Film and TV

Live From New York! Looks at Forty Years of SNL

One of the funniest things in Live From New York!, the latest repackaging of Saturday Night Live history, comes from Amy Poehler, 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 before the ending credits.

An offscreen voice asks: “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 out there already. Instead, celebrities speak for the work, toasting the show’s cultural importance, its longevity, 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 forty years, all set to Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.”

After that, you get 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 that Johnny Carson wouldn’t touch. Later, former SNL writer Al Franken, now a U.S. senator, airs the theory that Darrell Hammond’s caricature of Al Gore might have cost the Democrats a couple hundred votes, which in Florida could have been enough to hand 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 fortieth-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, helpfully identified with the on-screen 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. The show’s reputation as a mostly white-boys’ club is examined, 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.

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 (Leslie Jones and Sasheer Zamata) made the show better.

The final credits are scored to one of those squalling SNL soul-rock sax solos. As always, it sounds like the Muppets 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 will have to overcome to make the show’s next forty years worth celebrating, too.
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Alan Scherstuhl is film editor and writer at Voice Media Group. VMG publications include Denver Westword, Miami New Times, Phoenix New Times, Dallas Observer, Houston Press and New Times Broward-Palm Beach.
Contact: Alan Scherstuhl

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