When William S. Burroughs Appeared on Saturday Night Live: His First TV Appearance (1981)

Though he nev­er said so direct­ly, we might expect that Sit­u­a­tion­ist Guy Debord would have includ­ed Sat­ur­day Night Live in what he called the “Spec­ta­cle”—the mass media pre­sen­ta­tion of a total­iz­ing real­i­ty, “the rul­ing order’s non­stop dis­course about itself, its nev­er-end­ing mono­logue of self-praise.” The slick­ness of TV, even live com­e­dy TV, masks care­ful­ly orches­trat­ed maneu­vers on the part of its cre­ators and adver­tis­ers. In Debor­d’s analy­sis, noth­ing is exempt­ed from the spec­ta­cle’s con­sol­i­da­tion of pow­er; it co-opts every­thing for its pur­pos­es. Even seem­ing con­tra­dic­tions with­in the spectacle—the skew­er­ing of polit­i­cal fig­ures, for exam­ple, to their seem­ing displeasure—serve the pur­pos­es of pow­er: The spec­ta­cle, wrote Debord, “is the oppo­site of dia­logue.”

So I won­der, what he might have made of the appear­ance of cult writer and Beat pio­neer William S. Bur­roughs on the com­e­dy show in 1981? Was Burroughs—a mas­ter­mind of the counterculture—co-opted by the pow­ers that be? The author of Junkie, Naked Lunch, and Cities of the Red Night also appeared in a Nike ad and sev­er­al films and music videos, becom­ing a “pres­ence in Amer­i­can pop cul­ture,” writes R.U. Sir­ius in Every­body Must Get Stoned.

David Seed notes that Bur­roughs “is remem­bered by many mem­bers of intel­li­gentsia and glit­terati as din­ner part­ner for the likes of Andy Warhol, David Bowie, and Mick Jag­ger,” though he had “been a mod­el for the polit­i­cal and social left.” Had he been neutered by the 80s, his out­ra­geous­ly anar­chist sen­ti­ments turned to rad­i­cal kitsch?

Or maybe Bur­roughs dis­rupt­ed the spec­ta­cle, his dron­ing, monot­o­nous deliv­ery giv­ing view­ers of SNL exact­ly the oppo­site of what they were trained to expect. The appear­ance was his widest expo­sure to date (imme­di­ate­ly after­ward, he moved from New York to Lawrence, Kansas). One of the show’s writ­ers con­vinced pro­duc­er Dick Eber­sol to put Bur­roughs on. In rehearsal, writes Bur­roughs’ biog­ra­ph­er Ted Mor­gan, Eber­sol “found Bur­roughs ‘bor­ing and dread­ful,’ and ordered that his time slot be cut from six to three and a half min­utes. The writ­ers, how­ev­er, con­spired to let his per­for­mance stand as it was, and on Novem­ber 7, he kicked off the show sit­ting behind a desk, the light­ing giv­ing his face a sepul­chral gaunt­ness.”

In the grainy video above, Bur­roughs reads from Naked Lunch and cut-up nov­el Nova Express, bring­ing the sadis­tic Dr. Ben­way into Amer­i­ca’s liv­ing rooms, as the audi­ence laughs ner­vous­ly. Sound effects of bombs and strains of the nation­al anthem play behind him as he reads. It stands as per­haps one of the strangest moments in live tele­vi­sion. “Bur­roughs had posi­tioned him­self as the Great Out­sider,” writes Mor­gan, “but on the night of Novem­ber 7 he had reached the posi­tion where the actress Lau­ren Hut­ton could intro­duce him to an audi­ence of 100 mil­lion view­ers as Amer­i­ca’s great­est liv­ing writer.” I’m sure Bur­roughs got a kick out of the descrip­tion. In any case, the clip shows us a SNL of bygone days that occa­sion­al­ly dis­rupt­ed the usu­al state of pro­gram­ming, as when it had punk band Fear on the show.

Per­haps Bur­roughs’ com­mer­cial appear­ances also show us how the coun­ter­cul­ture gets co-opt­ed and repack­aged for mid­dle-class tastes. Then again, one of the great ironies of Bur­roughs life is that he both began and end­ed it as “a true mem­ber of the mid­west­ern tax-pay­ing mid­dle class.” The fol­low­ing year in Lawrence, Kansas, he “caught up on his cor­re­spon­dence.” One stu­dent in Mon­tre­al wrote, imag­in­ing him in “a male whore­house in Tang­i­er.” Bur­roughs replied, “No… I live in a small house on a tree-lined street in Lawrence, Kansas, with my beloved cat Rus­ki. My hob­bies are hunt­ing, fish­ing, and pis­tol prac­tice.” Did Bur­roughs, who spent his life destroy­ing mass cul­ture with cut-ups and curs­es, sell out—as he once accused Tru­man Capote of doing—by becom­ing a celebri­ty?

Per­haps we should let him answer the charge. In answer to a fan from Eng­land who called him “God,” Bur­roughs wrote, “You got me wrong, Ray­mond, I am but a hum­ble prac­ti­tion­er of the scriven­er’s trade. God? Not me. I don’t have the qual­i­fi­ca­tions. Old Sarge told me years ago: ‘Don’t be a vol­un­teer, kid.’ God is always try­ing to foist his lousy job not some­one else. You got­ta be crazy to take it. Just a Tech Sergeant in the Shake­speare Squadron.” Bur­roughs may have used his celebri­ty sta­tus to his lit­er­ary advan­tage, and used it to pay the bills and work with artists he admired and vice-ver­sa, but he nev­er saw him­self as more than a writer and (and per­haps lay magi­cian), and he abjured the hero wor­ship that made him a cult fig­ure.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

William S. Bur­roughs Teach­es a Free Course on Cre­ative Read­ing and Writ­ing (1979)

William S. Bur­roughs Sends Anti-Fan Let­ter to In Cold Blood Author Tru­man Capote: “You Have Sold Out Your Tal­ent”

William S. Bur­roughs Explains What Artists & Cre­ative Thinkers Do for Human­i­ty: From Galileo to Cézanne and James Joyce

How William S. Bur­roughs Used the Cut-Up Tech­nique to Shut Down London’s First Espres­so Bar (1972)

The Night John Belushi Booked the Punk Band Fear on Sat­ur­day Night Live, And They Got Banned from the Show

Beat Writer William S. Bur­roughs Spreads Coun­ter­cul­ture Cool on Nike Sneak­ers, 1994

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (2) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (2)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Alissa M Clough says:

    Oh, yes, I remem­ber it well.…

    Lau­ren Hut­ton’s smile. The Faith­ful with their copies of ‘Lunch, Olympia, Groves old and new…inwardly chant­i­ng every word…until the last line…would he say “fuck­ing”? Would he? He pawses, No. It’s ‘bes­tial’. Bes­tial!

    We hear the rest with a wild euphoria…we will pre­vail.

    and at the end, his eyes.

    His won­der­ful, shin­ing eyes.

  • Eric Rife says:

    “David Seed notes that Bur­roughs “is remem­bered by many mem­bers of intel­li­gentsia and glit­terati as din­ner part­ner for the likes of Andy Warhol, David Bowie, and Mick Jag­ger,” though he had “been a mod­el for the polit­i­cal and social left.” Had he been neutered by the 80s, his out­ra­geous­ly anar­chist sen­ti­ments turned to rad­i­cal kitsch?”

    I have no idea where these writ­ers are get­ting some of this stuff.

    Bur­roughs was hard­ly a “mod­el for the polit­i­cal and social left.” In fact, Bur­roughs was pret­ty far to the right. Bur­roughs was a huge fan of West­brook Pegler, a noto­ri­ous right wing colum­nist and John Birch Soci­ety mem­ber with the Hearst news­pa­per chain who railed against the New Deal and the civ­il rights move­ment.

    Bur­roughs was also an unre­pen­tant gun fanat­ic. One would think that blow­ing his wife’s brains out would have giv­en Bur­roughs pause, but no. He con­tin­ued enter­tain­ing his gun fetish and open­ly opposed all attempts at even mod­est gun con­trol mea­sures until the day he died.

    Bur­roughs is yet one more exam­ple of an artist/writer who was able to use his (fam­i­ly’s) vast wealth and con­nec­tions to avoid respon­si­bil­i­ty for his crim­i­nal behav­ior. He’s an excel­lent exam­ple of just how quick­ly Amer­i­cans are to for­give and for­get a per­son­’s mis­deeds pro­vid­ed they know how to write a book, cre­ate a paint­ing or man­u­fac­ture a new image for them­selves.

    The hero wor­ship Bur­roughs enjoyed dur­ing his life­time was pathet­ic. He was a wealthy, reac­tionary junkie who, like his con­tem­po­rary Ayn Rand, preached rugged indi­vid­u­al­ism on one hand but was always will­ing (as he put it) to “keep one’s snout in the pub­lic trough.” He was born into wealth, loathed peo­ple he felt were intel­lec­tu­al­ly infe­ri­or and was, through­out his life, large­ly indif­fer­ent to the affairs of the world as they unfold­ed. His oh-so-hip nihilism was noth­ing more than a bour­geois lux­u­ry which his ador­ing fans were only to hap­pen to enter­tain as trans­gres­sive bril­liance.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.