'Live From New York!': Tribeca Review

An enjoyable but unenlightening encomium

Cast and crew reminisce about having become the institution they once challenged.

Forty years of pop culture influence is a lot to fit into an 82-minute film, especially a documentary whose list of possible interviewees includes a spectrum of comedy trailblazers from Chevy Chase to Tina Fey. In Live From New York!, first-time feature director Bao Nguyen doesn't try to dig too deep, leaving serious behind-the-scenes lore to the SNL obsessives who've been poring over backstage accounts for years. Focusing on talking heads, almost all of whom say nice things about their experience of the show, he offers a puffy remembrance just a couple of notches more substantive than the supplemental doc in a DVD box set. Though more consistently entertaining (and a lot more fleet-footed) than February's snore-inducing anniversary special, it contains next to nothing that will surprise the show's fans.

The film has very little interest in how the show gets made. One might daydream about what Frederick Wiseman would do with an all-access pass to 30 Rock, but here we're lucky to get a few minutes talking to the designers and technicians whose workspaces we breeze through on the way to the next celebrity soundbite. (Longtime production designer and occasional Captain Sulu impersonator Akira Yoshimura is a welcome exception.) How do you make Dana Carvey look like George H.W. Bush? What happens when a prop doesn't function as expected? Ask somebody else, comedy nerd.

As if trying to assure us we're not watching a puff piece, Nguyen frontloads the film with long sections on SNL's lack of diversity. Julia Louis-Dreyfus recalls that the environment was "definitely sexist" during her stint there; Garrett Morris remembers having little to do. (Always-entertaining staff writer Anne Beatts, pointing out that SNL isn't alone, wonders, "Hey, where was the black Friend?") Given such a long white-boys'-club history, simply adding women and color to the cast doesn't fix things: Leslie Jones recalls getting a chance to put her own material on air — only to be torn apart by black viewers.

Other controversies are brought up but barely explored. Nguyen finds a great old news clip in which Lorne Michaels wonders how complaints about an Andrew "Dice" Clay episode morphed so quickly into talk of Nazi Germany; but anyone wondering how the cast felt about working with Clay — not to mention what the crew did during the commercial break after Sinead O'Connor tore up the pope's picture — will be disappointed.

In addition to welcome appearances by vets including Al Franken, the film recruits just enough semi-outsiders — Al Gore, Rudy Giuliani, and (ahem) Brian Williams — to give an idea how influential the series has been on the politicians and journalists it skewered. Its impact on showbiz beyond its Saturday time slot, though, (the movie franchises and spinoff series, the effect on the standup and improv scenes) goes unmentioned.

Where are Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy, Vanessa Bayer? These and a gaggle of other favorite performers are absent. While a couple of musicians drop in, nobody speaks about what it's like for an up-and-coming band to be picked as a musical guest. We get a nice account of the rise of the viral-video "SNL Digital Shorts," but no mention at all of "Schiller's Reel"; plenty of Jimmy Fallon but no Conan O'Brien.

Anyone familiar enough with the series to make these complaints can appreciate the challenge of crafting a feature-length doc that does justice to the comedy empire Lorne Michaels and scores of brilliant comedians have built. Anyone familiar enough with the show to make that concession might not need to see Live From New York!

Production company: BehindTheLine
Director: Bao Nguyen
Producers: JL Pomeroy, Kimmie H. Kim, Sarah Cowperthwaite, Owen Moogan
Executive producers: JL Pomeroy, Tom Broecker
Directors of photography: Caleb Heller, Bao Nguyen
Editor: Mari Keiko Gonzalez, David Osit
Music: Lenny Pickett

No rating, 82 minutes