Why open a film festival whose reputation is for independent voices with a documentary salute to Saturday Night Live?
There is a perplexing optical illusion around SNL: it looks less significant the closer you get to it. At a certain distance, it's massive simply because of the careers it has launched, the pop culture iconography it has created, its exhaustive satirical documenting of 40 years of American culture and politics, and its pure longevity as a television show the leadership and fundamentals of which haven't been seriously questioned, let alone changed, in decades.
Taken week to week, on the other hand, it's often slight to the point of seeming ordinary. And as tough as it is to break it to the doomsayers and the "it sucks now"-ers who likely began stalking it somewhere around 1978, even when intermittently brilliant, it has always been vulnerable to seeming slight. As a 90-minute show on any given Saturday, it is slight. Despite its countercultural flavor at the moment of creation, it's as an institution operating within a much bigger mainstream system that it has power.
That's perhaps why the history of SNL has been so thoroughly chronicled. Hyper-chronicled. Perhaps over-chronicled. James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales have given us two editions of the brick-like Live From New York, their "uncensored history" of the show. (Kind of a silly idea, since the important censoring in this case is self-censoring, and there's nothing you can do to really prevent that.) And before there was that book (twice); all the way back in 1986, there was Saturday Night: A Backstage History Of Saturday Night Live, by Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad. It's been a show with a thoroughly written history for almost 30 years — three-quarters of its life. Furthermore, the show throws itself anniversary celebrations (the most recent lasted three and a half hours), puts together themed clip shows and winks constantly at its own legacy in bits like "The Five-Timers Club," which brings together the people who have hosted at least five times.
The impact of SNL — political, cultural, comedic — is hardly a tale that's gone untold or under-recognized. The heft of it has been explained and explained again by talking heads and in oral histories until it feels as familiar as the show itself.
That's part of why it seemed surprising when the Tribeca Film Festival announced that its opening film for its Wednesday night gala would be the new documentary Live From New York — unrelated to the Miller/Shales book but sharing its title, inauspiciously drawing attention to the concern that there are only so many ways to go with this story. Why are we here?
Considered as part of the North American festival circuit, Tribeca doesn't have the slickness of Toronto and Sundance. While it has its share of Hollywood known quantities (James Franco, Michael Fassbender, Olivia Wilde and Lily Tomlin all have films here), it remains most significantly a home to new voices, to offbeat projects and to labors of love. In that regard, a Saturday Night Live documentary – a history of the most established of establishment comedy done with oodles of friendly access to everyone – seems like a strange fit. But Tribeca is also very much a New York gathering; it's a labor of love itself, first held in 2002 when businesses in lower Manhattan were working to bring people downtown. So in that sense, Saturday Night Live makes perfect sense for opening night.
There's no way to get around it; director Bao Nguyen does spend a chunk of the 90-minute running time having his subjects speak to the larger significance of the show, and those bits indeed feel awfully familiar: Chris Rock calling SNL a piece of America, for instance, could have been said by any cast member in any one of a zillion tribute montages.
But wisely, Nguyen pivots away from a lot of what these histories often become. There is essentially no treatment of backstage drama between cast members, there is no eulogizing of the dead or close studies of the living to see who's most brilliant. John Belushi is treated largely as simply a part of the original cast; Tina Fey is treated largely as part of the era to which she belonged. In large part, this becomes a film about work. The work of comedy, but work nevertheless.
The method is to begin with eras and tell stories of some of the work people did, not all of which comes from the most celebrated and dissected bits in the show's history. There's some talk of why Darrell Hammond's impression of Al Gore was devastating and effective, for instance, in addition to the expected coverage of the show's treatment of Sarah Palin. Unsurprisingly, there's a long segment about the show's post-September 11 episode and the careful calculations that went into its return. (It's possible, probably for non-New-Yorkers in particular, to forget that they found anthrax at 30 Rock, the building where SNL tapes, in mid-October.) Those aren't new things to consider either, but because of its smart specificity, an analysis of a later sketch that involved Will Ferrell in a patriotic thong proves surprisingly ... poignant? Yes, poignant. That's what it is.
Not all of it works: Nguyen runs into the same challenges in trying to say anything about the show's testy relationships with race and gender that everybody else does — chief among them that everyone you ask has (1) a different experience and (2) a different level of desire to talk about it. Answers run the gamut in the same way people do: Laraine Newman says the show operated as an unbiased meritocracy, Julia Louis-Dreyfus says it was a sexist environment when she was there, and Tina Fey says it wasn't institutionally sexist, but that when you pack a writers' room with men rather than women, different jokes land. (That's one definition of what it means to be institutionally sexist, of course, but it's not hers.)
Paradoxically, the least thoughtful interviews Nguyen got about this issue may be the most telling: writers — pleasant, clearly thoughtful people — who know the show hasn't ever been strong at diversity, but who sigh exasperatedly over being expected to be any better at it than the rest of television. It amounts to "Why does everybody pick on us?", which is a startling defense to raise in the middle of a film crediting your project as transgressive and important. You can be at the cutting edge of the culture or you can hold yourself to a standard of "not markedly more screwed-up than everybody else," but probably not both.
There's certainly some provocative material: Nguyen's time hanging out backstage at SNL included the moment Leslie Jones found herself harshly criticized for her Weekend Update segment about how desirable a slave she would have been. It's jarring to see how excited and proud she is when she gets offstage after doing that bit, which she specifically beams about as a triumph of finding something funny and joyful in her own pain — and then how frustrated and angry she is when she sits down to talk about the reaction she faced. And in perhaps the most uncomfortably funny moment in the film, longtime production designer Akira (Leo) Yoshimura talks with a generous chuckle about playing Sulu and Connie Chung in sketches because he was Asian and he was there.
The very first thing they do in Live From New York is show a bunch of the screen tests of that original cast, when nobody really believed the show would last. It's a good strategy to try to take something so culturally sprawling and make it smaller — stop trying to get your arms around the grandeur of the whole thing and just look at how people do their work.
The technique is what you'd expect from this story: it's a little backstage footage, a lot of clips and a lot of talking heads. Structurally, it feels a bit more like a book with chapters than a piece with a central thrust — there's the chapter on the time Sinead O'Connor tore up a picture of the Pope, the chapter on how viral videos caught the old guard unprepared, and so on. And it does come off as awfully admiring of the show (and, as always seems to happen, of Lorne Michaels), which is a perspective in documentaries that is often both understandable (as it animates the filmmaker's passion in the first place) and limiting.
No one is heard from who is prepared to offer harsh criticism, either creative or social. No cast members are heard from who are prepared to say they were miserable there or ill-served by this particular dynamic, even though those people exist. The show's responses to criticism, like the sketch in which Kerry Washington had to play all the black women because there were none in the cast, are put forth without any pushback from the people — who, again, exist — who have found its winking acknowledgment of these issues momentarily amusing but ultimately lazy.
It's not a balanced portrait of the strengths and weaknesses of the show. And it's hard to argue that this film, given everything else, really needed making. But in its wise choices of specific threads to pull, Live From New York does ultimately cast a bit of light on how these people think about their work, and that's something.