Film - Live from New York

Live From New York

Steve Taylor-Bryant begins his reviews of the BFI London Film Festival with a documentary from the Laugh category about the iconic television show Saturday Night Live...

Live From New York (2015)
Director: Bao Nguyen
Starring: Alec Baldwin, Chevy Chase, Jimmy Fallon, Tina Fey, Chris Rock


Saturday Night Live is the show that broke most of Hollywood’s funny actors over the last few decades and yet, somehow, didn’t sink itself deep into the UK psyche like it did with our American cousins. Maybe we weren’t ready for the humour? It is more than likely though that we just weren’t afforded the opportunity to see much of it by our television networks, so the chance to delve into the archives and see how this experimental show seeped into popular culture was not one I could miss.

Lorne Michaels, a Canadian producer living in California was tasked by NBC with coming up with a new show for Saturday nights that had to be live and had to come from New York City. With an opening cast including such famous names as Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase, Jane Curtin, Garret Morris, Gilda Radner, Lorraine Newman and John Belushi, he created a sketch show that was billed as a mix of 60 Minutes and Monty Python and started the first proper attempt at satire that television audiences really took to. They booked musical guests that really didn’t get any exposure on more traditional variety shows, including the likes of CBGB regulars Blondie and Hip Hop artists like The Beastie Boys but it was the Weekend Update, a satirical look at the week’s news, that really shoved SNL to the forefront. The likes of The Smothers Brothers had tried to talk about Vietnam in the past and seen their show cancelled under political pressures put on the networks but with, mainly, Chevy Chase, the Weekend Report opened up a political commentary that allowed the views of the population the airspace usually only reserved for the politicians. From Vietnam, the Richard Nixon scandals, through the drug culture and into women rights (A One-Dimensional Female Character From A Male Driven Comedy which poked a stick at the way Hollywood treated female actors) SNL attacked everything America saw as its fabric or core values and, over time, changed opinion.

From the very beginning Garret Morris, the only black comedian in the original cast, found it difficult to get parts in sketches written by predominantly white men but, over time, more stars came to the fore with the likes of Eddie Murphy seemingly shaking off the stereotypes of black actors whilst still poking fun at how white writers saw black actors and, in later years, a sketch about slavery written and performed by Leslie Jones was intended by Jones to upset the white audience and have them really think about their part in the history of slavery but instead opened Jones up to hatred and abuse by black spokespeople of the various mediums in media. Julia Louis-Dreyfus found it hard, as a young 21 year old comedian, to break through as a woman and, whilst Lorne Michaels thought he ran a meritocracy where, if the sketch was good enough, it got on, it appeared that SNL had some real issues with diversity, that later casts tried to actually use in their own humour to show that even its own creation was up for attack. Michaels and the cast felt spent and exhausted and, after 5 years, called it a day leaving a new executive producer and cast to carry on the mantle but this just saw SNL become less relevant and in 1985 Lorne Michaels was asked back to save the show.

Michaels had some controversies to overcome. His comedian Andrew Dice Clay was under attack for his anti women and anti gay agenda that was leading to other cast members threatening a boycott and Sinead O’Conner used her appearance on the show to attack the Catholic church for hiding its abuse of children and tore up a photograph of the Pope on air, which amongst other attacks led to SNL considering dropping its ‘Live’ feed and replacing it with a 7 second delay to stop anymore controversies, which luckily didn’t happen.

With the introduction of Jon Lovitz and, mostly, Dana Carvey SNL had some great impersonators and what began with Chevy Chase and his satire of television news, became political satire for the new generation with real politicians beginning to notice the effect that SNL was having on their campaigns, which again made SNL relevant after a few years of chasing pop culture rather than being pop culture. A new generation of comic was coming up though, the kind like Adam Sandberg who saw the power of the internet, still not really used by television companies and still in its worldwide infancy, and little skits would find their way onto YouTube and a million views later SNL had a whole new audience. The politicians still wanted to be part of the game, Tina Fey playing Sarah Palin alongside Sarah Palin was comedy gold, and SNL helped to humanise politics and maybe make the rhetoric make that little more sense for the average voter.

Then September 11, 2001 happened. The terrorist attack on New York City brought everything to halt. Broadway, David Letterman and SNL all stopped performing as a city, a country, and a world didn’t know how to react. Comedians didn’t know when or if they were allowed to be funny anymore and the whole landscape of popular culture could have been dramatically altered forever. After a few days Mayor Rudolph Giuliani wanted some normality to return to New York. Letterman went back on air, albeit with more moving stories than comedic moments and then came the turn of Saturday Night Live. The show started with Lorne Michaels and Mayor Giuliani stood at the front of a group of the brave men and women that had been at Ground Zero. Police Officers, Firefighters and Medics stood silent and then came the question the world wanted to know and the answer was a joke, from Gulliani, and the ice was broken. Michaels turned to the Mayor and asked “Are we allowed to funny now?” and Giuliani replied “Why start now?” and, from that moment, a fog of despair started to lift not just from over New York but the world as the “We shall not beaten” feeling took hold, backed up by musical guest Paul Simon playing The Boxer. These scenes put a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye, and the power that television has to either harm or heal a nation is often forgotten but the healing most definitely started here.

There is some superb archive footage of both live sketches and dress rehearsal items backed up by some serious heavyweights from the past SNL cast and its creator, which makes this documentary film as relevant as the show has ever been.

Image - Official Website.