Live from New York! isn’t so much a deep dive into the inner workings and backstage drama of venerable NBC sketch show Saturday Night Live as a glossy highlight reel exuding the aura of a back-pat. Formally, it relies on a bevy of spectacularly funny clips and a plethora of talking heads, most of which fall back on plaudits rather than sage insights. Fred Armisen glowingly labels the show “the heartbeat of New York,” a concise summation of the film’s overwhelmingly sanctimonious ethos. Even ex cast members who departed on less-than-stellar terms, like Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Al Franken, skew sentimental. The gauze of nostalgia reigns supreme. Originally determined to “destroy TV,” as original cast member Chevy Chase phrases it, in this context Saturday Night Live comes across dishearteningly comfy in its anachronism.
Even if 82 minutes is hardly enough time to encompass a 40-year legacy, director Bao Nguyen’s film is conspicuous for its emphasis on the show’s brightest moments, paying mere lip service to the more complicated aspects of its mostly storied history. Louis-Dreyfus suggests a sexist atmosphere existed during her brief tenure in the early ’80s, yet this claim is almost instantly shunted aside for a lengthy commemoration of the Tina Fey/Amy Poehler golden era when the doors, according to Poehler, were “wide open” to women. The latter doesn’t necessarily excuse the former, though the documentary hopes to elicit the impression that it does. And Fey’s potentially revealing observation that the writers’ room was predominantly composed of men rather than women is afforded no follow through whatsoever. As for the show’s infamous struggles with diversifying its troupes, Live from New York! repeatedly raises the question, then deflects. Former cast member Jane Curtin remarks: “It’s always had a diversity problem. I don’t know why.” Neither does the film, and, worse, it never seeks to know why. Curtin limply offers: “It’s hard to change.”
Yet the program has changed. The doc’s emergent arc illustrates how a show that was originally anarchic in tone morphed into an institution of the establishment, an idea intriguingly tied to the celebrated post-9/11 episode. In the wake of the attack on New York, as the tenor of mainstream televisions’ humor softened, SNL began cordially ribbing the political and cultural landscape rather than caustically critiquing it. The film views this as a necessary trade-off, heartily endorsing an artistic compromise as a means to engender longevity without ever challenging its interviewees on this shift, signaling the documentary’s decided favoritism toward its subject. At one point, SNL creator Lorne Michaels asserts his show’s need to remain “non-partisan,” yet Live from New York ! itself is far from neutral, instead serving as a tidy vessel for SNL’s own self-congratulation.