“When I die,” Andy Samberg says in Live From New York!, “they will talk about ‘Dick in a Box.’”
Samberg, who performed in the Emmy-winning SNL Digital Short with Justin Timberlake in 2007, adds that a legacy as a goateed R&B singer with his privates wrapped as a present is fine by him.
Remarkably, the visit to the Digital Shorts era of the 40-year-old Saturday Night Live in Bao Nguyen’s feature documentary debut is more entertaining—and feels nearly as impactful—as its coverage of the show’s launch and early golden years. Chevy Chase, Gilda Radner, John Belushi, Laraine Newman, Garrett Morris, Jane Curtin, and Dan Aykroyd made up the initial cast; many of them had migrated from the National Lampoon Radio Hour along with a few Lampoon writers. Bill Murray would join the next season.
The film opens with a clapboard IDing a 1975 screen test. You expect funny to follow. Besides an off-the-cuff joke from Curtin that’s elevated by her exquisitely fluid expressions, though, it’s just a quick montage of the soon-to-be stars not doing a whole lot.
Nguyen, of course, eventually offers clips of some classic characters, like Radner’s Roseanne Roseannadanna and Chase’s Gerald Ford. But in general, the show’s learning-to-stumble period is summarized by pithy descriptions (“a variety show on acid,” “a cross between 60 Minutes and Monty Python,” etc.) and commentary from writers (Anne Beatts), frequent hosts (Alec Baldwin), and, naturally, producer Lorne Michaels about how crazy and novel the idea of a live-broadcast comedy show was.
It’s difficult to argue that SNL’s last decade, give or take a few years, hasn’t benefited from the proliferation of the DVR: Instead of once-loyal fans giving up entirely, they now could forward to the infrequent highlights of each episode.
Those highlights are almost exclusively political in nature. Quick, name the (fake) presidents who spoke these (fake) lines: “Not gonna do it, wouldn’t be prudent”; “I. Am. Bulletproof.”; “strategery.” And who can forget “I can see Russia from my house”? Thank you, Dana Carvey, Darrell Hammond, Will Ferrell, and Tina Fey.
Nguyen also devotes a touching segment to comedy culture in the weeks after 9/11; specifically, the sincere confusion over whether it would ever be OK to laugh and be silly again, an issue of particular concern for New York-based entertainment. Here, the director includes the cold open of SNL’s first episode after the disaster, with first responders lined up and then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani exchanging a few sober thoughts with Michaels.
Then, Giuliani whoops the famous words: “Live, from New York!…” If you don’t feel a tingly rush, check your pulse.
Nguyen curiously omits some prominent features—and cast members—from his 90-minute film. Commercial parodies, for example, are absent; as fun and smart as the political sketches are, the director had plenty of room to shill, say, the Bass-o-Matic or Bad Idea Jeans. Kristen Wiig hardly makes an appearance (too indie and serious now, Kristen?), and same goes for Bill Hader, Jason Sudeikis, Mike Myers, and Adam Sandler, among others. (Though the actors, not the filmmaker, are likely to blame.)
Besides the 9/11 intro, the doc’s most triumphant and saddening segment belongs to cast member Leslie Jones, whose hire in 2014 marked the first time in the show’s history that it had two black women in the cast. Jones has a gut-busting bit at the “Weekend Update” desk involving her sorry love life and how much better it would have been during—gulp—the era of slavery, because of her solid, 6-foot frame.
In the film, Jones says she’d written the piece at home during a low moment, which made the subsequent, hate-filled backlash from black bloggers and fans all the more hurtful. But Jones isn’t one to skulk to safety. Here, with fire in her voice, she says, “Not only did I take something of pain and make it funny, motherfuckers, it was brilliant!” Now that reactionary, PR-dulled apologies for offenses as minor as a poorly worded tweet have become as common as the weather report, the world—not just SNL—could use more people like her.
Live From New York! opens June 12 at E Street Cinema.