Rosie Shuster Saturday Night Live Alumni

In one of my early incarnations, my theatre days in Toronto, I was part of a group of people who went on to create a TV show that would revolutionize American comedy television and become a franchise that has lasted over three decades, Saturday Night Live. I did children’s theater with Gilda Radner, palled around with Dan Aykroyd at his after-hours bar and was neighbors and close friends with Howard Shore, SNL’s first musical director (and who went on to win Oscars for his film scores).  In this issue we are lucky to nab an interview with another illustrious Toronto alumni, friend and local resident, one of the original writers for SNL, Rosie Shuster. Rosie's work has been rewarded with two Emmys and four Emmy nominations. She was inducted into the Museum of Broadcasting along with Oprah,Tracy Ullman and Rosanne and produced a 3 Volume Wayne and Shuster Legacy series for the CBC.  Her roots in Saturday Night Live were established long before SNL was a twinkle in producer Lorne Michael's eye. She shares those early days and the process of putting together a show, with TNN. 

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TNN: Rosie, why don't you start by telling us how Saturday Night Live came to be?
Rosie:  I have to start really, really far back when Lorne, then Lipowitz, followed me home from school when I was 14 years old.

TNN:You're referring to Lorne Michaels
Rosie:  At my mother's insistence, Lipowitz became Michaels. My father was in a comedy team in Canada called Wayne and Schuster and they were performing on Ed Sullivan shows, which were live from New York on the weekend.  

TNN:   I grew up watching your dad on Ed Sullivan. My father loved Wayne and Shuster!
Rosie: It was a Sunday night, live comedy variety show watched by all of North America, so there was a template that went way, way, way back. Lorne and I also went way back. We did comedy sketches together at high school, summer camp and college. Howard Shore was involved in some of those camp shows.  I went on to write with Lorne for Canadian television, including the Hart and Lorne show for CBC.  Just like my dad, he found a shorter, funnier Jewish guy to be his comedy partner. He played the straight man, but his real talent was in producing. Bringing people together.  Danny Aykroyd and Gilda Radner were on a few of those shows.  So Lorne's career began to really resemble my dad's comedy career and that became the nucleus of SNL.  I also came to Los Angeles and worked with Lorne on a Lily Tomlin series for ABC. Laraine Newman was there. Marilyn Miller, who was also an early writer for SNL, was also one of the writers for Lily’s show. So, when SNL was going to happen in New York City, of course I went along.  
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TNN:What was it like when you all got together in the room that first time and you were ready to produce the very first show.
Rosie:  The group got together in late August and the first show aired on October 17th. There was a long incubation period where everybody was kind of falling in love with each other and cracking each other up, trying to find their place, have a voice.  We were stockpiling a lot of commercial parodies. You could feel something organically happening amongst us.

TNN:Where did Lorne draw people from?
Rosie:  Gilda, Danny, Belushi and later Bill Murray came from the Chicago and Toronto Second City.  Then there was Chevy and Michael O'Donoghue, who came from the Lampoon. Laraine Newman came from the Groundlings in LA.. Garrett Morris started off as one of the writers. Michael O’Donaghue was an important force shaping the show in the early days. His humor was very exact and precise. He crafted lines that were honed to a voodoo acupuncture point. 

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L-R Tom Schuller, Rosie, Allan Zwiebel, Dan Ackroyd, Elaine Miller, Michael O'Donaghue, John Belushi in front. 

TNN:So it took, what? Two or three months before the first show happened?
Rosie:  It took just under two months and don’t forget, it was live, which was unique at the time.  You have to remember in the mid-seventies, there was Watergate and Vietnam. Rock music had broken out in the sixties as well as a lot of films like the Jack Nicholson kind of movies, Five Easy Pieces. They reflected the revolution in consciousness that came out of the sixties but television was still square as hell.  So part of the impetus of the whole show was to just shake things up and to reflect back what was happening in the culture, the edginess and spontaneity that wasn’t happening on television.

TNN:Talk about the very first show.
Rosie:  The first show was George Carlin, who was flying on blow.  Nobody got close to him. He didn't integrate with the cast.  There were a lot of sketches on that first show. I created a commercial parody called “New Dad. Tops and Pops.”  If you lose your husband, sure you're covered financially but what about your physical needs? I came up with this other surreal idea around bee’s. One liner ideas, like the bee hospital. “Congratulations! It's a drone. Congratulations. It's a drone. Congratulations. It's a drone.” They set me up in great opposition with John Belushi and put him in a bee outfit with the little antenna bopping around. He was like a macho man in these fruity ass bee costumes. People loved it. Lorne used to like to put them in those costumes.

TNN:What were some other pieces you created that we would recognize?
Rosie:  Well, the Nerds got really popular. Bill Murray and Gilda Radner playing Todd and Lisa.

TNN:That was one of yours!?
Rosie:  Yes, and the first ever Roseanne Roseannadanna also played by Gilda, was in a sketch I wrote. It was like a public service announcement that encouraged people to “Hire the Incompetent.”  She had that big wig but didn't have the name yet.  Gilda mentions my name in her book “Love Gilda.”  I used to write some surreal public service things.  I wrote the first ever Emily Litella with Gilda. It was based on her nanny. 

TNN:Which one was the Emily Litella character?
Rosie:  The little old lady who was always hard of hearing and sat on News Update with Chevy and would have complaints like  “What's all this I hear about presidential erections!” Chevy would correct her “It’s ELECTIONS!” and she would respond with “Oh, that's very different… nevermind.”  I also wrote some of the Baba Wawa sketches, [a take-off on Barbara Walters] a character Gilda brought in.  I wrote a lot of these with Anne Beatts. We wrote in a team.

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TNN:Let’s talk about women in comedy at that time.  We had Lucy, we had Mary Tyler Moore…
Rosie:  Elaine May was a comedy god in the sixties. As far as pure sketch comedy, Lily Tomlin was supreme.  There was one early piece that I wrote with Ann for Lily Tomlin called “The Hard Hats” but no guy wanted to play the sex object. Belushi couldn't handle it and finally, Lorne made Danny do the sketch. We really did have to break a lot of glass ceilings because guys talk to each other and it was difficult for a woman to insert a female point of view into the conversation. Now there are a lot of strong women in comedy, but in those days there weren't.

TNN:What was the work schedule like? You had to create a show from scratch in five days. 
Rosie:  Monday the host came in and we pitched ideas to them. It usually was an early night. Tuesday we came in at noon. It was the day all of the writing happened and we worked through the night sometimes into Wednesday morning.  Wednesday was the read through and you were just hallucinating by then.  Beatts and I would often write around three sketches. 

Saturday Night Live was unique in that if you wrote a piece, you went to costumes and said what you needed, you went to props, you went to the scenic design and said what you were thinking of. There wasn't time for Lorne to do too much of that. He did some top down producing and some course correcting, but we actually got to mount and do our own little productions, so that was pretty cool. 

After read through, Lorne would sit with the host, go over all the sketches and the ones they liked went on cards. The cards were then placed up on a board to get an overview of the show.  There was also the News Updates segment, little films and musical guests that filled out the ninety minutes. 

Thursday and Friday were for camera blocking; you blocked half of it on Thursday and half of it on Friday.

Then Saturday was a monster day. There was a tech-run through, then dress rehearsal with an audience.  After dress rehearsal we all met in Lorne's office where some things got cut, some things got tightened and then suddenly we had a live show. And an occasional baffled host was just like, “What? This is live? Wait, When do we tape?”   A few were pretty drunk at dress. Then Sunday off, if you got home. I often got home at 6 am.

At some point Danny and John had the Blues Bar and slowly over time you started to see all these A-list celebrities hanging out. The whole thing mushroomed into something crazy nobody could have anticipated.  There really was nothing like it. And because it was live from New York, there was a danger element to it that no TV had. It wasn’t Perry Como singing songs on a couch.

TNN:How did people sustain the energy? 
Rosie:  We burned out like crazy. There were drugs, some people went nuts. There were relationship and marriage split ups, and the stress showed. People just blew gaskets.  It was too much.  You got burned out and very self-referential 'cause your whole life had become the show.  You really didn't have that much time to live a life and see what was happening with other people.  It became a bubble.

TNN:How long were you there for?
Rosie:  I was there for the first five years.  Then I was off and on through the eighties. I helped create the Church Lady with Dana Carvey and wrote a bunch of Church Chats.  I wrote a Tyrone sketch for Eddie Murphy that he used when he was being honored for the Mark Twain Award at the Kennedy Center.

TNN:What are some of other things that you've done?
Rosie:  Well I wrote for the Broadway show, Gilda Live with Michael O'Donoghue, Marilyn Miller, Alan Zweibel and Anne Beatts.  It was a big hit at the Winter Garden Theatre with Mike Nichols directing.  He then turned it into a film! It was really sweet. I made a movie with Mike Nichols! In the early nineties I was a writer and producer for the Carol Burnett Show.  I also did the Larry Sanders Show with Gary Shandling and one of my scripts got an Emmy nomination and a Cable Ace nomination. I also wrote a lot of movie scripts for MGM, Tristar, Warner Brothers and Orion. 

TNN:  Rosie! Wow!  
Rosie:  And it all started with Lorne following me home from school and saying hello to my father.


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Established in August of 2008 by writerartist Dianne V. Lawrence, The Neighborhood News covers the events, people, history, politics and historic architecture of communities throughout the Mid-City and West Adams area in Los Angeles Council District 10.

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