A film review by Craig J. Koban June 17, 2015


2015, R, 90 mins.

A documentary by Bao Nguyen 

I’ve had an odd on-again/off-again love affair with Saturday Night Live during the course of my life.  I think it peaked in the early 1990’s through the 2000’s and has kind of waned ever since.  Even if the show has failed to impress me on any meaningful levels during the last several years, there’s no denying the astounding legacy and enduring popularity of the show.  The Lorne Michaels creation has been on air as long as I’ve been alive.  Forty years, as far as a TV show’s shelf life is concerned, is monumentally staggering.  

Maybe the problem with LIVE FROM NEW YORK is that it attempts to discuss four decades worth of the show’s history, legacy, and appeal in less than 90 minutes, which consequently leaves the documentary feeling sparse, unsubstantial, and underdeveloped.  To be fair, it’s certainly a thrill to see many of the present and past SNL cast members discuss in mostly enthusiastic detail what they felt made Michaels’ show really tick, but director Boa Nguyen never really digs deep into the underlining material.  On a basic level, LIVE FROM NEW YORK is an obligatory and mechanically laid out talking heads doc that certainly gets by on brisk pacing, but really stumbles on the level of fully touching on the highs and lows of this trendsetting series.  The doc is enjoyable to a degree, but it’s focus and coverage is inordinately thin. 

It’s easy to overlook what an innovative and pioneering show SNL was when it premiered way back in 1975.  Yes, there were definitely variety shows that populated the networks well before SNL’s time, but none banked their success on doing a live program with a group of relatively unknown up-and-coming performers.  Very few gave this show – from an a relatively unknown Canadian producer in Michaels – a chance for small screen success, but somehow he pooled together original cast members - Chevy Chase, Dan Aykroyd, Garrett Morris, John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Loraine Newman and Jane Curtain – and made the show the most unlikely of successes early on.  It’s a real thrill to see some of these comedians describe the incredible confluence of events that allowed for SNL to be made.  Some described it as “a variety show on acid” whereas other as “a cross between Monty Python and 60 Minutes.”  It was abundantly clear from the modern perspectives of Michaels and his inaugural crew that they were attempting to radically reinvent the wheel of variety programming.  As one reflected, “It was time to destroy TV.” 



Ultimately, though, shows like this only survive if they find a manner of remaining fresh and relevant, something that SNL began to deal with in abundance five years in.  Of course, there were other setbacks (like Chevy Chase's infamous bad boy antics, the drug use, and eventually John Bulushi’s death, which is amazingly never really dealt with – nor are the deaths of Radner and later cast members Chris Farley and Phil Hartman – in any consequential manner).  The early 80’s were a dark time for SNL, which began with Michaels’ abrupt departure from the series (vowing at the time to never return), which lead to some years of questionable comedic quality for the show.  These years did bring us the likes of Eddie Murphy, Martin Short, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Billy Crystal to the flock, but the doc barely registers with any real focus on these formative years.  Dreyfus is the only cast member to appear before camera in the doc to discuss her tenure during this problematic time, but the exclusion of her colleagues here seems puzzling. 

The doc zips through the decades perhaps far too quickly, but it still finds key moments from SNL’s history to hone in on to make its point of the show's influence on popular and social culture.  There’s a wonderful clip from the 70’s as Candice Bergen announces herself as the first female host (just after the then failure of the Equal Rights Amendment) which is later followed by a sublimely funny – but rather dead-on accurate – sketch featuring guest host Kerry Washington playing Michelle Obama, who has to leave the set abruptly to come back to play Oprah Winfrey, seeing as she’s the only female black cast member (the sketch rather brilliantly deals with the show’s under-representation of black women on the show with a humorous title card).  Perhaps most moving was the opening of SNL just days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York, an incident that obviously had Michaels – and perhaps the world – questioning the taste and tact of putting on a live comedy show so quickly after mass tragedy.  SNL dared to keep the show on, featuring then Mayor Rudy Giuliani (surrounded by men in uniform that were at ground zero) during the show’s opening monologue.  It most assuredly made for great television and did, to a degree, show how SNL always has its fingers on the zeitgeist of current events, no matter how celebratory or catastrophic. 

Still, though, LIVE FROM NEW YORK fails at some very obvious opportunities to discuss some of the show’s more thorny issues, like the prevailing environment of sexism on screen and behind the scenes (Dreyfus herself describes the atmosphere at times as repugnant in terms of its male dominance, whereas other male cast members interviewed kind of shrug it all off as just a “sign and reflection of the times”).  Of course, the doc deals with issues of what the series did with cast members of color; Garrett Morris recalls the producers and writers struggling to find skits for him to populate, a creative problem that has dogged SNL during much of its history.  Current SNL’er Leslie Jones has a few of the doc’s most emotionally involving moments as she relays how exhilarating it was for her to appear in a very funny – but controversial – sketch that ironically highlights the whitewashing of media culture.  It’s just too bad the film didn’t probe for more insights like these. 

LIVE FROM NEW YORK also suffers from some positively weird inclusions, like pundit Bill O’Reilly (huh?) appearing numerous times to talk about the show’s political satire (wouldn’t it have been a better idea to interview past Weekend Update hosts for their prerogatives as to why SNL has remained a politically charged show?).  The doc is also agonizingly shy when it comes to some of the show’s most polarizing moments, like when Sinead O’Connor infamously ripped up a picture of the Pope to protest social evils in the Vatican (this should have been the catalyst for a major talking point in the doc with many tangible modern day connections, but it emerges as one that’s dismissed as soon as it’s brought up).  SNL seems to be inordinately tied to the movie industry as a whole, especially in terms of how the series has lampooned movie conventions for years while, at the same time, spawning the silver screen careers of many comedians.  Alas, this too is a potentially fascinating area of interest that the doc doesn’t seem compelled to explore. 

Here’s one last thing: What of the numerous awful years that SNL has endured?  For every rousingly successful season there were easily a handful of forgettable and disposable ones, but watching LIVE FROM NEW YORK you rarely gain an impression that Michaels’ show had any creative hiccups and roadblocks along the way.  This film is just a bit too self-congratulatory for its own good to be considered a substantially researched and executed examination of one of television’s longest running shows.  Even though the film puts proper emphasis on SNL’s initial tremendous impact on television and comedy, it nevertheless feels haphazardly assembled, unfinished…and…ahem…not ready for prime time.

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