Christmas is here once again, and like every writer on the internet, the time has come for a gift guide; which is handy if, like me, you’re a last minute shopper! And while I could easily make a list of several DVD sets that would be ideal (such as the complete Batman series just released a few weeks ago – and yes, I do have words to say about that for another time), or which streaming service would be better to subscribe to, instead I’m going to shift gears and offer a suggestion that’s a little off topic but very necessary. Books.
But these are no ordinary books. This small list is just a handful of books about television that are among some of my favorites. All of these books are decent reads and are fine gifts to give (or to give yourself).
Click on each for the link to its Amazon page.
Live From New York: The Complete, Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live as Told by Its Stars, Writers, and Guests
by James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales
Recently expanded and updated in honor of Saturday Night Live’s 40th Anniversary this season, this exhaustive oral history is a fascinating, often contradictory account of the venerable television institution. From its begining days to the current day, it’s the story of SNL told by the people who lived it (and lived through it!). From the cast members to the writers to the producers to the guest stars, everyone is in this book. From the humble beginnings to the troubled period of the early 1980s, to the resurgence in the late 1980s and onward, it’s a funny, comprehensive tome that is a pleasure to read. (Side Note: While not my usual metiere, Miller and Shales’ follow up book Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN is also a treat to read.)
Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And all the Brilliant Minds Who Made The Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic
by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong
I’ve talked about the importance of The Mary Tyler Moore Show before in this column, and this book was part of my research. Armstrong’s book is a joyous read taking you inside the creation of one of the greatest sitcoms of television history with vivid portrayals of that titanic cast and crew. It’s also a good look at CBS in the 1970s as it dealt with MTM and All In The Family, two unruly shows the network was convinced would not work which would end up defining the sitcom as we know it today.
Last Friday, the great Craig Fergusson ended his 10 year tenure on The Late Late Show with a surprising final guest: Jay Leno, the most divisive figure in all of late night television history. Given that the late night landscape is changing yet again (with Jimmy Fallon replacing Leno on The Tonight Show, Seth Meyers replacing Fallon on Late Night With…, Stephen Colbert leaving his show to replace David Letterman on The Late Show, and James Corden to replace Fergusson), the time is right to re-examine Bill Carter’s iconic books on the history and dirty laundry surrounding late night television over the past three decades. Both The Late Shift and The War for Late Night are essential reads; not only for their examination of television politics but Carter manages over two books to paint the most balanced portrait of Leno ever.
Street Gang: The Complete History Of Sesame Street
by Michael Davis
One of the great miracles of television is Sesame Street. Now entering its 45th Season, the show that defined children’s television around the world as we know it gets the history it deserves in Michael Davis’ gentle yet bracing read. Filled to overflowing with colorful characters and often magical moments (and more than its share of tragedy), this is one of the most humane looks at the most humane show on air. (As a bonus, try to track down the audio book version as its narrated by the iconic Caroll Spinney, the voice of Big Bird himself!)
The Sweeps: Behind the Scenes in Network TV
by Mark Christensen and Cameron Stauth
Maddeningly out of print, Christensen and Stauth’s brillaint exposé is a fascinating look at a network in crisis; specifically NBC during the 1983-1984 season. It’s an inside look as network president Grant Tinkler and chief programmer Brandon Tartikoff were debating on what to do with their lineup. This is not only an intriguing book for what it deals with (as Tinkler and Tartikoff try to figure out what to do with such shows as Cheers, Night Court, Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, and more) but for when it takes place. The 83-84 season was a season of rebuild that would culminate in the fall debut of The Cosby Show, which would dominate the network and NBC would dominate television for the next fifteen years.