Saturday Night Live is a comedy institution more via hearsay than practical experience in the UK. Often mentioned and rarely seen (it appears sporadically, shunted around different British TV stations) it can’t match the cultural ubiquity it has across the Atlantic. But in the US it’s a phenomenon. Unprecedented longevity, a factory line of breakout stars and an uncanny ability to nail caricatures of leading political figures have cemented it in the public consciousness. The same cannot be said for Live from New York!, a breezily lightweight attempt to sum up the iconic show that feels like a cross between retirement tribute and extended promo.
Admittedly, documentarian Bao Nguyen does manage to corral an impressive bunch of contributors. To give a taster there’s Lorne Michaels, Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, Jane Curtin, Jimmy Fallon, Tina Fey, Will Ferrell, Chris Rock, Andy Sandberg, Alec Baldwin, Amy Poehler and former New York Mayor Rudy Guiliani. Nguyen is not without star power. It’s what he does with them that proves so disappointing. Over the course of 80 odd minutes, he flirts with issues from political and cultural impact to diversity on the show, abandoning them all before so much as a half-formed conclusion is reached. Even the attempt to work chronologically through SNL’s history fails as big chunks of time are skipped.
The diversity debate is a frustrating example of wider problems. An attempt is made to explore criticism that the show has often marginalised women and ethnic minorities. Several contributors who worked on SNL actually concur with the charge. Yet the line of investigation peters out with no clear conclusion, lost inside a self-congratulatory bubble.Not that the positives are given much thought either. There’s widespread agreement that SNL changed the shape of television and managed to keep its finger on the pulse of America while influencing the cultural debate. There’s much less in the way of detail. Cultural impact seems to be predicated entirely on the show’s ability to successfully ape politicians to the point where SNL sketches become confused with the real people. Whether this has a wider impact on US politics is not clear. Other areas are ignored completely, at least critically. A steady parade of politicians march through the show, keen to demonstrate how at ease they are with the mockery. No one questions whether this risks dulling SNL’s satirical edge.
At least it’s fun. Nguyen keeps a brisk pace, and with approaching 800 shows to draw from, there are plenty of amusing sketches to distract from other fundamental failings. Even if they never really say anything interesting, the sheer quantity of comic talent interviewed is bound to lead to a few laughs. That many talented comics can’t fail to entertain, perhaps even more so given they never have to answer tough questions.
Questions are what remain at the end. Where’s the scoop on all those infamous backstage fallings out? How about all the controversy aroused over the years (no, a clip of Sinéad O’Connor ripping up a picture of the Pope does not adequately address this)? How has the show managed to survive this long and does its shift into respectable older statesperson herald the beginning of the end? If not, where does it go from here? There’s no convincing answer even attempted, never mind provided. It’s these questions, not laughter that ring around the empty studio when the cast leave the stage.