Sexism, Racism, Anarchy: ‘Live From New York’ Tells the Real Story of ‘Saturday Night Live’

The Tribeca Film Festival opened Wednesday night with a must-see documentary celebrating SNL and its complicated, ever-important 40-year history.

NBC/Everett Collection

Saturday Night Live is a show your parents used to have sex to that now you watch from your computer during the day.”

As perfectly said by Amy Poehler, Saturday Night Live has changed monumentally in its 40 years on air, a milestone feted in the new documentary Live From New York, which premiered Wednesday night at the Tribeca Film Festival. The film, from director Bao Nguyen, is a lovingly crafted companion piece to NBC’s recent 40th Anniversary Special, but one that tells the story of SNL’s four often-troubled decades as a cultural mirror with the skeptical raised eyebrow and no-bullshit perspective befitting television’s seminal, now middle-aged bullshit barometer.

Live From New York is a blast to watch.

It’s packed with interviews from former cast members, behind-the-scenes players, and the very newsmakers it often skewered. Classic sketches are generously replayed. Love letters to its cultural significance abound, making you nod in agreement as you remember Eddie Murphy’s rise, Sinead O’Connor ripping the photo of the pope, the comedic glory of the Clinton years, or Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin impression. There’s even a sprinkling of well-earned tears as Rudy Giuliani and the 2001 cast recall the mood and build-up to “Can we be funny?” “Why start now?”

More than anything, the film is a proper history, opening with the screen tests of the original Not Ready For Primetime Players. But the jaunt down memory lane suddenly veers toward a more somber and contemplative—though still urgent and exciting— tone, as dramatic, scandalous, and often heartbreaking news footage of real-life moments in history are interspersed with the iconic SNL sketches that mock them.

With that, it becomes clear that this isn’t going to be quite the circle-jerk gathering of comedy’s biggest stars that NBC’s delightful, though at times masturbatory, anniversary special was—which is exactly what makes this anniversary toast to the troublemakers at Studio 8H the one that’s worthwhile.

Live From New York chronicles the show’s rather unlikely rise: How a Canadian named Lorne Michaels living in L.A.’s Chateau Marmont was tasked with rounding up a troupe of New York’s most talented, undiscovered comedy stars and ended up creating a New York institution and a pop-culture lifeblood. It studies, with fascinating insight from those who made it, how a program in a medium defined by fleeting and evolving interests managed lasting relevance, from the time SNL was appointment television to its current piecemeal consumption on the web the next morning.

But while various talking heads marvel at how SNL has managed, for all these years, to be a “living, breathing time capsule,” as Will Ferrell defines it, the film also takes a no-holds-barred look at the show’s complicated history of institutional sexism, problematic dealings with race and privilege, and those “Saturday Night Dead” years when SNL’s worth and necessity were called into serious question.

There’s fun to be had in reliving the beloved sketches that pepper Live From New York, whether it’s Gilda Radner doing Roseanne Rosannadanna or Andy Samberg and Justin Timberlake singing “Dick in a Box.” But it’s the lack of consensus among SNL’s talent while telling the show’s oral history that makes the film worthwhile.

Take the oft-repeated claims that SNL has a history of sexism, for example. Original cast member Laraine Newman has the opening salvo, calling Lorne Michaels a “champion of women’s humor” and saying, “The show has always been, in my mind, a meritocracy. If a sketch worked, it went on. That’s it.”

Tina Fey’s recollection is more measured; she says there was “no institutional sexism, but I think when the makeup of a room is 70 percent male opposed to 50-50, different things are going to play in the room.” Julia Louis-Dreyfus, however, pulls no punches. “When I was there, it was definitely a sexist environment,” she says. “There were very few roles written for women.”

The general narrative arc of each carefully structured segment of Live From New York chronicles how SNL dealt with the more problematic parts of its history to arrive at a place of creative enlightenment, where it purports to live now.

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It’s a pattern that begins with this conversation about sexism and women in comedy, in which Amy Poehler gives the definitive remark about where the show has evolved. “It’s strangely more equal than you would think,” she says. “Perhaps there was a time when there was less light to get your stuff through, and that I understand. But the doors were wide open when I arrived there and we really took advantage of it.”

Then, perhaps to prove Poehler’s point, Nguyen shows a clip of current cast member Cecily Strong at the Weekend Update desk performing as the One-Dimensional Female Character From a Male-Driven Comedy.

SNL’s history with diversity, however, is far bleaker, something that neither Live From New York nor the interviewed cast members shy away from. From the start, Garrett Morris’s struggle to find a place on the show is examined. “I felt robbed,” he says while remembering Lorne’s weekly 3 a.m. calls to the writer’s room: “Anything for Garrett?”

The show’s prouder race milestones are chronicled, like the blockbuster rise of Eddie Murphy (who does not appear in the documentary, not even to take an arrogant and confusing bow) and the time Ellen Cleghorne and Tim Meadows became the first black duo to announce, “Live from New York, it’s Saturday night!”

But the documentary also fully owns up to SNL’s sluggish embrace of diversity, a lethargic progress that’s been borderline inexcusable on such a purportedly progressive show. A montage of Murphy at his best is contrasted against the embarrassing controversy in recent years that led to a cold opening featuring Kerry Washington and an apology for not having any female members of color in the cast.

Production designer Akira “Leo” Yoshimura is interviewed. Yoshimura is notable because he’s been with SNL its entire 40-year existence, only missing one show. He’s also been forced to play Sulu in Star Trek sketches and, on one occasion, Connie Chung, because he would be the only Asian person in the room.

“I think sometimes we get picked on because we are America’s show,” says writer Steve Higgins. “I’m kind of glad we were because Leslie [Jones]’s fantastic. Sasheer [Zamata]’s great. In hindsight, I’m glad it happened.”

SNL’s delicate history as a powerhouse of political satire is carefully examined, perhaps the only instance in which the film’s navel-gazing is done through rose-colored glasses.

As clips of the show’s most resonant political sketches are shown, Lorne Michaels asserts, “We’re nonpartisan and it’s important we stay nonpartisan. It just has to play as comedy and it has to have some original take on things and some intelligence. Hopefully.”

Former cast member Al Franken points out that for all the talk of how the show affects elections and drives political conversation, changing the world is not its overt goal. “Every once in a while you make a good satirical point that actually elucidates something,” he says.

In later scenes, Ferrell wonders whether his characterization of George W. Bush as a man you’d want to get a beer with helped get him re-elected and much time is spent lauding the pop culture crucifixion of Sarah Palin following Tina Fey’s take on the ex-vice presidential candidate. But Franken thinks it’s actually Darrell Hammond’s play on Al Gore that is the show’s singular most impactful political sketch—not that he’s happy about it.

“When it’s only a few hundred votes, anything can tip the election,” Franken says. “So if you want to point to one SNL sketch that maybe tipped an election, it’s the lockbox.”

Live From New York rightfully spends solid time on the role Saturday Night Live played in revitalizing a grieving nation post-9/11, and somehow manages to add insight to a period in the show’s history that has already been painstakingly picked apart and celebrated. And it spends an equally necessary amount of time discussing SNL’s transition from the show that gave the middle finger to the establishment to being the establishment itself.

It crystallizes how Andy Samberg and Lonely Island may have single-handedly saved the show when “Lazy Sunday” and “Dick in a Box” proved SNL’s worth as YouTube viral video fodder. Viewers no longer needed to watch in real time to feel a part of the conversation the show was trying to start.

SNL is a perfect show for the Internet,” Samberg says. “It is tiny, little clips. And at its best, really impactful tiny, little clips that make people really happy and that they want to watch over and over again. That was always the trick of SNL, that you want to repeat the thing you saw in the sketch.”

In the end, Live From New York’s resistance to the excessive fawning-over that’s saturated the conversation surrounding SNL’s monumental milestone actually better underlines the show’s importance than more recent, unctuous efforts. When you’re talking about something as typically trivial as pop culture and attempting to use words like “important” to define it, the discussion can become insufferable really quickly.

But Live From New York isn’t a rudimentary celebration of SNL’s funniest clips or a self-congratulatory assault of luminaries ruminating on what makes it so great. The film even balks at the temptation to dig up the series’ more scandalous behind-the-scenes stories, which would’ve added tasteless, but headline-grabbing, sensational value to the film. (Not to mention they’ve all been told before.)

By taking as sharp a look at the show’s historical shortcomings as it does its cultural significance, Live From New York becomes the definitive account of how the show has managed to reign this long. More, it’s the biggest vote of confidence SNL has received yet on this anniversary year that its future longevity still holds promise.

“We’re always wanting to be taken seriously, wanting to have a voice,” Lorne Michaels says, closing the film. “The moment you stop aspiring to that, you shouldn’t be here.”