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Live From New York: Breaking Down The Enduring Impact Of SNL

Director Bao Nguyen talks about distilling 40 years of SNL into a feature doc, the keys to the show’s longevity and his favorite sketch.

The 40th season of Saturday Night Live ended this past May, but over the past nine months fans have been delivered a highly-rated three-and-a-half-hour anniversary special on prime time television, an expanded edition of Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller’s exhaustive oral history of the show, and plenty of debate-worthy pieces about its best cast members, most controversial sketches, most frequent FCC complaints, and more. To end this victory lap, this Friday will see the theatrical release of the documentary Live From New York!, which opened the Tribeca Film Festival this past April.

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Though this 82-minute movie is shorter than a standard episode of the show (including commercials and the part where everyone hugs as the credits roll), it manages to pack in a sturdy summation of the show’s history and includes some clips and performances that don’t usually make the greatest hits collections. Instead of attempting the near impossible by going for a comprehensive account, Live From New York! instead focuses on SNL’s relationship with the political and cultural climate of the United States—whether that means Dana Carvey’s distillation of President George H.W. Bush to a single catchphrase that he never actually said (“Not gonna do it.”) or when its most recent attempts to fix an obvious imbalance of female performers-of-color only blew up in its face on social media.

Lorne Michaels surrounded by “Video Vixens” Shelley Duvall, Gilda Radner, Laraine Newman and Jane Curtin in 1977.

Live From New York! is the first feature from director Bao Nguyen, who previously worked with producer J.L. Pomeroy on a short film and acted as cinematographer on the feature doc, Half the Sky. Nguyen’s SNL a very understated film about an institution that has involved plenty of explosive personalities and egos over the decades, some of whom were interviewed for the movie. Here Nguyen explains how he developed his approach to taking on a monumental subject and which David Spade-in-drag sketch makes him laugh as much as it did when he was a pre-teen.

Co.Create: When you started the film, was the intention always to make the focus how the show changed American politics and culture, or did that develop over time? 
 
Bao Nguyen: Our lead producers, J.L. Pomeroy and Tom Broecker [a costume designer on the show since the 1990s], had the original concept to do the film and they always wanted a different take on Saturday Night Live that hadn’t been seen before. Originally the film was going to look at Saturday Night Live as purely a time capsule and history of America through its 40 years, but over time the thesis evolved into more of how SNL reflected and impacted American politics and culture. Even though SNL definitely can serve as a time capsule in many ways, we found the approach of looking at the show as a mirror to be more fitting.
 


The film discusses all the times the show gave voice to or changed public opinion on subjects, but did you find any instances where the show’s approach diverged significantly from what the audience was feeling?

In my opinion, one of the moments that SNL was more reactionary was in regards to the lack of diversity on the program. After a lot of media and public backlash, they handled it the best way they know how—through comedy in the form of the Kerry Washington/Michelle Obama sketch. There is definitely a yearning for more diversity today and still a lot of room for improvement in that area within not just SNL but throughout all of media.
  
What do you think has been the key to the shows longevity?

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The fact that the format, a live show with three-minute sketches, has stayed relatively the same over the show’s 40 years really has helped its longevity. If SNL was trying to always recreate its format in the face of all the media changes, it would not be the institution it is today. That being said, SNL has been quite fortunate in that it is perfectly formatted to all these changes. With the inception of the Internet, people tend to enjoy watching standalone short clips that are easily sharable, which fits perfectly with the typical SNL sketch.
  
Was there anything you learned while watching them make the show that you think you will incorporate into how you approach your own projects?

In this industry, there is a lot of turnover, so meeting crew people who love their job and have been on it for so long, some for 40 years, was really inspiring. Even with the high stress, live environment of SNL, people have been there for so long because they love how creative they can be every week and really thrive on the pressure.
 
Watching the documentary, I couldn’t help but think that it could have easily been broken into five hour-long episodes that ran on TV. Were you overwhelmed with the amount of material you had to cover?

Combing through 40 years of SNL was a challenging task but I really can’t complain. Who wouldn’t want to watch past episodes and call it work? Figuring out who we were going to interview was one of the most difficult parts of making the film because we had to narrow it down to people who could really speak to the thesis of the film. We weren’t looking for the funniest or most popular cast member of each era, or the most successful post-SNL comedian, but people who could talk about SNL as a means to reflect American society. Luckily our team was multigenerational and spanned all four decades of the show’s history, so it was really a collaborative effort filtering out our interview subjects and the topics that we wanted to discuss in the film.


Have you always been a fan of the show?

I started watching when I was I around nine or so. I snuck out of my room every Saturday night while my parents were sleeping and watched it in secret. It was during the time that Adam Sandler, Chris Farley, and Chris Rock were on the show. I grew up in a Vietnamese immigrant household so my parents didn’t let me watch TV very often, and because of this, my knowledge of American culture and society suffered a bit. However, SNL was this perfect portal into America since it was always on top of current events and pop culture.
 
Do you have any favorite underrated character or sketches?

My guilty pleasure would be the Gap Girls sketch. It didn’t really take off, but it’s always had a close place in my heart. Every time I see it I laugh the same amount I did the first time around.