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August 15, 2004

  • The Object Of My Obsession
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    I now know way too much about Saturday Night Live. I can now watch two minutes of an episode from the first five years and know what season it’s from. I know what episode had paramedics standing by on set for John Belushi and which one had Garret Morris throwing a hysterical temper tantrum in rehearsal the day before. Even though I haven’t seen a single episode, I know the intimate—and grisly—details of the ill-fated 1980 season of the show, long rumoured to be one of the worst (I really want to see some of it, if only for the watching-a-car-wreck-in-slow-motion aspect). I know what Jan Hooks thinks of Victoria Jackson (she hates her). I know what Jane Curtin thinks of the show (not much). I know what I think of Harry Shearer (a complete asshole).

    God, I’m an obsessive geek.

    Three months ago I couldn’t have cared less about the Not Ready For Prime Time Players, and SNL was something I really liked as a kid and watch now mostly for Tina Fey’s Weekend Update and Maya Rudolph, who is one of the funniest performers on the planet. But it’s summer. I do things like this in the summer.

    I don’t know what it is about these lazy, crazy, hazy, maise-y days of summer, but every year without fail at this time of year I develop an interest in something that becomes so all-consuming that I have to become a mini-authority on the subject.

    I blame it in part on not watching much TV. As anyone who knows me will tell you, I mainline on mainstream TV during the fall, winter and spring. And as soon as the regular season ends, I delete the rota of programs I have in my VCR’s timer and aside from maybe one show that suddenly gets my fancy (last year was Train 48, this year it’s 1975-80 SNL) I watch nothing.

    However it seems in the absence of all this TV my brain explores its newfound freedom by completely geeking out.

    Exhibit A is the absolute mania I developed toward the films of Francois Truffaut. In the summer of 1999, Cinematheque Toronto began showing a retrospective on his films. I saw his seminal work The 400 Blows and…bam! I was going to everything Cinematheque showed of his (which was a lot). And if giving up most of my weeknights in pursuit of one of the founders of the nouvelle vague was enough, I also bought the zillion-page biography of Truffaut that had just come out that year. By the end of the summer I was trying to find his work on DVD (and mostly failing; though five years later I’ve managed to accrue an impressive collection). Hell, I even considered taking up French again just to see how accurate the translations were on the subtitles.

    Then there was my summer of James Bond. Two years ago, I whiled away my unemployment by filling in the gaps in my appreciation of Mr. Bond’s oeuvre (somewhere between From Russia With Love and Octopussy to be precise). But the Special Edition DVDs for 007 don’t just entertain you. The Bond DVDs are some of the best ever made because they include extensive ‘making of’ documentaries and behind the scenes production material. By September, I had just decided to continue and watch DVDs for the Bond films I had seen, but by that point I was watching the making of documentary before the film itself. And I owned two other reference books on Bond to compare it against. About the only thing I didn’t do was actually read Ian Fleming’s novels, which were too mean-spiritedly British for my tastes.

    The list could go on and on. Over past summers I have developed an intense interest in Grant Morrison’s comic book The Invisibles, the novels of Douglas Coupland, the original Twilight Zone TV series, the music of Nick Drake, films that have starred Jack Nicholson…as I say, I could go on and on.

    There’s some weird switch in my brain that goes from ‘yeah I’d like to casually enjoy that’ to ‘I must know everything there is to know about that.’ I all too casually and frequently flip that switch. A lot of these things have gone on to become full-scale passions of mine (my interest in Doctor Who and The Beatles uncoincidentally flourished during a summer), some have kind of stayed hidden away, waiting to resurface.

    This summer, Saturday Night Live became the object of my obsession. Global has been showing the original Not Ready For Prime Time Players episodes (albeit cut down from 90 minutes to an hour—a process by which they cut out Bruce Cockburn’s only SNL appearance. Bastards.) as a stopgap replacement for Mike Bullard—and an inspired one at that. I started watching them for two reasons: first of all, I remember watching these in syndication the summer before I started High School and I wanted to see if Gilda Radner’s Roseanne Roseannadanna was just as inspired as I remembered her being (she was). The second was that a colleague of more advanced age once told me “Saturday Night Live was never any good. If you actually watched the original episodes and not just the sketches put into compilations you’d see that.” My colleague is wrong, wrong, WRONG. Much to my delight, the original SNL still lives up to the hype for being smart, hip and funny television.  The hit-to-miss ratio is still about 2:1 but, unlike later incarnations of the program, the sketches that only make you smile usually have something about it that’s really good. Often that’s the cast, who back in those days really did have talent to burn. Having grown accustomed to Bill Murray’s grumpy post-Ghostbusters screen persona it’s a genuine shock to see how incredibly versatile he was back in the day. And if Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi are on fire, then Gilda Radner is fissionable material.

    What really strikes me about the first five years of Saturday Night Live is how many sketches are driven by pathos—there are a lot of sketches that are, in the best tradition of Chaplin and Gleason, low-key vignettes about people in pathetic situations who are getting by the best they can. My favourite of these are the sketches set in a small shopping mall on its last legs. Supplanted by a bigger, more popular mall, the only store that seems to be doing well is the one that sells scotch tape—because everyone buys packing supplies from them. While later casts went more for “high concept” humour (and the Not Ready For Prime Time Players certainly could do that as well), in the early days to the show, no one was afraid to have a sketch that wasn’t meant to be overtly funny, even skirting actual drama. Even more overt comedy pieces like the Radner/Murray/Curtin Nerdlinger sketches have a strong element of pathos to them. It’s these sweet, sad, slices of life that really gives early SNL its edge.

    But mere appreciation of the glory days of Saturday Night Live isn’t enough for me. By about the third week of watching, I had spent an afternoon reading every single episode synopsis for the show on tvtome.com. By the fourth week, I had purchased a copy of Live From New York, an oral history of the show by its cast, crew and producers. I had read all 500-plus pages in about three days. Now I’m on to sourcing a copy of the apparently more substantial but out-of-print Saturday Night: A Backstage History of “Saturday Night Live” and, more worryingly, sourcing copies of the non-Lorne Michaels produced seasons from 1980-1985 (partially out of nostalgia, since they’re the first seasons I can remember watching live).

    The Victorians had a quaint term for this. Monomania: obsession of the mind by one idea or interest.

    But there’s more to it than that. It’s a base intellectual hunger that will only be satisfied by feeding it arcane trivia. I watch a movie, I have to know the real story behind it (and frequently discover it’s far, far more interesting than the one in the movie): I spent hours at various points reading about the story behind Boys Don’t Cry and Chicago that way. I find a snatch of writing that takes my fancy, I have to find some other examples by the same writer.

    Google’s contribution to my life is that I can feed this a lot quicker than I used to. Back in the days before the computer, I used to have to come into Toronto and go to the Metro Toronto Reference Library (because no library in Oakville, Ontario is going to give you as much information) and spend the day reading books from their collection about Bonnie and Clyde, and the comic book character Captain Marvel. Nowadays, I put something that takes my fancy into a search engine and suddenly whole afternoons vanish. I go on what I can only describe as trivia benders: absorbing fascinating information completely irrelevant to my life.

    The best example of this ever was the day I read about Rose Wilder Lane. Rose Wilder Lane was the daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the author and heroine of Little House on the Prairie and other books (we see her as a baby in the later seasons of the TV show). I have no idea how I glommed onto this detail, but I found out somewhere that it’s believed by many that Rose actually ghost-wrote the Little House books (and if she didn’t then she edited them so strongly she may as well have done it). Well the next thing I know Google has sent me down the rabbit hole. I’m finding out everything about Rose Wilder Lane and discovering she’s actually far more interesting than her famous mother. Rose Wilder Lane was an early 20th century iconoclast: a Nellie Bly-esque journalist who travelled and corresponded extensively in China. She was a proto-feminist: a divorcee who pretty much lived—and loved—independently in an age where this was taboo. She’s now one of the icons of the Libertarian movement in the US (we’re talking capital-L Libertarians too; she was the sort of woman who didn’t think local government should be even doing trash collection). She had a complicated relationship with her mother, and there are apparently lots of heated letters between the two of them during the writing of the Little House books.

    One of these days, I’ll get around to finding those letters and reading them or the book about Rose Wilder Lane, The Ghost of Little House. Or I’ll learn French and find out what the most ideal translation of Jules and Jim should be. Or I’ll watch a taping of Saturday Night Live just to have a sense of what it’s like to be in Rockefeller Center at 11:30 EST on a Satruday Night. That’s presuming I haven’t developed an interest in the paintings of Van Dyck or the films of Costas Gravas next summer.



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