David Letterman bid a much-ballyhooed farewell last month, capping 33 years of late night TV. That’s a huge accomplishment. Yet it pales, at least in terms of calendar years, to the run of Saturday Night Live, which recently hit the big 4-0, although most fans probably prefer earlier models of each late night show.
The documentary Live from New York! seeks to capture in 80 minutes what it took 40 years of television to build. And, while it’s not a disaster, it’s very hard to see what you really learn from it. This is different from the Tom Shales book of the same name, which was released about 10 years ago, which included tons of good factoids and showcased great stories and reminisces. With few exceptions, the interviews featured here tend to focus on one generic question: What makes this show special?
The answers come from a parade of entertainers, cast members and hosts alike, plus a couple long-serving crewmembers and celebrity fans. But none of the answers tell you anything, so the film moves you no closer to unlocking what really did make the show special (or does still, if you’re under 20). Now and then, Al Franken will show up and say something smart, or former female cast members will wag their fingers at the sexism that existed on the show because it was so male-dominated for so long. But outside of those instances and a couple of others, it’s a very shallow oral history.
The draw of this documentary far outweighs what you get in return. The interviews are brief and jammed together. After the genesis and first few years are established, there’s no particular sequence; the film just starts jumping from topic to topic, and with no segues. Strangely, for a show that has launched so many careers, it rarely calls out individual performers. The original cast gets some love, the trio of Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman and Jan Hooks get a hat tip, Tina Fey says Eddie Murphy was great … and that’s about all the film can muster. Will Ferrell, who arguably saved the show after the exodus of Carvey, Hartman and Mike Myers, is barely featured at all outside of his George W. Bush impression. The pair of Fey and Amy Poehler are mentioned for a couple seconds.
If you’re watching for anything, it’s probably your favorite sketches and memories about them. But Live from New York! really wants to tell you the cultural role the show played, skewering politicians, being there for America after 9/11, and basically being awesome when we needed awesome. Remember when it was awesome?
It’s not like there’s some shortage of footage available to the filmmakers, but a lot of the clips seem to be strange choices, and things you’d expect to find—from the Blues Brothers to the Church Lady to Celebrity Jeopardy to More Cowbell to Stefon—aren’t here. The musical performances and Weekend Update, elements so central to the show’s success, receive only cursory glances. So at the very least, this is an incredibly odd representation of a cultural touchstone that has spanned multiple generations.
The problem seems to be that this documentary doesn’t just want you to remember the good times; it also wants you to think about Saturday Night Live as an important voice over the past 40 years. That’s fair. But it’s not funny.