The 40-year history of Saturday Night Live has been covered by a library of books and documentaries. Most of the stories share a similar narrative: Lorne Michaels assembles a company of comedians and puts on one of the most subversive shows on television, only to have his creation become an institution and establishment itself. Along with tales of talent and creativity, the story of SNL – at least the early years – is also marked by drugs, alcohol, and lots of bruising fights. In his entry in the SNL canon, Bao Nguyen documents the cultural impact SNL had – both politically and socially. He’s not interested in the gossip of drug abuse, clashing tempers, or jealous infighting. What Live from New York! attempts to do is make a case that SNL is a trailblazing show that both influenced and reflected the culture it was lampooning. And though it’s clear that Nguyen loves his subject, much of the film feels like a series of missed opportunities.
To his credit, Nguyen assembles an impressive list of SNL alumni to participate in the film: Chris Rock, Jane Curtin, Molly Shannon, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Will Ferrell, Larraine Newman, Garrett Morris, Jimmy Fallon, are among a few of the glittery people that make appearances. Also included are the show’s legendary hosts including Alec Baldwin, John Goodman, and Candice Bergen. The actors all offer interesting insight to the show as well as personal reflections on what it was like to be part of such an important institution. The only problem is that though their contributions are welcomed, they’re far too brief and the film feels a bit rushed and superficial. And to shore up its credentials as”culturally significant” various talking heads, pundits, and social critics give their two cents – none of it all that illuminating, save for Fran Lebowitz, who is always a welcome presence (and Fred Armisen’s wicked impression of her pops up later in the film).
Which could be because of the length: at about an hour and a half, it’s hard to talk about a TV show that’s lasted 40 years. That’s why a feature-length documentary is an odd and ill-fitting choice to fete SNL. It would really work better as a miniseries, broken up by themes or by decades (which has been done). Because Nguyen is only interested in the show’s cultural footprint, it feels like he’s glossing over a lot of other interesting topics that could be discussed. That SNL was a breeding ground for comedic talent is a given – it’d be nice if there was more about how the show essentially became a graduate school of comedy that gave pop culture some of its brightest stars including Eddie Murphy, Adam Sandler, and Mike Meyers. In fact, the only time Murphy makes a lasting impression in the film is during a brief montage on the diversity problem that plagued SNL, which is unfortunate, because the comic deserved so much more.
Also, the film feels a bit like a valentine to Michaels and the show. It’s no secret that Lorne Michaels is famously controlling and exacting, and many find him to be intimidating. But Live from New York! simply oozes love for the guy without looking critically at his working style or his track record. Yes, he was at the helm for the show’s golden years during the first five seasons, but he was also around during the desperately terrible years in the mid 1990s (the 20th season was particularly brutal for the show and Michaels was forced to clean out after). Instead of fairly assessing just how irrelevant SNL felt, the narrative breezily skips over the mediocre years. This tactic wouldn’t be so noticeable if it wasn’t for the inclusion of Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who is the epitome of a talented cast member badly used by the show and its writers. Louis-Dreyfus has since gone on to great success in television and as become a comedic institution on par with SNL, yet her contribution to the film seems either heavily edited or extremely guarded. While acknowledging the sexism that was pervasive during her time, she also magnanimously took some of the blame, allowing for her immaturity during her tenure – but what is so strange about the inclusion of Louis-Dreyfus is that a) her time at SNL was pretty bad and b) she was on the show when Michaels wasn’t producing. If the show was looking to seem balanced, it would’ve been much more honest to include performers like Colin Quinn, Norm MacDonald, Sarah Silverman, Janeane Garofalo, or Chris Elliott, all of whom chafed under Michaels’ time as producer. The only time we get any sense of candor is when Garrett Morris talks about how fruitless and disappointing his experience was (his fellow cast mate Jane Curtin expresses sympathy).
But there’s very little honest introspection in Live from New York! When musing about its diversity issues, writer Anne Beatts admitted that SNL had a diversity problem, but then hid behind the excuse that few shows at the time were truly diverse. “Where’s the black friend?” She groused, referring to the oft-repeated complaint of the lack of black characters on Friends. And while it’s admirable that Nguyen addresses the issue of race and gender (though he’s strangely silent when it comes to the show’s homophobia), he does so with incredibly reductive montages that flatten the contributions of talented performers into a medley of greatest hits. We’re quickly given a shortlist (it’s very short) of all the black performers on SNL, and we’re given an extended sequence with recent cast member Leslie Jones, who had premiered a controversial joke about slavery. Jones is supremely talented, but the film suffers from dating, though, because the it posits Jones as part of a new guard, since the end of filming, the comedienne has proven to be a spotty performer with a slippery grasp on live sketch comedy. And the brief inclusion of Sasheer Zamata comes off as sadly ironic, as the comic is yet another in a too-long list of talented performers who aren’t used to their best ability. So even though the film’s narrative has the show moving toward a brighter, more inclusive future, it comes off as a sour note when in reality, Zamata and Jones are as misused as Ellen Cleghorne and Danitra Vance before them.
But not all of the film is a bust. In fact, it’s a lot of fun most of the time because some of its best sketches are included. And when the film focuses on electoral politics, eschewing the stickier race and gender issues, then the film takes shape. In the sequences that cover SNL‘s skewering of George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, and Sarah Palin, Nguyen hits his stride – one wishes he ditched the more ambitious idea of cultural impact and just narrowed his focus to politics, because it’s then that the film works best. When discussing the Bush v. Gore election or Sarah Palin’s ascendance to the national stage, Nguyen’s thesis rings true: SNL does leave a lasting mark. Will Ferrell’s take on George W. Bush is often credited by some as making the former president more likable, while Tina Fey’s vicious spin on Sarah Palin has some wondering if it hurt John McCain’s bid for the White House. With these examples, along with a great examination of political satire at its best, SNL proved that it can be relevant and biting when needed. What was also interesting was Rudy Guiliani’s smart take on why these sketches worked: they weren’t impressions so much as spoofs of public perception. Amy Poehler wasn’t portraying Hillary Clinton to be a perfect facsimile, but to merely highlight and spoof the latter’s wearied and outraged frustration at being perennially undervalued even if she was always the smartest person in the room. It’s those kinds of qualities that get pulled out and reshaped into a character that create a funny and recognizable caricature of a public figure.
When opening the film, Nguyen chose Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” to play over images of 1970s New York. The song invokes a subversiveness and sense of urgency that doesn’t truly match with SNL‘s ethos: it was the punk rock equivalent for only five years of its 40-year history, and therefore, it doesn’t deserve the kind of hallowed treatment it gets from Live from New York! It feels a bit forced and false to wrap the show’s image in a cloak of insurgency . As evidenced by the past three decades, the truth is Saturday Night Live is a well-produced mainstream variety show. And though Live from New York! won’t convince too many people about the show’s cultural stamp, it does provide viewers with some very funny sketches.