The Secrets of ‘Saturday Night Live’: Where Comedy Legends Are Born

Does Tina Fey think it’s sexist? How does Chris Rock feel about its racist history? Live From New York!’s Bao Nguyen on probing SNL’s cast about its thorny past.

Courtesy of Live from New York!

“Can you think of any other show that people talk about or bicker about more than Saturday Night Live?” filmmaker Bao Nguyen asks me. “And then across four generations?”

Perhaps the monumental cultural effect NBC’s venerable late-night program has had in its 40-year tenure shouldn’t need to be elucidated and examined closely.

We’ve all either grown up or grown old with it, and whether it’s Sinead O’Connor ripping up the photo of the pope, Eddie Murphy putting racial stereotypes on blast, Rudy Giuliani telling us it’s OK to laugh again after 9/11, or Tina Fey doing some “fancy pageant walking” with Sarah Palin, we all can chart pop culture’s most explosive and meaningful moments through its iconic satire.

Live From New York!, a new documentary that premiered earlier this year at the Tribeca Film Festival and hit theaters this Friday, is a companion piece to NBC’s 40th Anniversary fete.

But whereas that special gazed at SNL’s history through rose-colored glasses, director Bao Nguyen’s documentary tells the story of SNL’s four oft-troubled decades as a cultural mirror with a skeptical raised eyebrow and no-bullshit perspective befitting television’s seminal, now middle-aged bullshit barometer.

There’s Garrett Morris, Chris Rock, and Leslie Jones talking about the show’s historic lack of diversity. Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus all offer differing opinions on accusations that the show has been sexist. And even Studio 8H’s Grand Poobah Lorne Michaels sits down to wax nostalgic on the show’s cultural importance, and confront some of its more problematic elements.

But while SNL’s significance hasn’t waned over its four decades, Live From New York! spotlights the crucial ways the show has changed. As Poehler says in the doc, “Saturday Night Live is a show your parents used to have sex to that now you watch from your computer during the day.”

With the film in theaters this weekend, we spoke with Nguyen about, basically, his dream job: talking with the funniest, most important comedic minds in the business, the past and current cast members and writers of Saturday Night Live.

What was it like to ask these icons the tough questions? Who surprised him the most?

Live from your computer, it’s our Live From New York! interview.

This movie opened the Tribeca Film Festival at the Beacon Theatre, with an after party packed with SNL cast members at Central Park’s Tavern on the Green. That’s bonkers. What was the most surreal part of the night?

I mean the whole night was surreal. Personally for me, the Tribeca Film Festival was something I had been going to since I was a freshman at NYU. I went to the first one and remember really liking what they were trying to do after September 11th. Fourteen-plus years later opening the festival and having Robert De Niro introduce me was super surreal. My name is not the easiest name to pronounce, so right before we went on stage I grabbed him and was like, “Do you know how to pronounce my name?” And luckily he did. I mean he had a variation of my last name, but like, OK it’s Robert De Niro, he can pronounce my name any way he wants to.

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The SNL casts are notorious for partying. Any stories there?

Yeah. It wasn’t as wild and crazy as I’d imagine the Belushi years to be. I don’t think anything rivals that nowadays. It was definitely a fun experience for the crew. Having that release of showing that film to Lorne Michaels for the first time.

Lorne Michaels hadn’t seen it before that opening night screening?

Nope. I think that he hadn’t seen the film until that night surprised most people. People think he’s really hands-on and nitpicking everything. But for our film he was really hands-off and trusted our team. That says a lot about how he works and how he trusts the creative people around him. It was nice not having him over our shoulder looking at cuts all the time. But it was also nerve-wracking knowing that opening night would be the first time he saw the film. I didn’t have a chance to talk to him at the party, but he went up to our editor and just told him that he really enjoyed the film and how moving it was. So that meant a lot to us.

Looking at this film as a companion piece to the 40th Anniversary Special, it was nowhere near as self-congratulatory and effusive as that special. It’s cool to think about Lorne enjoying it, knowing that there were honest critiques in there, especially about race and sexism.

Yeah. As an Asian American filmmaker I’m very well aware of the diversity problems on the show. I knew it was something very important for us to talk about. SNL has been around for 40 years, and everyone has different perspectives on the show. I don’t think there’s one singular perspective that’s totally correct. We just wanted to have a mosaic of voices and have them talk about their experiences. With SNL, people have their own personal connection. So you can’t ever look at it too objectively. It’s always going to be a subjective take on the show. So that was our approach, to have everyone form their own opinions on, “Is SNL sexist? Is SNL diverse?”

Was it hard to coax the interview subjects into talking about the more hot-button issues?

People were quite frank in their criticisms. There were some people obviously who were a little more reserved in their criticisms or their takes on certain controversial issues. But for the most part, people just spoke about their own experiences. And from that you could kind of determine things. Like, OK, within that environment it was a little sexist. Or in that environment it was—not racist, but not so racially progressive.

Garrett Morris spoke surprisingly freely about the show’s race issues.

Garrett Morris was really open about his challenges and that was refreshing. A lot of times I think when they’re being interviewed about the show they’re asked the same questions. “What was your favorite character to play? What was your favorite sketch? Who was your favorite host to work with?” We were asking them more challenging questions. I think they were quite happy to talk about a different aspect of the show.

We just spoke about Garrett Morris. Was there anyone else who surprised you with their candor or willingness to speak about these topics?

Julia Louis-Dreyfus kind of just spoke her mind completely about her experience on the show. She was quite young at the time, in her early twenties or so. So I think she could really look back on it as a part of her youth and her coming of age, in a way, in the comedy world. Now she’s such a powerhouse in the comedy world that maybe the experience hardened her a bit more and prepared her for what was to come. But she didn’t just talk about how sexist the environment was, but how bad her seasons were as well. That compared to the legendary cast members in seasons before her and even after her, that she was there in a kind of a dark period in the show.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus was wonderfully frank.

Again, people didn’t sugarcoat their experience. And I think that also said a lot about how they respect Lorne as well. Because they know that Lorne allows them to speak their mind. They always say how much they admire and respect Lorne, and then they say “my cast” or “the environment on my season was x, y, and z.”

That so many former female cast members all had different things to say in response to the “Is SNL sexist?” question was surprising.

I think it’s again all really subjective to people’s experiences. As Tina Fey and Amy Poehler said, the makeup of the room is 70 percent male, and when that’s the case there’s going to be pushback against the female writers. I think it’s more about that specific environment at that specific time as opposed to a culture that permeates the show for the last 40 years. I think if you look at SNL as a whole in terms of the strength of the female writers and cast, it’s quite exemplary compared to most things on television.

Talking to Lorne, were there questions you were afraid to ask?

There’s a lot of research, because there’s been so many interviews with Lorne before. He’s done these interviews so many times you already know what the answers to some of the questions are. So you want to frame the questions in a way that you get the answers that you need in the film, but you also get it in slightly different deliveries. We knew that we had the luxury of using all these archival interviews too of him. I thought it was important to make sure that we saw the progression in how the show changed over the years. We do use those archival interviews and I think they’re important because they show the evolution of Lorne, too, and his haircuts. (Laughs) You see him in his twenties talking on The Tomorrow Show and then we have the modern-day interview.

Was there a question you asked that he seemed put off by?

I mean he’s been asked everything before, so nothing came as a surprise to him. He was very forthcoming. Again, he is the public image of SNL. He knows that he has to represent SNL and be the spokesperson for it in many ways. So he was quite open in everything he talked about. I can’t remember one instance really that people didn’t want to talk about a certain topic, unless we referred to a specific sketch they didn’t know about, or remember too well. But in terms of the larger issues of the show as they faced them, they were quite frank about it. And Lorne as well.

SNL is so well-documented at this point. Did you uncover anything new? Or were there any conversations that you raised for the first time?Well the film isn’t a behind the scenes, gossipy exposé on SNL. There have been a lot of documentaries and books about this show. Tom Shales’s book especially is a very insidery perspective on the show. That’s not the approach we were trying to take. We’re trying to take a look at the show as a way of reflecting and impacting American culture and society, and seeing it at a more macro level. By looking at the micro sketches, we’re looking at the macro impact on American audiences. Our film is kind of taking a step back from the way you usually look at SNL. Looking at it in its historical value rather than its comedic value.

There was a lot of really good material about how the show has changed in the past few years—that the way we consume it now is through viral videos and how that’s creatively revitalized the show. I think when people look at the show in that way it helps them realize there’s a future in it still. Yet there are those every year who say Saturday Night Dead. What do you see as the future of the show and its place in our culture going forward?

Well I think it’s solidified its place. In my opinion, and I think most people’s opinions, it’s the most important American comedic institution that’s ever been around. People keep saying that the show isn’t as good as it was before…

…or even that it doesn’t have the influence that it used to have.

I think that is somewhat true, just because the influence of everything else has grown so much. Especially with the Internet there’s so much noise out there that something like SNL and its influence has to diminish a little bit. But if you look at who is still the most important player in American comedy, people would argue that maybe it’s The Daily Show, but I think SNL beats that still.

I would say you’re correct.

When I was watching the show live, we had the honor of being there for the last five weeks of the 39th Season, but I watched the audience members react and laugh. The older audience wasn’t laughing much at some of the pop culture jokes, but everyone under the age of 25 in the audience was dying of laughter. I think that’s indicative of what this show is, that it’s always what’s happening at the time and reflecting a certain age and generation at the time. For me, I’m in my thirties and maybe I don’t connect to it as much as I did when I watched in the ‘90s. It always passes the baton to the next generation.

Everyone’s “best SNL cast ever” is the one that was on when they were coming of age.

Exactly. So I think as we get older we get fickle about things we hold dear to us in the past. That’s what’s happening now with SNL. People have such connections to SNL. We have this ownership that we don’t have with any other show, really. Can you think of any other show that people talk about or bicker about more than SNL and its cast? And then across four generations?

Nope. I can’t. And as a fan, before you started working on this who were you most excited to interview? Or had the most fun doing?

I grew up in the Bad Boys of SNL days, I guess people call it. The Chris Farley, Adam Sandler, David Spade, and Chris Rock days. I had the honor of interviewing Chris Rock. So just to talk to him about the show and the show’s diversity and race on the show, that was really an honor for me. Also, Will Ferrell obviously, too. To have people who are always the funniest people in the room talk about the show. They don’t have to be funny in an interview, and they are quite articulate and insightful about their experiences on the show. That was a thrill for me.

I hate asking because it assumes that funny people should always be funny and so many of your subjects gave you such thoughtful interviews, but who made you laugh the most?

It’s quite unexpected. One of our first interviews was Alec Baldwin. He wasn’t a cast member on the show, but he has the record of hosting the most times. He had some stories that if we kept in the film you would just hear the crew’s laughter over his sound bites. So hopefully if we do a DVD extras then some of his anecdotes will be included. But we couldn’t stop laughing about some of the things he would say about the show. You know, you expect that from a comedian or one of the cast members. But he was such a sharp, super clever guy. To have him tell some of these stories, I couldn’t stop laughing.