finally, someone’s taken a serious look at ‘snl’

the documentary hits theaters today

Saturday Night Live has had so many “best of the decade”-type retrospective shows dedicated to it, that you could fill up an entire day of programming on Comedy Central with them. Actually, someone has. But all those clip jobs have never gotten to the core of what’s important about the show and what’s allowed it to exist—through funny and remarkably unfunny periods—for 40 years now.

The documentary Live From New York!—opening in select theaters today—attempts to explain why SNL has lasted longer than most of us have been alive by doing something that happens so rarely on the show itself; getting serious. 

Sure, Live From New York! features a lot of the same clips you might have seen in reruns and best-of packages. Through its interviews with alums including Tina Fey, Chevy Chase, Will Ferrell, and producer Lorne Michaels, it also indulges in the same kind of self-congratulatory spirt you probably caught a whiff of during its recent 40th-Anniversary special. 

But beyond that, director Bao Nguyen and a production team that includes several key behind-the-scenes players from SNL’s long history, have produced a sober take on something that prides itself in being ridiculous and irreverent.

We recently talked to Nguyen about his serious take on his less-than-serious subject. “We all know that SNL is a funny show,” he said, “respective to which era you grew up in. But we rarely take a step back and look at it beyond its comedic value, rarely look at its cultural and historical value. So, that’s what we wanted to do with the film, to look at SNL not just as a comedic institution, but as a way to reflect American culture and society.” 

He and his team have done a fairly good job of that, even going so far as to use the show’s history of shortchanging of minority cast members and women writers as a way to comment on broader social issues. What’s far more impressive about Live From New York!, however, is that it’s a tale of survival.

As Bao says, “SNL is fortunate, or lucky in a way, that the format—since it started in 1975, it’s largely unchanged from what it was—it’s one that’s allowed it to survive through all these changes in media and technology, especially with the internet.” The idea spelled out in the film—that it’s structure of rapidly produced three-minute standalone segments is what allows it to survive—is compelling and motivating. As Bao says, “even though people don’t necessarily watch SNL live any more—it still has that quality, that in-the-now feeling that most other television shows don’t have. I think that will keep it going.”

Live From New York is in no way a great film, but it is an interesting one—particularly given the fact that between the many laughs it offers, it tackles the hard job of taking comedy seriously.

Live From New York opens in select theaters today.