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What's All This Then?

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Monday Edition

Sometimes people are better suited for starting things
than finishing them. Hobbies, the fifth film in Steve's "Regrets" series.

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Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live
by Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad

Field-Tested by Nathan Rabin

in Eagle River, Wisconsin

As a pre-pubescent daydreamer, I was endlessly fascinated by Johnny Carson’s “The Tonight Show” and “Saturday Night Live.” I imagined the greatest perk of surviving childhood and adolescence was getting to stay up past 10:30 every night of the week so you could watch “SNL” and “The Tonight Show” while drinking martinis in tuxedos and cocktail dresses and making Algonquin Round Table-worthy banter with your closest friends. I suspect that actually watching either of these shows as an impressionable 12-year-old would have ruined my giddy childhood fantasy of adult sophistication. These late-night institutions were verboten and consequently irresistible. I created a fantasy comic wonderland in my mind no mere television show could possibly live up to.


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My boundless curiosity about “Saturday Night Live” was only deepened when I read Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad’s deliciously dishy Saturday Night Live: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live while doing hard time at Camp Chi, the pride of Eagle River, Wisconsin, hometown of many a bald eagle and muskie, and the sight of some of my most spectacular childhood angst. Oh, but I hated Camp Chi! I hated everything about it: the infernal forced bonding, the arts and/or crafts, the Color Wars, and perhaps most nefariously of all, the group showers. I nobly refrained from showering for weeks solely to prevent peers from stealing a glimpse at my penis. Not that I was ashamed of it or anything; I just didn’t want my colleagues to feel hopelessly inadequate by comparison (yeah, that’s the ticket!).

So I retreated into the infinitely more exciting world of Saturday Night. It was like a Rosetta Stone, unlocking a forbidden world of adult misbehavior. My always-wavering innocence took a serious hit as I was suddenly immersed in a decadent realm of sex and drugs, bulimia, and clashing egos. How could my sad little summer camp compare with lurid accounts of John Belushi and Garrett Morris doing bucketfuls of Columbian marching powder, on-set hook-ups, and the exhilarating, terrifying, crazy-making pressure of turning out an hour and a half of live, cutting-edge comedy every week?

Thanks to Hill and Weingrad’s pioneering work, I fell hopelessly in love with the idea of “Saturday Night Live” before I had watched even a single episode. I consequently have spent much of my personal and professional life trying, and failing, to make people laugh. I became a “Saturday Night Live” die-hard and made a habit of reading anything written about it, from Jay Mohr’s self-serving memoir of suckitude Gasping For Airtime to Tom Shales’ and James Andrew Miller’s definitive Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live. My “Saturday Night Live” obsession even led me to follow Aaron Sorkin’s spectacularly misguided homage, “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” to the bitter, bitter end. If some hardy soul ever writes a book about that particular disaster, I’ll be first in line for that as well.

Nathan Rabin is the head writer of The AV Club, the entertainment section of the award-winning satirical newspaper The Onion. He is the co-author of the 2002 AV Club interview collection, Tenacity of the Cockroach, and an upcoming Inventory book to be published by Scribner. Scribner will also be publishing his memoir, The Big Rewind: A Pop Culture Memoir, in 2009. In 2004 and 2005 he was a regular on AMC’s “Movie Club with John Ridley,” a poorly-rated, mildly-disreputable, basic-cable movie-review panel show critics and audiences alike heralded as “short-lived” and “cancelled.” He lives in Chicago with his two cats and still feels weird writing about himself in third person.

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