One of the funniest things in Live From New York!, the latest repackaging of Saturday Night Live history, is said by Amy Poehler, in a recent interview, describing the institution that made her a star: “SNL — the show your parents used to have sex to that now you watch during the day.”
Something almost as funny comes just moments before the ending credits. An offscreen voice asks this question: “Do you stop and think about the impact Saturday Night Live has had on television?”
And Lorne Michaels, the show’s creator and longtime executive producer, says, “No.”
Even the interviewer doesn’t seem to buy it. “Not at all?” he asks.
“I think anybody who’s in comedy who talks seriously for more than two or three minutes without being funny isn’t worth listening to,” Michaels says. “I think the work speaks for us.”
You won’t see much of that work in Live From New York!, which isn’t really a demerit: It’s all available, and only the Beatles catalog and Rolling Stone magazine have been more thoroughly self-celebrated. Instead, celebrities speak for the work, toasting the show’s cultural importance, often in sweeping terms. Michaels’s demurral caps 80 minutes of the usual encomiums to his creation, to its longevity, to its continued relevance. That last point, of course, is up for debate, but I’ll say this much: Most of my friends who say they never watch it see the best bits online and can name current cast members.
The film’s occasional pomposity is another of the funniest things about it. After opening with too-short glimpses of the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players’ screen tests, Live From New York! barrels into an aggressive montage that juxtaposes half-second SNL clips against the biggest world news stories of the last 40 years, all set to Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” “You will not be able to stay home, brother,” the late Scott-Heron says, his words now absurdly pressed into the service of lionizing a show whose success depended upon getting people to stay home.
After that, you’ll get all the usual talk about the original cast updating the old format of variety TV to capture in comedy a nation’s disillusionment. This is backed up by twenty seconds of Chevy Chase at the Weekend Update desk doing a Vietnam joke Johnny Carson wouldn’t dare. Later, former SNL writer Al Franken, now a sitting U.S. senator, airs the theory that Darrell Hammond’s pitiless, clarifying caricature of Al Gore might have cost the Democrats a couple hundred votes, which in Florida could have been enough to give George W. Bush the election.
All that makes it especially amusing that Michaels insists that he doesn’t think about the impact of a show that perennially celebrates its own impact, most recently in a lavish 40th anniversary special that devoted as much time to celebrity cameos as it did to actual cast members. That trend continues here, of course: Bill O’Reilly appears in the film’s first ten minutes, helpfully identified with the onscreen title “Political Commenter.” Later, O’Reilly is singled out by the filmmakers as one of the good sports — like Sarah Palin, Hillary Clinton, Rudy Giuliani — who brightened a tarnished image by appearing on the show. Somewhere, the revolution won’t stop throwing up.
Fortunately, Live From New York! isn’t all overblown hagiography. Two early segments examine the show’s reputation as a mostly white boys’ club, with honest, sometimes annoyed thoughts from, among others, Molly Shannon, Tina Fey, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Poehler, and Fran Lebowitz — who, incidentally, was played on the show in ’06 by Fred Armisen in drag. “It’s always had a diversity problem,” Jane Curtin says. Still, the interviewees reach a consensus: Despite affording institutional advantages to white dudes, the show has become a sort of meritocracy, but one that’s not especially welcoming, and one whose negotiation demands great personal wherewithal of a sort that a cast member like the then 21-year-old Louis-Dreyfus hadn’t grown into yet.
The filmmakers illustrate the point with a 1982 clip of Louis-Dreyfus, with Robin Duke and Mary Gross, wearing cheesy lingerie for a parody of Playboy photo shoots. The bit, shot by Playboy photographer David Chan, leers as it purports to satirize, saddling Louis-Dreyfus with a have-it-both-ways punchline: “I love doing the show because I’m not used as an object,” she says in voiceover, as the camera lingers over a still of her in filmy red teddy. “I get the opportunity to make political and social comments while still being feminine.”
The next shot: She’s turned to smash a cream pie onto a poster of Ronald Reagan’s face — and to give us a chance to admire her tush and some sideboob.
Gross, meanwhile, was saddled with an actual saddle — and that’s actually kind of funny, in the way Will Ferrell was funny when he pulled his American-flag underwear into the crack of his butt on-air twenty years later. Ferrell’s charming in Live From New York! as he describes how much more flesh he revealed than the censors expected — but it’s still not as much as the women of ’82 had to, without controversy.
If the show’s a meritocracy, it has always needed some prodding. The film is open about 2014’s controversies surrounding SNL‘s lack of black female cast members, acknowledging that the hires inspired by public outcry made the show better. “I think we get picked on because we are America’s show,” says Steve Higgins, an SNL writer/producer and the announcer on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show. “But I’m kind of glad we were, because Leslie [Jones] is fantastic, and Sasheer [Zamata] is great.”
Jones, promoted from the writers’ room, is uproarious when talking about the reaction to her first appearance on Weekend Update, in which she let rip with a powerhouse routine about how she might have had a better romantic life if she had lived during slavery — she’s tall, she’s strong, and Master would know to pair her up with his best men. Jones seems surprised that Twitter raged at her, but then she’s defiant: “Not only did I take something of pain and make it funny — motherfucker, it was brilliant!”
The filmmakers seem to understand that this is the best argument for the show’s continued relevance: brashness, surprise, new voices, an upending of SNL tradition that rivals the original cast’s upending of variety tradition.
But the show, and the film’s treatment of it, remains confused. Early on, Candice Bergen says SNL invented what used to be called “appointment television”; now, as Poehler suggested, it shakes the culture only when a sketch goes viral. And even Michaels can’t decide what he makes of it all: Is it important? Should it aspire to importance?
Just one minute of screen-time after he told us that he doesn’t think about the show’s impact, and that nobody in comedy should waste our time with serious talk, he announces, “We’re always wanting to be taken seriously, wanting to have a voice. The moment you stop aspiring to that, you shouldn’t be here.”
Is director Bao Nguyen trying to make Michaels look contradictory? Between these two segments, the filmmakers drop in some boilerplate from blue-chip friend-of-Lorne Alec Baldwin — 40 years, an institution — rather than the personal insights of an actual cast member. Then come the credits, scored to one of those squalling SNL soul-rock sax solos. As always, it sounds like the Muppet house band jamming at the House of Blues — and it’s a telling reminder of how much last-century showbiz thinking those writers and performers must overcome each week to make the show’s next 40 worth celebrating, too.