Ten Essential Books About Television

Senior Pop Culture Editor
05.20.11 24 Comments
Most books written about TV are terrible. The online shelves of Amazon are full of unauthorized guides that sound like they’re written by Fan Forum users; ghostwritten “auto”biographies supposedly penned by people whose Wikipedia pages I can barely get through (let alone 365 pages of Sharon Osbourne Extreme); and Heroes and Philosophy, and House and Philosophy, and Seinfeld and Philosophy, and so on. It’s plainly obvious that people with philosophy degrees spend even more time watching television than they do making me lattes.

But there ARE good books about television — some of which we’ve even read! Here are ten that are worth your time, with helpful summaries in case you just want to have them on your shelf and brag about reading them.

Live from New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live

Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN

By Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller

Next week, Shales and Miller will release their second book together, Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN, which has the Worldwide Leader in Sports freaking the f*ck out. The Bristol, Connecticut-based network likes to imagine themselves, and wants us to picture them, as this close-knit community that lovingly and honorably covers sports, when in fact it’s just a bunch of horny dudes (and the women who put up with them) yelling loudly at video cameras. The excerpts that have leaked so far have been fantastic, and I bet World of ESPN is going to be just as good as Shales and Miller’s last work, Live from New York, a book that managed to get anecdotes from the likes of Bill Murray, Mike Myers, Dan Aykroyd and even guest stars like Tom Hanks and Steve Martin, to describe the often drug-heavy process behind the making of an “SNL” episode.

[Editor’s Note: Fans of late-night TV will also want to read Bill Carter’s The Late Shift and The War for Late Night, about Jay Leno’s battles with David Letterman and Conan O’Brien, respectively.]

The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows: 1946-Present

By Tim Brooks and Earle F. Marsh

Nearly 1,800 pages long, the Complete Directory, which published its ninth edition in 2007, lists the plot summary, time slot, and cast of more than 6,500 shows. So, let’s say you need to find out when “The Pat Boone Chevy Showroom” aired and for how many episodes (I had to once and know the pain all to well)—check the Complete Directory. It’s likely where Wikipedia got their information (and often has more information than the online encyclopedia), and it also includes program schedules and season ratings. The only thing bad about that is the reminder that “Friends” was once the most popular show on TV.

An Idiot Abroad: The Travel Diaries of Karl Pilkington

By Karl Pilkington, Ricky Gervais, and Stephen Merchant

“An Idiot Abroad” is a travel documentary that aired in the UK last fall, and more recently in the U.S. on Discovery Science. I’ll admit that sentence doesn’t make the show sound particularly fascinating, but know that it stars Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, creators of “The Office” and “Extras,” and Karl Pilkington, a man who hates to travel and is irritated at Gervais and Merchant making him see the New Seven Wonders of the World (Karl’s reaction to the Great Wall: “It’s not a great wall; it’s an all right wall”). Splitsider called it the funniest show on TV, and this companion guide came out in January. It’s a good read if you like comedy and can’t stand the way English people speak.

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