If 45-plus years of Saturday Night Live has taught us anything, it’s this: comedy is the sharpest form of criticism.
Biting wit levied by the absurd becomes the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down, and SNL has been spoon-feeding America since 1975.
SNL began as a shaggy variety show with the motto, “We don’t go because we’re ready; we go on because it’s 11:30.” And in 1975, no one was ready—not even legendary anchorman Don Pardo, who flubbed the cast introduction of “The Not Ready For Prime Time Players” as “The not for ready, prime time players.”
That auspicious beginning is precisely what creator Lorne Michaels needed to get his team up and running, quickly becoming a well-oiled weekly machine of comedy, music, skit, and spoof. All of which is lovingly captured in Bao Nguyen’s documentary Live From New York!
Released in 2015 to celebrate SNL’s 40th season, Live From New York! does what most docs about the show have done, compile a multitude of interviews from the cast and writers—many of whom have gone on to very successful careers—but what makes Live From New York! special is how it encapsulates the show’s evolution and incredibly difficult battle to stay relevant over the course of four decades.
SNL’s main objective has always been to comment on and criticize contemporary America. Indeed, one of the pleasures of SNL is hearing a news story on Tuesday and seeing how SNL parodies it on Saturday. When SNL started in the ’70s, it set self-serious broadcasters in its sights and poked fun at a variety of anchors. As those types of news shows gave away, so too did the SNL skits. In the ’90s, SNL’s take on politics brought about a new renaissance. After 9/11, SNL again shifted from the political to the popular, skewering pop culture in its many forms.
This change hasn’t always been welcome, and those who grew up laughing with and loving one cast quickly hated the new breed. This is only natural, as viewers can become very attached to their television shows, but as SNL adapts to each new generation, it necessarily does away with the previous one. As Amy Poehler puts it, “The show your parents used to have sex to is now something you watch on your computer in the middle of the day.”
The event of watching SNL is no more, as it is with most television consumption, but that’s OK. One bad haircut does not destroy confidence, it only derails, and SNL has withstood many bad haircuts. It trucks along as best as it can because the comedy provides release and catharsis, a way of life in spite of terrible inequalities. There’s nothing quite like comedy to skewer the mighty while ennobling the small.
Live From New York! strikes that chord with precision while providing a comprehensive overview of a show that has meant many things to many people.
Live From New York!
Directed by Bao Nguyen
Produced by Sarah Cowperthwaite, Kimmie Kim, Owen Moogan
Abramorama, Not rated, Running time 90 minutes, Premiered April 15, 2015 at the Tribeca Film Festival.