“Hi, I’m Bob and I do tricks.”
Live from New York!, a new documentary that explores the phenomenon known as Saturday Night Live, opens with short clips of comic legends — Dan Akroyd, Jim Belushi, Chevy Chase, Gilda Radner, and yes, Bill Murray who apparently sings in addition to doing tricks — goofing around while prepping for segments. It’s in those candid moments that you immediately feel SNL is something special. Looseness, nerves, and vulnerability conspire to create a special dynamic that Canadian Lorne Michaels has honed to perfection over 40 years. Indeed, the revolution was live.
As you might expect Live from New York! features a combination of archival footage intermixed with interviews with former cast members and crew. Those reflections and insights often form the most interesting parts of the film — the intricacies of making comedy work, the cultural context of the show, and the pressures and risks of going on air live every weekend.
“They’ve stayed relevant from word processors to Apple Watches.”
A timeline showing years of SNL appearances that appears above the name of each guest on the doc is a nifty touch. Alec Baldwin is the current record holder, having hosted sixteen times, eclipsing Steve Martin by one hosting appearance.
Fortunately, Jimmy Fallon, Adam Sandberg, Amy Poehler, and other modern SNL alumni make appearances on Live from New York! giving the documentary a vibrant, contemporary feeling.
I grew up with SCTV. Watching that legendary show on CBC up in Ottawa during the early 1980s was not just an event, it was an experience. One that stayed with me throughout the week (and years to come). My friends and I would re-enact skits, do our best impressions. Martin Short. John Candy. Joe Flaherty. Eugene Levy. Andrea Martin. SCTV was the stuff of legends (and where some of the most innovative 3D television segments were broadcast…?!). When Martin Short, and some of the other SCTV cast members, made their way to SNL, it seemed like a natural progression. There was a certain kind of Canadian pride there too, watching Short’s Ed Grimley, for example, making it big in America, and reaching a vast new audience (and musicians such as Brian Adams who made a career-defining appearance as a musical guest).
“It was a variety show on acid.”
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of SNL is its ability to reinvent itself.
David Spade, who Rolling Stone ranked as the 27th best SNL performer of all time, is currently on the circuit promoting Joe Dirt 2: Beautiful Loser. On a recent appearance on the Howard Stern show, Spade recounted what it was like working at SNL. He noted that those that could sing (Adam Sandler) had a leg up on fellow cast mates. If you could also do physical comedy (Chris Farley), even better! For Spade, who admittedly could do neither, it meant a specific focus on impressions, and, ultimately, epic catch phrases (“Bu-bye”). And although there’s a certain amount of camaraderie among the comedians and writers on the show, there’s still not that much. After all, one comedians success could mean another get less air time.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of SNL is its ability to reinvent itself. That it’s as relevant today, as it was back in the 70s is testament to Michaels’ ability to blow up the formula, and start over, again and again. Not that it came easy. As a long-time fan I can recall years (and seemingly years and years) of weak seasons, with almost no stand-out characters or performances. And, not many laughs either. But then, a Phil Hartman would come along. Then a Will Ferrell. Tina Fey… Jimmy Fallon… Adam Sandberg.
Key moments in SNL’s history are here, including the controversial appearances by comedian Andrew Dice Clay (whose sexist act was not appreciated by some including cast member Nora Dunn) and Sinéad O’Connor (who infamously and unexpectedly ripped a photo of the Pope on live television). Interestingly, what perhaps seemed shocking decades ago, seems if not completely so today, at least significantly less. With social media, the Internet, and prevalence of new ways to reach audiences directly with little censorship (YouTube), the comedic “line” is always shifting; and it was (and still is) SNL that gives us a lens into that zeitgeist.
Other historic moments include the post 9-11 show which featured then Mayor Rudy Giuliani and the NYFD with “thousand mile stares” and an exchange for the ages:
Lorne Michaels: “Can we be funny?”
Rudy Giuliani: “Why start now.”
Hardcore and casual SNL fans alike will enjoy Live From New York! There’s not necessarily anything new here, but it’s a swift and entertaining look back at the show.
Live From New York! is now playing at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley, and Embarcadero Center Cinema in San Francisco.