'Live from New York!'
No other television series has spawned more retrospective documentaries than ‘Saturday Night Live’. To be fair, no other show in the history of television has a comparable legacy of launching generations of comedy stars and somehow remaining culturally relevant for 40 years. The trouble is that, as time goes on and more docs get made, it gets increasingly difficult to encompass the full breadth of the show’s rich history through a short feature length burst.
Director Bao Nguyen tackles his multigenerational comedy history lesson in what was likely the only possible manner: through montages and talking-head interviews. Things start at the beginning (naturally) and as usual the most screen time is given over to chronicling the early groundbreaking years that grabbed 1970s pop culture by the throat and didn’t let go. The obvious faces you’d expect show up to discuss this time are all here, as well as the absences you’d also expect (i.e. no Bill Murray). It’s interesting, just a story that’s been told often enough already. However, once Nguyen lays his groundwork through the ’70s era, things get more compelling.
While each of the other eras of ‘SNL’ history gets its own moment to shine, Nguyen also thankfully gets a bit more general about the show’s legacy after running through the 1970s trenches. The documentary has discussions of the show’s constant political satire, with montages showcasing how that’s evolved. Musical guests get a chance to chip in with their voices, ditto some of the show’s many recurring guest hosts like Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin.
Perhaps the most compelling segments arrive when Nguyen actually delves into a little criticism of the show in addition to all the celebratory flag waving. There’s a discussion of how ‘SNL’ tended to sideline women and be a bit of a boys’ club (Julia Louis-Dreyfus has plenty to say about this, deservingly so), while also acknowledging how that changed over time and so many wonderfully funny women like Tina Fey and Amy Poehler got a chance to strut their stuff as much as the men. Garrett Morris also delves into his immense difficulties as the show’s first black cast member with surprising honesty for a film branded with so much ‘SNL’ approval.
Many important moments in the history of the show get highlighted, like the various ways the New York institution dealt with 9/11, or Sinead O’Connor infamously tearing up a picture of the Pope. All of these are covered from a variety of perspectives, including cast members who were there and cast members who were only fans at the time. Throughout it all, Lorne Michaels keeps returning as the master of ceremonies and comedy Buddha behind ‘SNL’. As the one man who was there from the inception of the show, his perspective is invaluable, and is delivered with the expected mix of reverence and sardonic dismissal as well as his iconically odd gift for goofball philosophical quotes (ex: “We don’t go on because we’re ready; we go on because it’s 11:30,” or “It’s funny, but is it the right kind of funny?”). There’s no denying the achievement of the series, from the perpetual star-making to the magical technical juggling act that goes on behind the scenes, and Nguyen does his best to cover it all.
The problem with ‘Live from New York!’ is ultimately that it’s impossible to capture everything that makes ‘SNL’ special in a single 82 minute running time. Many docs have tried before, and Nguyen’s film likely does it better than any. However, with 800 episodes in the vaults and countless contributors who deserve a moment in the spotlight, creating a single documentary that honors the entire history of ‘SNL’ is simply an impossible task. The result feels like little more than a clip reel overview.