There’s a scene in Bao Nguyen’s Live From New York! — a new documentary about Saturday Night Live that opened the Tribeca Film Festival on Wednesday night that has no relation to Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller’s book of the same name – in which Sarah Palin appears on screen, which caused me to openly sigh. The sigh happened because I knew the next few minutes of the film would be devoted to Tina Fey’s portrayal of Sarah Palin during the 2008-09 season of SNL, a segment of SNL history so well covered, there’s really nothing else to learn. There’s Fey on screen, once again dutifully (yet looking a little bored) recounting this era of the show’s history that has been documented so many times before. Then comes Andy Samberg (looking really bored) talking about “Lazy Sunday” and “Dick in a Box.” Look, this is a competent enough documentary, but for the life of me, I don’t know why it exists.
But at just 82 minutes long, here’s a documentary that’s trying to cover the entire 40 year history of SNL in less time than just one actual live SNL broadcast. So of course is has to hit the beats that have already been hit many, many times before. It’s such a broad stroke and, despite all of the interviews within the feature — including Lorne Michaels, Chevy Chase, Jimmy Fallon, Maya Rudolph and Bill O’Reilly (for some reason) — there are very few specific stories, just sweeping generalizations. Live From New York! is made for someone who knows nothing about SNL and just needs a quick Cliff’s Notes version of what’s happened so far.
That’s not to say that Live From New York! isn’t fun to watch. The thing is, watching clips from SNL in a sold out venue like New York City’s Beacon Theater is fun, but that’s a very specific environment that’s going to be tough to ever duplicate.
At times, Live From New York! can touch upon interesting subjects, then quickly move on, which makes this film even more infuriating. To me, the most fascinating era of SNL is from 1980 to 1985, simply because the Lorne Michaels-less period has been largely ignored in most retrospectives. It was a troublesome time from the show, but we know the least about that portion of the series’ history. And here, Nguyen has Julia Louis-Dreyfus admitting that her era of the show was sexist, but of course we quickly move on to something else because, God forbid, “Dick in a Box” doesn’t get yet another retrospective. When the film covers Lorne Michaels’ return to SNL in 1985, it jumps straight into how great Dana Carvey and Phil Hartman were, completely ignoring Michaels’ ill-fated 1985-86 season that featured Robert Downey Jr. as a cast member, as if it never happened.
For a few brief seconds, Live From New York! shows clips from its Korean and Japanese versions of the show. Now that could have made an interesting documentary. I am aware these versions exist, but I know very little about them. But, instead, Live From New York! once again takes us through how SNL responded to the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, complete with the exact clips that we just watched during SNL’s 40th anniversary special. And that’s another big problem for Live From New York!, we really did watch all these clips just two months ago.
The best part of Live From New York! is Leslie Jones talking about her experience after a 2014 “Weekend Update” segment in which her jokes about slavery stirred controversy. The film captures Jones’ reactions right after walking off set after that segment, to a later interview about the controversy. If the film had concentrated on these smaller moments — real human moments — boy, this could have been something special. But, hey, “Dick in a Box”…
I’ve probably been a little too harsh to, again, a competent enough film that SNL novices will enjoy. But right on the heels of SNL 40 — not to mention the fact that the pretty wonderful SNL in the ‘70s, ’80s, ’90s, ’00s series, that is seemingly replayed on a never ending cable loop, also exists — Live From New York!, again, at only 82 minutes, absolutely needed to find its niche to be relevant. But, unfortunately, there’s really nothing new here.
Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.