The death of the SNL star 30 years ago robbed the industry of one its finest voices but not before she had blazed a trail for women such as Tina Fey to follow
There is no shortage of excellent critical writing about the US comedy scene in the 80s, and Nick de Semlyens Wild and Crazy Guys, which is published in the UK next month, is a terrific contribution to the genre. De Semlyen frames his book by telling the stories of the men who forged that world, most of whom including Chevy Chase, John Belushi, Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd emerged from the comedy training ground of Saturday Night Live. But what De Semlyens book also shows is that this scene was dominated by men. Yet that wasnt supposed to be the case.
This month is the 30th anniversary of the death of Gilda Radner, one of the original cast members of SNL, alongside Chase, Belushi, Aykroyd and others. Although she is comparatively little known today outside comedy circles, back then she was widely assumed to be the future megastar of that group. With her sharp parodies of celebrities and her skill at satirising her own femininity and neuroses, she set the mould for modern female comedians. Without Radner, it is hard to imagine the existence of many of the most beloved comic characters of the past 30 years, from Elaine Benes in Seinfeld to Liz Lemon in 30 Rock.
The NBC president at the time, Fred Silverman, saw in her a Mary Tyler Moore for the 80s and desperately wanted to build a primetime variety show around her. When Radner decided she would rather stay with her original supporter, Lorne Michaels, the creator of SNL, the relationship between Silverman and Michaels was irreparably damaged. Michaels had so much faith in Radners star power that in 1979 he produced a Broadway show just for her, Gilda Radner: Live from New York, in which she performed her best-known and much-loved characters from SNL, including Baba Wawa, her superlative parody of Barbara Walters; Roseanne Roseannadanna, an eccentrically offensive reporter; and Emily Litella, a doddery news commentator who never quite understood the story.
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