Read on esquire.com
Saturday Night Live has always seemed insecure about its place in the world. The eternal party line is that the golden era has passed, or that things were different when so-and-so was there, or that you haven’t even watched it in years. And for a show that lives and dies on the live moment, SNL and its hangers-on are obsessed with looking back at what was. In recent years, NBC has churned out clips and cast member-specific specials to satisfy niche audiences or themes (Christmas! Sports!). Some of these have cut through the noise—for many, especially millennials, The Best of Will Ferrell is a staple. But the SNL nostalgia train shows no signs of slowing. February’s mondo SNL 40 special might have tanked without the return of Wayne and Garth or “Celebrity Jeopardy.” Revisiting these old sketches highlighted just how unfunny a newer bit like “The Californians” really is, how it will never compete with other dialect-based franchises like “Coffee Talk” or “Da Bears.” And yet, within 10 years, we’ll probably be watching a clip show of Fred Armisen and Bill Hader in dude-mode, and we’ll probably smirk and whine about how the show isn’t as funny as it was back then. SNL is cyclical in that way.
Bao Nguyen’s feature-length SNL documentary, Live From New York!, screened at the TriBeCa Film Festival earlier this year and opens in theaters this weekend. And while the film tells the SNL story through archival and behind-the-scenes footage, the biggest revelations about the show come from current and former stars. In a promo interview before the show’s 1975 premiere, Lorne Michaels loudly and definitively uses the word “anxiety” as a point of inspiration. Here are five things we gleaned from the film’s premiere.
1. The show has always struggled with sexism.
The comedy industry, as a whole, has a hard time breaking its reputation as a boys’ club, SNL included. While at least one former cast member praises Michaels’ role in giving women a seat at the table, most resent the show’s varying degrees of sexism. One jarring clip from the early ’80s shows a young Julia Louis-Dreyfus as a candy-coated sex object wherein the lines between parody and reality seem unclear. In her bestselling memoir Bossypants, Tina Fey recounts the night that Amy Poehler made a vulgar joke in the writers’ room and was mocked by Jimmy Fallon for not being “cute,” to which Poehler went black in the eyes and said, “I don’t fucking care if you like it.” And while Maya Rudolph says that early female cast members like Jane Curtin, Laraine Newman, and Gilda Radner broke down doors, other interviewees imply that subtle sexism has always been a part of the show’s DNA.
2. And racial diversity.
Garrett Morris, the sole black member of the season 1 cast, says that he felt “robbed” during his first year on the show and that he received nothing more than bit parts. The film touches on the backlash that arose last year when producers publicly scrambled to add black female cast members. Leslie Jones, who has since emerged as one of SNL’s breakout stars, recounts in candid detail her own Twitter scorn after making an extended slavery joke on Weekend Update, and she basically says F-you to anyone who neglects to see the joke’s “brilliance.”
3. Political satire was always put on a pedestal.
Dana Carvey admits that his take on George H.W. Bush helped define the 41st president’s cultural perception, even though he pulled the nuances of the impression out of thin air. Likewise for Chevy Chase as a bumbling Gerald Ford. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler were at their best when skewering Sarah Palin and Hilary Clinton, respectively, and Phil Hartman’s Bill-Clinton-at-McDonald’s remains canonical. But the two impressions that everyone seems to remember most, the ones that truly struck a nerve and impacted political discourse, were Darrell Hammond’s Al Gore and Will Ferrell’s George W. Bush. Seeing those old clips of Ferrell with the shifty eyes elicited true belly laughs throughout the packed theater. And while Gore appears on camera to tell the filmmakers that he genuinely liked Hammond’s impression, you now realize that Hammond’s ability to tap into Gore’s dullness, and his use of the phrase “lock box,” may have actually swayed the 2000 election.
4. Everything changed after 9/11
Rudy Giuliani standing side by side with Lorne Michaels and a cabal of New York firefighters on the show’s first broadcast after 9/11 is an indelible image. “Can we still be funny?” Michaels famously asks. “Why start now?” Giuliani deadpans. But multiple cast members speak to the show’s notable avoidance of serious issues during much of the 2000s. Coincidentally, this is the same era that Jon Stewart and Colbert really caught their stride. SNL’s recent ISIS bit was controversial upon arrival, and the film suggests that many writers and cast members actively miss the subversion and edginess of earlier decades.
5. SNL still grapples with its own institutionality.
Recent seasons of SNL have featured a hearty mix of live sketches and digital shorts, and even though fake commercials have been a staple for decades, the impetus has always been on “live.” Tina Fey explains how Andy Samberg faced immense push-back when he tried to put “Lazy Sunday” together, a clip that exploded thanks to the growing popularity of YouTube. Soon came “Dick in a Box” and more clips made beyond the confines of 30 Rock with increasing ambition and production value. Candice Bergen says that the show’s first season was “one of the places that appointment TV started,” and Brian Williams says the jokes aren’t as funny to him if they’re not live. Nevertheless, the show keeps evolving toward the digital space, however reluctantly, and it’s now less of a weekly package than a series of a-la cart bits to be picked at the next morning. While many groan over this shift, it undoubtedly helps SNL do what it does best: Remember itself.