Live from New York!
Directed By Bao Nguyen
Many successful comedians and comics are incubated in nurturing, yet deeply competitive environments. The various comedy clubs on the East and West coast of the US spawned many of the post-war titans, such as Richard Pryor, Joan Rivers and George Carlin, bathing them in the blood of occasionally hostile, alcohol-fueled, combative audiences. In the UK, since the 1970’s both the Oxford and Cambridge performing arts groups have produced class-connected troupes and entities as diverse as Monty Python, Fry & Laurie, The IT Crowd, Peep Show, and even John Oliver of Last Week Tonight, a solid grounding which would often lead to high profile series and sitcoms on UK terrestrial television.
In the USA, however, all roads lead to Saturday Night Live, the most famous and ingrained cultural osmosis of comedy and contemporary culture, which has gestated talents as diverse as Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner and John Belushi in its initial incarnation through to the likes of Chevy Chase, Bill Murray and the 1980’s phenomenon of Eddie Murphy. More recently in the 21st century, the show has hosted jesters who can now single-handedly open major movies or TV series — the likes of Will Ferrell, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Andy Samberg graduating among its illustrious alumni, not to mention Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Will Forte, Maya Rudolph and Kristen Wig also treading the Comcast Building’s legendary boards. Live from New York!, a machine-gun-paced documentary, delivers a manic monologue on the shoe’s modest beginnings and its swift rise to cornerstone status of post-war American entertainment, still transmitting live almost forty years after its initial curtain call.
Using the traditional method of talking head reminiscences from behind-the-scenes witnesses (including significant input from show creator Lorne Michaels), the documentary moves through the show’s initial birth pangs to its current incarnation, incorporating fascinating archive footage to illustrate the breadth of Saturday Night Live‘s influence. The filmmakers cluster their material around a Venn group of elements that weave through various social and cultural sensitivities of American culture – presentations of race, visibility of women, political scandals, and the show’s nervous response to catastrophes and tragedies. Unfortunately, although the breadth of the piece is impressive, what it lacks is any real depth. Cast and crew members referring to nervousness around African American performers playing certain occupations in the show’s early years, as well as the notion of the writers room as a boys club with female scribes locked out of the circle, are matters hesitantly recalled, but not fully excavated.
As a live show, SNL has never been a stranger to occasional bursts of controversy unable to be curtailed by eagle-eyed Standards & Practices executives – in the 1990’s Sinead O’ Conner tore through a condemnation of the Catholic Church, and, more recently, an uncomfortable pedophilia-tinged opening monologue from Louis C.K. caused some ripples through social media. The show’s impact on the political class has diluted from lampooning to the absorption of ambitious political figures, as the Clintons and Sarah Palin’s appearances attest you’ve not really arrived on the landscape unless a good-natured cameo attests to your ability to take a joke. Although the footage of the immediate post-9/11 broadcast is actually quite moving, the knowledge that the staff writers invoked a self-imposed censorship on political content for a timid four years is omitted, while one of the final areas of the documentary details the franchising of the show’s format, to markets in Japan, Korea, Europe and Canada, marking the Live! concept as unique and satirical as a high street coffee chain or billionaire-owned periodical.
Comedy and pop culture enthusiasts may enjoy the viewing experience, despite the speed and breadth of the analysis being fleeting and fast; the archival footage is thankfully fascinating enough to entertain the documentary’s brisk 82 minutes of chuckles and commentary. As a European, I never fully gravitated to the humour that the show bellows, but its position as a birthing pool of talent is unassailable, even as the dinosaur of live-transmitted TV writhes in the dying embers of its cathode ray tube. Live From New York! is like the show’s current incarnation: digestible, but not particularly nourishing, plagued by a considerable lack of bite.