson Charles. Darwin met, through his medical practice, an industrialist named Mathew Boulton and, later, his partner James Watt, the steam-engine pioneer. They, in turn, got to know Josiah Wedgwood, he of the famous pottery, and Joseph Priestley, the preacher who isolated oxygen and became known as one of history’s great chemists, and the industrialist Samuel Galton (whose son married Darwin’s daughter and produced the legendary nineteenth-century polymath Francis Galton), and the innovative glass-and-chemicals entrepreneur James Keir, and on and on. They called themselves the Lunar Society because they arranged to meet at each full moon, when they would get together in the early afternoon to eat, piling the table high, Uglow tells us, with wine and “fish and capons, Cheddar and Stilton, pies and syllabubs.” Their children played underfoot. Their wives chatted in the other room, and the Lunar men talked well into the night, clearing the table to make room for their models and plans and instruments. “They developed their own cryptic, playful language and Darwin, in particular, liked to phrase things as puzzles–like the charades and poetic word games people used to play,” Uglow writes. “Even though they were down-to-earth champions of reason, a part of the delight was to feel they were unlocking esoteric secrets, exploring transmutations like alchemists of old.”
When they were not meeting, they were writing to each other with words of encouragement or advice or excitement. This was truly–in a phrase that is invariably and unthinkingly used in the pejorative–a mutual-admiration society. “Their inquiries ranged over the whole spectrum, from astronomy and optics to fossils and ferns,” Uglow tells us, and she goes on:
One person’s passion–be it carriages, steam, minerals, chemistry, clocks–fired all the others. There was no neat separation of subjects. Letters between [William] Small and Watt were a kaleidoscope of invention and ideas, touching on steam-engines and cylinders; cobalt as a semi-metal; how to boil down copal, the resin of tropical trees, for varnish; lenses and clocks and colours for enamels; alkali and canals; acids and vapours–as well as the boil on Watt’s nose.
What were they doing? Darwin, in a lovely phrase, called it “philosophical laughing,” which was his way of saying that those who depart from cultural or intellectual consensus need people to walk beside them and laugh with them to give them confidence. But there’s more to it than that. One of the peculiar features of group dynamics is that clusters of people will come to decisions that are far more extreme than any individual member would have come to on his own. People compete with each other and egg each other on, showboat and grandstand; and along the way they often lose sight of what they truly believed when the meeting began. Typically, this is considered a bad thing, because it means that groups formed explicitly to find middle ground often end up someplace far away. But at times this quality turns out to be tremendously productive, because, after all, losing sight of what you truly believed when the meeting began is one way of defining innovation.
Uglow tells us, for instance, that the Lunar men were active in the campaign against slavery. Wedgwood, Watt, and Darwin pushed for the building of canals, to improve transportation. Priestley came up with soda water and the rubber eraser, and James Keir was the man who figured out how to mass-produce soap, eventually building a twenty-acre soapworks in Tipton that produced a million pounds of soap a year. Here, surely, are all the hallmarks of group distortion. Somebody comes up with an ambitious plan for canals, and someone else tries to top that by building a really big soap factory, and in that feverish atmosphere someone else decides to top them all with the idea that what they should really be doing is fighting slavery.
Uglow’s book reveals how simplistic our view of groups really is. We divide them into cults and clubs, and dismiss the former for their insularity and the latter for their banality. The cult is the place where, cut off from your peers, you become crazy. The club is the place where, surrounded by your peers, you become boring. Yet if you can combine the best of those two –the right kind of insularity with the right kind of homogeneity–you create an environment both safe enough and stimulating enough to make great thoughts possible. You get Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel, and a revolution in Western philosophy. You get Darwin, Watt, Wedgwood, and Priestley, and the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution. And sometimes, on a more modest level, you get a bunch of people goofing around and bringing a new kind of comedy to network television.
One of “S.N.L.”‘s forerunners was a comedy troupe based in San Francisco called the Committee. The Committee’s heyday was in the nineteen-sixties, and its humor had the distinctive political bite of that period. In one of the group’s memorable sketches, the actor Larry Hankin played a condemned prisoner being led to the electric chair by a warden, a priest, and a prison guard. Hankin was strapped in and the switch was thrown–and nothing happened. Hankin started to become abusive, and the three men huddled briefly together. Then, as Tony Hendra recounts, in “Going Too Far,” his history of “boomer humor”:
They confer and throw the switch again. Still nothing. Hankin starts cackling with glee, doubly abusive. They throw it yet again. Nothing yet again. Hankin then demands to be set free–he can’t be executed more than once, they’re a bunch of assholes, double jeopardy, nyah-nyah, etc., etc. Totally desperate, the three confer once more, check that they’re alone in the cell, and kick Hankin to death.
Is that sketch funny? Some people thought so. When the Committee performed it at a benefit at the Vacaville prison, in California, the inmates laughed so hard they rioted. But others didn’t, and even today it’s clear that this humor is funny only to those who can appreciate the particular social and political sensibility of the Committee. We call new cultural or intellectual movements “circles” for a reason: the circle is a closed loop. You are either inside or outside. In “Live from New York,” Lorne Michaels describes going to the White House to tape President Ford saying, “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night,” the “S.N.L.” intro: “We’d done two or three takes, and to relax him, I said to him–my sense of humor at the time–”Mr. President, if this works out, who knows where it will lead?’ Which was completely lost on him.” In another comic era, the fact that Ford did not laugh would be evidence of the joke’s failure. But when Michaels says the joke “was completely lost on him” it isn’t a disclaimer–it’s the punch line. He said what he said because he knew Ford would not get it. As the writers of “Saturday Night Live” worked on sketches deep into the night, they were sustained by something like what sustained the Lunar men and the idealists in Tübingen–the feeling that they all spoke a private language.
To those on the inside, of course, nothing is funnier than an inside joke. But the real significance of inside jokes is what they mean for those who aren’t on the inside. Laughing at a joke creates an incentive to join the joke-teller. But not laughing–not getting the joke–creates an even greater incentive. We all want to know what we’re missing, and this is one of the ways that revolutions spread from the small groups that spawn them.
“One of Michaels’s rules was, no groveling to the audience either in the studio or at home,” Shales and Miller write. “The collective approach of the show’s creators could be seen as a kind of arrogance, a stance of defiance that said in effect, “We think this is funny, and if you don’t, you’re wrong.’ . . . To viewers raised on TV that was forever cajoling, importuning, and talking down to them, the blunt and gutsy approach was refreshing, a virtual reinvention of the medium.”
The successful inside joke, however, can never last. In “A Great Silly Grin” (Public Affairs; $27.50), a history of nineteen-sixties British satire, Humphrey Carpenter relates a routine done at the comedy club the Establishment early in the decade. The sketch was about the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral, which had been destroyed in the war, and the speaker was supposed to be the Cathedral’s architect, Sir Basil Spence:
First of all, of course, we owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the German people for making this whole project possible in the first place. Second, we owe a debt of gratitude to the people of Coventry itself, who when asked to choose between having a cathedral and having hospitals, schools and houses, plumped immediately (I’m glad to say) for the cathedral, recognizing, I think, the need of any community to have a place where the whole community can gather together and pray for such things as hospitals, schools and houses.
When that bit was first performed, many Englishmen would have found it offensive. Now, of course, hardly anyone would. Mocking British establishment pieties is no longer an act of rebellion. It is the norm. Successful revolutions contain the seeds of their demise: they attract so many followers, eager to be in on the joke as well, that the circle breaks down. The inside becomes indistinguishable from the outside. The allure of exclusivity is gone.
At the same time, the special bonds that created the circle cannot last forever. Sooner or later, the people who slept together in every combination start to pair off. Those doing drugs together sober up (or die). Everyone starts going to bed at eleven o’clock, and bit by bit the intimacy that fuels innovation slips away. “I was involved with Gilda, yeah. I was in love with her,” Aykroyd tells Shales and Miller.”We were friends, lovers, then friends again,” and in a way that’s the simplest and best explanation for the genius of the original “S.N.L.” Today’s cast is not less talented. It is simply more professional. “I think some people in the cast have fun crushes on other people, but nothing serious,” Cheri Oteri, a cast member from the late nineteen-nineties, tells Shales and Miller, in what might well serve as the show’s creative epitaph. “I guess we’re kind of boring–no romances, no drugs. I had an audition once with somebody who used to work here. He’s very, very big in the business now. And as soon as I went in for the audition, he went, “Hey, you guys still doing coke over at SNL?’ Because back when he was here, they were doing it. What are we doing, for crying out loud? Oh yeah. Thinking up characters.”