Review: LIVE FROM NEW YORK! Chronicles SNL... Again
There's the old saying, "comedy is serious business". But at the same time, comedy can never appear to take itself too seriously. That's the job of the critics, cultural commentators, and documentarians. Live from New York!, directed by Bao Nguyen, certainly does just that.
Star Trek aside, is Live from New York! the first theatrical documentary about a television show? It's certainly one of very few, and fewer still when it comes to television shows that are currently in production. Granted, the show in question, NBC's Saturday Night Live, is a special case.
For forty years (as the self-congratulatory publicity machine won't let us forget), SNL has been one wild and crazy sketch comedy show - or has at least been trying to be. Yes, the legendary first cast (1975-1980) was the best, having introduced the world to the likes of John Belushi, Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, and Gilda Radner. And yes, their immediate replacement cast simply couldn't come close to living up to their level of keyed-in brazen topical absurdity. It marked the beginning of not just a long era of iconic SNL nostalgia (Coneheads! Belushi in the bee suit! The Festrunk brothers! "Jane, you ignorant slut"!), but it also marked the beginning of chronic SNL audience disappointment. It's gotten to the point where SNL disappointment is a tradition unto itself.
Yet, throughout all of the valleys, rough spots, and sketches that don't know how to end, the show has nevertheless always been a continuous fount of new comedy talent: Eddie Murphy. Mike Myers. Will Ferrell. Tina Fey. Live from New York! showcases some of their SNL highlights, along with those of many others. As always, the best SNL clips are always welcome viewing, and never get old. Just ask NBC.
Over the past decade, the peacock network has seen fit to celebrate their flagship comedy institution with numerous well crafted and entertaining documentaries. There was a two hour special to spotlight each decade of the show, and at least one more for other interesting "bits and pieces" that didn't fit into the others, and another focusing on the show's fake commercials. And don't forget all the political sketch comedy roundups...
Needless to say, the history and impact of SNL is a more-than-well-covered topic. For this critic (and, it should be said, SNL fan), the information in Live from New York! isn't just partially familiar, it's all familiar. If you want unsanatized dirt and the swept-under-the-rug secrets of SNL, look elsewhere. (And let me know when you find it.) Anyone who's spent any time combing through the readily available behind the scenes past of SNL will already have heard everything that's offered here, and plenty more. All the usual faces (creator and entertainment powerhouse Lorne Michaels, Steve Martin, Dana Carvey, Jane Curtain, etc.) turn up to rehash all the same topics, including SNL's effect on American politics, the fact that the show has been tough for female and black cast members, and SNL as a New York institution, complete with a post-911 look-back.
As long as there are documentaries about SNL, there will people like me who want to watch them. But that said, Live from New York! seems to be the cresting of this particular info-wave, at least for now. As funny as the highlights are, and as culturally excellent (to use Wayne's World vernacular) as the SNL legacy is, a theatrical feature film documentary that focuses intently on not-new information is seriously overstepping, even in its fortieth year. (Look no further than the recent epic length primetime special for the high water mark in venerating SNL). If just a portion of the attention heaped onto SNL could be spread out to other, lesser known but equally great comedy shows like SCTV, the world might just be a better place.
Unlike SNL itself, Live from New York! gets off to a poor start. As though the simple act of being a theatrical release celebrating a TV show weren't self-important enough, it opens with a rapidfire montage of harsh news images and polarizing world figures, each quickly cutting to it's SNL counterpart. (for example, a shot of the first Iraq war and then George Bush, cut to Dana Carvey as Bush.) The fact that this divise doesn't work doesn't stop Nguyen from repeating it throughout the film.
So... it's the weekend, and you're wondering whether to go out to this movie, or stay in and watch television. You know what to do... it's Saturday night!