Talking about comedy in a serious way is tricky. You can dissect the methods, explore the process, and analyze the satire, but you can never really capture the essence. Laughter is the most spontaneous human reaction, so taking the time to delve deep into it feels pointless. At worst, it can come off as pretentious and self-congratulatory, like a writer’s room full of Harvard graduates writing dick jokes for the average TV consumer without so much as cracking a smile.
Speaking of Harvard grads writing comedy for the masses: Live from New York! is a documentary that talks seriously about comedy-variety-sleep aid Saturday Night Live. Director Bao Nguyen explores the impact SNL has while stressing as hard as he can that the show is just comedy and should not be taken seriously. But it is serious. No, it’s not. OK, I’m confused.
We’re shown SNL’s impact in chapters of sorts, starting with the obligatory Origin Story. It follows the show’s history linearly while exploring themes within the sketches. We get to relive a few seconds or a couple of lines from famous sketches, from Chevy Chase on “Weekend Update” to Eddie Murphy as Gumby to a tiny snippet of “Wayne’s World”. Former cast members, hosts, and special surprise guests serve as narrators, talking in somber tones from Studio 8H where history was made, where presidents and Oscar winners and comedians stood side-by-side being silly and repeating catchphrases.
Live from New York! reveals the first heavy topic by discussing the show’s varying issues with diversity throughout its history. No one seems to agree if the show has a woman problem (Julia Louis-Dreyfus says yes, Amy Poehler says maybe), but the lack of ethnic minorities is brought up several times throughout the film. From the time of original cast member Garrett Morris , we see SNL’s race problem throughout the years. Rightfully so, Nguyen doesn’t give SNL any props for finally including two black women in the cast during this most recent season.
Politics is a common theme as well, as some of SNL’s most memorable characters have been impressions of political figures. The doc tells us Dana Carvey’s H.W. Bush, Will Ferrell’s Dubya, and Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin actually influenced the public’s perception of these politicians. Curiously, we don’t get to hear the, “I can see Russia from my house!” line, which is often mistaken as an actual Palinism. You can’t tell me that didn’t affect McCain’s chances of winning the 2008 election. There’s a chapter on September 11 too, seeing as it’s hard to talk about a quintessentially New York show without mentioning it. The doc handles it well without suggesting SNL provided anything more than a distraction from the horror the nation was facing at the time.
The final chapter centers on Lonely Island – sorry, SNL Digital Short –produced videos. SNL is the perfect platform for generating viral content! However, we all know aside from Lazy Sunday and Dick in a Box (and the curiously omitted Christopher Walken More Cowbell sketch from Season 25), people were more likely to quote SNL around the water cooler in the 90s than they are now. The doc even goes as far as to suggest Lazy Sunday helped get Youtube off the ground. Really?
SNL is important. That much I agree with. It has long served as a platform from which to launch the careers of some of America’s funniest people. And admittedly, I still watch it. Classic sketches are guaranteed gut splitters. Live from New York!, however, chooses to focus on the content as serious, impactful matter that has shaped American politics, society, and culture. You forget you’re watching a documentary about a show that produced the likes Mr. Bill and Toonces the Driving Cat (both also omitted, perhaps for good reason).
Creator and producer Lorne Michaels said it best in an interview from several years ago (Michaels was not interviewed for this documentary, yet somehow they got Chevy Chase to appear on camera): “I think anybody who’s in comedy who talks seriously for more than two, three minutes probably shouldn’t be listened to.” The film Live from New York! talks for a bit longer than two or three minutes.