‘Live from New York’: A Quick Look at How SNL Became an American Institution

Where were you on October 11, 1975? Some of you weren’t even born yet and some may have been sleeping when what began as a crazy “an experimental do-it-yourself” variety show premiered on NBC, “Saturday Night Live.” That show now celebrates  40 years of chaos, comedy and social commentary. Opening Friday at the Pasadena Laemmle Playhouse 7, “Live from New York!” is a nostalgic quick-paced documentary about “Saturday Night Live.”

Directed by Bao Nguyen, “Live from New York!” tries to touch on all of the highlights without ignoring the problems and controversies. Nothing is covered in depth, but you’ll get a history light version that might inspire you to binge watch 40 years of programming elsewhere.

The documentary begins with early green screens of some original cast members.  You’ll see the much younger versions of some well known actors such as Dan Aykroyd,  Chevy Chase, Jane Curtin and Bill Murray (who replaced Chase in the second season), but you’ll also see some people who have since died (John Belushi of a drug overdose in 1982)  and Gilda Radner (of cancer in 1989) and lesser known cast members such as Laraine Newman and Garrett Morris.

The genesis of SNL began in 1974 when NBC president Herbert Schlosser asked Dick Ebersol, who was then the vice president of late night programming, to create a live show to fill the Saturday slot. Ebersol in turn went to SNL creator Lorne Michaels (Michaels provides most of the commentary for this documentary).

Political humor hadn’t faired well on TV. The popular but controversial “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” (1967-1969) had been canceled by CBS due to Tom and Dick Smothers sympathy for the counterculture.

By the time of  SNL’s premiere, the Vietnam War was over,  Richard Nixon had resigned from the presidency in 1974. Gerald Ford was president in his place (1974-1977). “Hee Haw,” the CBS show that replaced the “The Smothers Brothers” as on the air.  Donny and Marie Osmond would debut their show January of the next year, 1976. SNL was going against that trend. It was to be “a cross between ’60 Minutes’ and Monty Python.”  The first woman guest host Candice Bergen called it “a variety show on acid.” 

The documentary uses clips from the shows, behind the scenes footage and recent interviews with former and current cast members. SNL was sometimes behind the curve. With black and women comedians, SNL didn’t lead, but it did get better. Morris comments “I felt robbed the first year” and one of SNL’s brightest black cast members is notably missing from the commentary: Eddie Murphy.

Through the years, women figured prominently in two of the most controversial episodes noted on the documentary. Andrew Dice Clay’s appearance during season 15 resulted in a boycott by cast member Nora Dunn who was joined by the originally scheduled musical guest  Sinéad O’Connor. O’Connor appeared on a different episode where she ripped up a photo of the pope to protest child abuse in the Catholic church. While the public might have been bewildered at the time, but when the child abuse scandal became more widely known, we can look back at O’Connor’s protest with a different view.

SNL did change as did the political scene. The documentary looks at how SNL could possibly change a politician’s image, exaggerating it (e.g. Ford’s clumsiness). The rise of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin came at a time when SNL had two exceptional women cast members to play them: Amy Poehler and Tina Fey. Fey would go on to work with SNL’s most frequents host: Alec Baldwin (16).

SNL would eventually bring on black female cast members Sasheer Zamata and Leslie Jones, but the longest serving person on the show is the guy who played Sulu on the show: Akira “Leo” Yoshimura, a production designer who also played a bad Connie Chung.

As the guest hosts who have racked up the most time on SNL,  Baldwin and Steve Martin (15) are both included in the documentary as well as political activist Ralph Nader  who  appeared in a segment that made people think twice about eating hotdogs. Nader’s appearance is more of a sidebar that bogs down the documentary but it does show how diverse the guest hosts were.

The documentary does movingly show how hard humor can be in the times of crisis. Consider how SNL handled the tragedies in New York City on 9/11. Then mayor of NYC, Rudy Giuliani appeared and with Michaels opened the show while standing in front of first responders. For the musical segment, Paul Simon appeared and sang “The Boxer,” a song chosen by Michaels.

Once a scrappy anti-establishment program, SNL is now part of the American culture and the establishment. Nyugen shows that SNL has expanded by adapting to new media. YouTube opened up new opportunities for skit comedies as seen with the viral success of The Lonely Island (SNL members Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Torme) videos “Lazy Sunday” and ” Dick in a Box.”

Now there’s an expectation that happens in the world will be translated by SNL “where everyone is necessary until the end” with the cast and crew  “simultaneously working as a team” because for SNL “We don’t go on because we’re ready. We go on because it’s 11:30.”

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