Tribeca 2015: At 'SNL' Doc Premiere, Castmembers Recall Taking on Hot Topics
'Live From New York!' director Bao Nguyen, who approached the long-running sketch comedy as a lens on society, also talked to THR about the show's diversity issues.
The 14th annual Tribeca Film Festival kicked off Wednesday night with the premiere of the Saturday Night Live documentary, Live from New York!, which focuses on how the long-running sketch comedy show has reflected and affected society and pop culture.
"We wanted to look at [SNL] from a different angle and the context that we looked at it, we kind of said, 'What if we elevated things a little bit and looked at SNL as a reflection of what was happening in the country at any given time,'" producer/EP JL Pomeroy told THR of her and fellow exec producer and longtime SNL costume designer Tom Broecker's approach to the film. "In a lot of ways, Saturday Night Live is a mirror that you hold up and say, 'What's happening this week? Let's see it on Saturday through a satirical lens.'"
In light of Live from New York!'s approach, The Hollywood Reporter asked the current SNL castmembers in attendance about sketches they were part of that seemed to really tap into what people were talking about.
Bobby Moynihan recalled his unseen role in the Sarah Palin rap (he was in the moose costume). "Also the first time Tina Fey played Sarah Palin was my first show," he added. "I remember that being a big deal."
Beck Bennett said he "really loved" the show's parody, a couple of weeks ago, of the Scientology video shown in HBO's Going Clear documentary. "It was such a great satirical piece on Scientology and the documentary, whichever's true. We'll never know," he said.
For Aidy Bryant, it was a recent sketch about the booty trend that stands out.
"At the beginning of the season, we did a scene where we said 'big fat ass' a lot, and that was very much a cultural thing in that moment," she said. "It was like the summer of butts, so I was very honored to be a part of that."
Sasheer Zamata, meanwhile, remembers being part of the Beyonce, Jay Z, Solange elevator-fight sketch, which aired just days after the scandal broke.
"It was like so cool to see that quick turnaround of when something happens in the news to when [it makes it on SNL]," she said.
In its look at the relationship between SNL and society, Live From New York! explores the significance and origins of the show's memorable political impersonations (including Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush, Al Gore, George W. Bush, Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin), of course. But the doc doesn't shy away from controversial moments in the show's 40-year history, including its diversity issues.
Original castmember Garrett Morris recall that it was tough for him to land roles (including one as a doctor, which he didn't get) in sketches. And the documentary covers the recent controversy over the show's lack of black female castmembers, a situation that was partially rectified after the show added Zamata and, later, Leslie Jones.
Director Bao Nguyen pointed out that these diversity issues are not confined to SNL.
"If you look at most shows on television, I think media in general is not mirroring society very well — but things are changing," he said.
Similarly, in the doc, SNL alums wonder why the show was singled out for its lack of diversity when that seems to be the case on multiple shows
Nguyen added that SNL in particular seems to be aware of this issue and is taking steps to correct it, but it's hard to find the right talent.
"I think they're very aware that that's a problem. You've got to understand that a show like SNL that's a very specific type of comedy show … it's a very particular field set for a comedian. So I think if someone sees a funny Asian stand-up comic, they're like, 'Why isn't that person a player on SNL?' But it's hard looking at it from the outside in," he explained. "I think they're trying to change, and as an Asian-American filmmaker, I'm of course thinking about diversity."
On the red carpet, early SNL writer Anne Beatts also recalled her tough early days on the show, something that was made easier by her role at National Lampoon.
"I'd already been baptized by fire at the National Lampoon, being the girl on the magazine," she said. "When I got to SNL it was better but still really hard and today it still is. … It hasn't changed as much as you think."
The doc traces SNL from its early days to its more recent incarnations, covering Lorne Michaels leaving, the show's role in the 2000 and 2008 elections, and its first post-9/11 show.
The packed audience at New York's Beacon Theatre reacted enthusiastically to the film, laughing loudly during sketch clips and at funny comments from interviewees.
In particular, Leslie Jones' defense of her "Weekend Update" slavery routine had the crowd roaring so loudly the following remarks by Chris Rock couldn't be heard.
In contrast, there was an awkward silence during two brief interviews with Brian Williams that were included in the documentary.
Other memorable interviewees included Amy Poehler, Chevy Chase, Lorne Michaels, Candice Bergen, Tom Brokaw, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Dana Carvey, Steve Martin, Jane Curtin, Seth Meyers, Jimmy Fallon, Will Ferrell, Ralph Nader, Al Gore, Rudy Giuliani and Al Franken.
Still, there were some well-known SNL alums that the filmmakers couldn't interview.
"There are a lot of people — I don't want to mention names — who are big stars now," Nguyen said. "Also, it's hard to just coordinate everyone. And some people, SNL was way back in the early stages in their career, so they kind of want to forget about that part of their career."