New York City has a way of filtering out its mediocre acts — there’s ample reason for the city’s reputation for world-class artistic and cultural institutions. Making it big in the Big Apple is an incredible feat. Lasting 40 years, though — that’s something else entirely.
But that’s the story of Saturday Night Live!, the late night comedy powerhouse that had its first show in October of 1975. The lead-in to each 60-minute episode has since become a fixture in pop culture and lends itself to the name of a new documentary about SNL.
The documentary in question, Bao Nguyen’s “Live from New York!” surveys the show’s beginnings, highs and lows. Here, Nguyen manages to condense 40 years into 80 minutes at the expense of depth of coverage. Pivotal moments in the show’s life are given their due, but we’re left with a murky image of the in-betweens, the less newsworthy but equally vital operations that keep SNL thriving.
“Live from New York!” opens with a montage of audition reels from SNL’s original cast members, followed by a patchwork of footage from news stories past and present. The latter is backgrounded by a recording of Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” “The Revolution will not be reruns, brothers,” says Scott-Heron. “The Revolution will be live.” Nguyen couldn’t have made a better choice. SNL, at once televised and live, at once a revolution and an institution, deserves a sweeping introduction.
It’s all a bit underwhelming after the peppy intro, though. The documentary draws from interviews with past and current cast members, media celebrities and past hosts to carry forth its narrative arc. Alec Baldwin, Tom Brokaw and Bill O’Reilly provide an overview of the show’s famous Weekend Update segment, but it’s hardly anything we didn’t already know. “Weekend Update is an important part of SNL and always has been,” says O’Reilly. “Because there you can do what Comedy Central does, in a more compacted form.” True enough. But there’s no really in-depth exploration of the segment’s comedy or growth. Even with 40 years of material to explore, the film’s commentary leans heavily on platitudes and non-descript remarks from its interviewees.
The documentary also examines SNL’s historic gender and diversity problems — an obligatory homage to Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, who “run comedy,” followed by a revealing interview with original cast member Garrett Morris. “One time I was going to be cast as a doctor,” says Morris. “And this guy says to me… ‘Garrett, people are gonna be — a black doctor!’” For all its marketing as an avant-garde comedy variety show, SNL’s revolution was limited in its reach until recent times. “Everything was done for us by the time I got there,” says Maya Rudolph, a cast member from 2000 to 2007. “…the women that came before us macheted barriers and allowed something for all of us that wouldn’t have existed if I’d been in the first cast.” These barriers — and the process by which they were surmounted — aren’t well-defined, however, and we’re simply left with a black-and-white image of original cast members Gilda Radner, Jane Curtin and Laraine Newman.
A show set in New York is a show about New York, and Nguyen’s coverage of SNL’s reaction to 9/11 is commendable. Then- and current producer Lorne Michaels was in a dilemma — could the show go on? Should the show go on? Could people laugh in the wake of tragedy? In the end, Mayor Rudy Giuliani made use of the show’s platform as a pop-culture/politics stronghold to send his city a message of resilience during difficult times. “Can we be funny?” Michaels asks in a clip from Giuliani’s now famous opening monologue. The two men stand in front of an assembly of New York City firefighters and police officers, men who’d been at Ground Zero. Giuliani, smiling, responds in kind: “Why start now?” Here, Nguyen strikes a fine balance in recognizing SNL’s political delicacy and levity in a time of need and its reputation for irreverence.
If only the entirety of SNL’s rich history could be examined like so. Wishful thinking, I’m sure, but Nguyen’s documentary is a step in this direction. “Live from New York!” is frequently perfunctory and occasionally revealing, but the former may be more a function of the show’s incredibly fruitful life than it is the fault of the documentarian.
‘Live from New York’ opens in San Francisco on June 12 and will be playing at Landmark’s Embarcadero Center Cinema and Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Jane Curtin as Candice Bergen. The Daily regrets this error.
Contact Madelyne Xiao at madelyne ‘at’ stanford.edu.