The ongoing fascination with the mechanics of comedy gets plenty of time at this year’s Tribeca, with Misery Loves Comedy (Kevin Pollak’s exploration of the comedic psyche), Roseanne for President! (Roseanne Barr’s exploration of the comedic psyche that undertakes a quixotic run for the nation’s highest office), a Monty Python concert film, and a Saturday Night Live documentary celebrating the show’s fortieth anniversary.
That documentary, Live from New York, opened the festival last week and shows again on Friday as part of the festival’s day of free screening. At the outset, it seems wholly unnecessary, coming as it does on the heels of not just the show’s official fortieth anniversary blowout in February but decades of specials, books (including a recently updated Tom Shales oral-history book that shares its name with the new doc), and other documentaries, including several NBC-produced retrospectives and a James Franco-directed behind-the-scenes film that played some festivals a few years ago but never managed the real theatrical release that Live from New York is getting in June.
Even I, a Saturday Night Live diehard with a small library of books written by former stars of the show, wondered what director Bao Nguyen could have to say about this over-memorialized institution.
To his credit, Live from New York largely eschews many of the show’s most famous clips and moments in favor of less rehashed stuff. That’s clear from the intro, where a montage of newsworthy events from the past forty years are quickly cut together with sketch footage, allowing real life to blend with its SNL counterparts. It’s grandiose, to be sure, but an inviting way into the material that doesn’t involve reassembling another dozen reiterations of the same catchphrases.
Beyond the familiar clips rearranged, the film has a lot of terrific footage, from bits of original-cast audition tapes to sketches that haven’t exactly been canonized over the years to some behind-the-scenes footage of a recent episodes, including Leslie Jones performing her controversial Weekend Update riff about being the “#1 slave draft pick.” Politics figure heavier into this celebration than usual, and the movie seems loosely organized around its New Yorkiest elements: history, power, and nightlife. I say “seems” because despite the freshness of the footage, Live from New York is as much of a mishmash as many other SNL docs, and at 80 minutes (not even enough to fill a two-hour network time slot with ads! Far shorter even than an episode of SNL itself!), it certainly doesn’t have the depth.
It tries, sort of. Julia Louis-Dreyfus gets to talk a little about the “anti-golden age” where she was on the show, but the first half of the eighties—Eddie Murphy, Joe Piscopo, and poor workhorses like Robin Duke—are discarded pretty easily. This is Lorne’s show, the movie implies, and it’s more or less Lorne’s history, albeit with a little more dissent and actual controversy than is sometimes allowed to seep into the official narrative. Nora Dunn’s protest against Andrew Dice Clay and Sinead O’Connor’s Pope-tearing are well-known lore, but they get more sympathetic treatment here—especially O’Connor, who Chris Rock notes was not really incorrect in her statement against the Catholic Church. There’s also a pointed if brief montage of race-bending impressions, giving a little time to the legitimate beef that SNL has not led the way in comedy diversity over the years.
But there’s not much of a through-line beyond its loosely chronological approach. SNL is important, SNL was countercultural and now it’s cultural, and the likes of Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Will Ferrell, Jane Curtin, Laraine Newman, Garrett Morris, Dana Carvey, and Chris Rock all have interesting stuff to say about it. The movie is certainly worthwhile for the type of SNL obsessive who might, say, get distracted by the on-screen graphics notating cast tenures and hosting gigs (SETH MEYERS STARTED ON THE SHOW IN 2001, NOT 2005!), and it’s fine for neophytes who might somehow have no idea what SNL is. But the definitive statement about the show remains the show itself, with all its weekly ups and downs.