Picks and Pans Review: Saturday Night Live: the First Twenty Years

updated 10/24/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/24/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

edited by Michael Cader; photographs by Edie Baskin

Live from New York, it's...not as funny as it used to be. That's the general consensus about Saturday Night Live 20 years after its raucous debut. True, SNL has never recaptured the subversive hilarity of its first five years. And true, members of some ensembles (Anthony Michael Hall?) have frittered away the show's hip cachet. But as this slick, entertaining book suggests, SNL still has amazing reach. After all, hasn't half the country said "Schwing!" at least once by now?

Comprehensive but loosely arranged, this commemorative history recalls nearly every great SNL skit and celebrates the show's remarkable ability to lodge silly catchphrases ("Isn't that special") into the national lexicon. The effect of so much classic comedy gathered into one volume is exhilaration: Romping through SNL's best moments is like slipping into a wacky parallel universe full of land sharks, lounge singers and pathological liars and finding you like it there.

Steve Martin's goofy King Tut lyrics, summaries of recurring skits like Eddie Murphy's Buckwheat and Mike Myers' Coffee Talk, guest host highlights including William Shatner in a skit, yelling at Star Trek fans, "Get a life, will you, people!"—even readers who haven't seen this on TV will laugh at it here.

There are chapters on SNL's biting political skits (John Belushi's Henry Kissinger to Dan Aykroyd's Richard Nixon: "Vhy don't ve get into our pajamas und go sleepy?") and on the show's commercial parodies (Chia head, "the answer to male baldness"). There is also a reverential chapter on the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players, who made TV history by indulging a completely fresh comic sensibility.

If Belushi's brash genius and Aykroyd's uncanny mimicry have never been equaled, subsequent casts, this book suggests, have at least succeeded in keeping the flame alive. (Houghton Mifflin, $25)

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