Saturday Night Live celebrates four decades of funny this weekend with its 40th Anniversary Special. Being the longest-running weekly comedy show ever means that there’s a vast, deep culture surrounding Lorne Michaels’ late-night tour-de-force. That culture extends from spinoff movies to SNL-inspired TV series to dozens of catphrases to scores of books—memoirs, biographies, autobiographies, and more—from cast members and those close to the series alike. Here, we look at the best, the worst, and the straight-up druggiest (hellooo, Darrell Hammond) volumes in the extended SNL library.
Most Comprehensive: Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live, as Told By Its Stars, Writers and Guests
Authors: Tom Shales, James Andrew Miller
Live From New York was originally published in 2002 to commemorate SNL’s 30th anniversary. An oral history, the book features interviews with cast members, writers, producers, NBC TV executives, and guest hosts. The show’s creator, Lorne Michaels, is a big subject throughout, naturally. “Whoever Daddy Michaels really is, what he did was create one of the most interesting examples of survival and invention in the history of the medium, and Live From New York does that achievement full justice,” Ken Tucker wrote in EW’s 2002 review. Now another decade has passed, and the book has been updated. That means more on Michaels, for sure, but also 100 new pages based on the show’s last 10 years (millennials, rejoice). Consider this your all-encompassing SNL Bible.
Most Interesting Perspective: Samurai Widow
Author: Judith Jacklin Belushi
Samurai Widow is a redemption, of sorts, for John Belushi’s legacy. Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward published Wired: The Short Life and Fast Times of John Belushi in 1984; the book was subsequently adapted and made into a film starring Michael Chiklis. Neither were well received, by critics or Belushi’s circle alike. Belushi’s widow, Judith Jacklin Belushi, responded by writing a memoir of her own: Samurai Widow, which takes its name from Belushi’s SNL character Samurai Futaba. It details their marriage and the aftermath of his 1982 death, detailing Belushi’s life through a unique perspective that only she can give.
Best Book from an SNL Favorite That Isn’t About SNL: Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life
Author: Steve Martin
Sorry—there’s no SNL dirt to dish here. In fact, there’s little dirt to dish at all. “This is not some star’s tell-all,” Jeff Giles wrote in EW’s 2007 review. “Martin’s one true subject is the evolution of his comedy—the transcendent moments when he realized, say, that punchlines were the enemy, that a white suit could be seen better in a concert hall.” What’s more, Martin, who’s appeared on SNL more than almost anyone (curse you, Alec Baldwin!), gets personal, exploring his relationship with his family and the ways it was affected by his career. Ultimately, the book reveals the man behind The Jerk’s Navin, Father of the Bride’s George Banks, and half of SNL’s Festrunk Brothers, making for an insightful, interesting read.
Best Throwback: 39 Years of Short-Term Memory Loss: The Early Days of SNL from Someone Who Was There
Author: Tom Davis, with an introduction by Al Franken
The late Tom Davis, an original SNL writer and Al Franken’s onetime comedy partner, takes a look back at SNL’s humble beginnings, telling stories of the show’s greats: Franken, Michaels, Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, Michael O’Donoghue, and more. With great humor (we’d expect nothing less from an SNL writer), the book tracks two coming-of-age stories: that of Davis as a writer and SNL as an institution. We love Tina and Amy, Kristen and Bill, Andy Samberg and his digital shorts—but their success is built on that of their predecessors, and those predecessors’ stories are, without question, worth exploring.
Most Bitter: Gasping for Air Time
Author: Jay Mohr
Mohr’s memoir has its better moments: He fondly remembers late SNL greats such as Chris Farley and Phil Hartman, and opens up about his struggles with alcohol abuse and panic attacks. But as the title of the book suggests, his time on SNL was, err, less than peachy. Mohr had a brief, two-year stint on the show (1993-1995) in which he saw little air time, and saw a number of his scenes cut. In the end, he really only came to be known for his Christopher Walken impression—and as the title of the book suggests, he’s not happy about that. Mohr is honest, but his reflection is tinged with resentment, leaving readers feeling sour.
Druggiest Memoir: God, If You’re Not Up There I’m F*cked
Author: Darrell Hammond
Darrell Hammond, now the announcer for SNL, was one of the show’s most chameleon-like performers, slipping into dozens of impressions over his lengthy tenure on the show. (He holds the record for longest-surviving cast member, with 14 seasons under his belt.) But beneath his ability to mimic everyone from Donald Trump to Bill Clinton was a troubled life of substance abuse, which followed a trying childhood. God is one of the darker stories told about and by one of SNL’s greatest, but it’s a riveting story that adds layers to a man you might know only for his impeccable ability to promise he did not have sexual relations with that woman.
Least Scandalous: Yes Please
Author: Amy Poehler
Amy Poehler is the latest entrant in the SNL library, and she certainly doesn’t skimp on talking about her time on the show. But don’t expect Poehler to divulge anything to scathing or surprising about her years as a major sketch staple or behind the desk of Weekend Update. Instead, Yes, Please is a bit of a love fest, recounting stories that involve her frequent comedy partners like Tina Fey, Will Forte, and Seth Meyers. It’s not necessarily a bad thing that Poehler focuses mostly on the positive, but those hoping to hear about the trying times behind Weekend Update may want to look elsewhere.
Most Honestly Painful, and Painfully Honest: It’s Always Something
Author: Gilda Radner
Gilda Radner tragically succumbed to ovarian cancer at the age of 42, but before that, the SNL alum detailed both the pain and levity of her life in this memoir. Radner recounts several of her greatest struggles, starting with her childhood—when her father developed a brain tumor and later died—and ending with her own struggles with illness and the public spotlight at such a trying time. Radner is careful when and when not to open up—any relationship she shared with Bill Murray is kept out of the book—but she reflects openly on a life filled with dark moments while retaining a sense of hope—and, of course, her incredible sense of humor.
Most Insightful: The Chris Farley Show: A Biography in Three Acts
Author: Tom Farley Jr., Tanner Colby
Named for one of Farley’s most memorable sketches, The Chris Farley Show takes a look at the life and death of one of the show’s most memorable players. Co-written by Farley’s brother Tom, the oral biography features interviews with both Farley’s close family and friends, who detail his struggles with substance abuse, and comedians like Mike Myers, Chris Rock, and more, who discuss Farley’s unique and endearing brand of comedy. Show offers a real look at the troubles Farley and many other performers have faced while honoring the spirit and work of a guy who was just thrilled to sit next to Martin Scorsese.
Best All-Around Read: Bossypants
Author: Tina Fey
Tina Fey’s Bossypants is full of insight into her time at Saturday Night Live, from anecdotes about her decision to join the series to a discussion about her time leaving the show. As a whole, though, Bossypants doubles as the best read from SNL’s many alums-turned-authors. Fey tackles every major point in her career with hilarious insight—even the chapter titles kill. That said, it’s especially fascinating for SNL fans. Fey gives a look inside her many working relationships with some of SNL’s most prominent cast members, also toucing on her return to the show as Sarah Palin. It’s no surprise, but you betcha Fey’s book will be difficult for any other alum to top.