Having explored “Saturday Night Live’s” history by decade, producer-writer-director Kenneth Bowser no longer has a logical template for his “Please, give us two watchable primetime hours during sweeps” assignments for NBC. Enter this “SNL: Backstage” special, a pleasant if rather scattered trip down memory lane, loosely divided into chapters about the program’s shorts, what makes a good host, past controversies, and so on. Mostly, it feels like a quilt pieced together from leftover patches from the earlier “SNL” docs — reminding us, inadvertently, that the old gal ain’t what she used to be.
“Backstage” opens with a bit of history regarding how the show was born and wound up in New York, but after that, it’s on to rather arbitrary chapters about elements within the program. And do we really need another rehash of how then-NBC chief Don Ohlmeyer decided to yank Norm Macdonald off “Weekend Update?”
The best portion, it turns out, involves some of the famous cast members and writers who didn’t survive what Alec Baldwin — generally considered one of the show’s Hall of Fame hosts — characterized as producer Lorne Michaels’ “very Darwinian” process in the way the program gets assembled and which sketches make the cut. Many “SNL” washouts went on to tremendous success, a roster that includes Larry David, Chris Rock, Damon Wayans and Robert Downey Jr.
Otherwise, it’s simply another “greatest hits” compilation — a chance to chuckle at “Dick in a Box” all over again. What’s lacking is any clear reason for revisiting this material, other than, you know, just because.
Those interviewed in “SNL: Backstage” do repeatedly make the point that new casts are invariably judged harshly in comparison with old ones, but that alibi hardly accounts for the program’s weak creative drift in recent years. In that context, Michaels and company owe a debt to the 2008 election and Sarah Palin that they can never repay.
One of the “SNL” also-rans, Gilbert Gottfried, concisely sums up the franchise’s relationship with the audience in its fifth decade, suggesting that by now “SNL” is “just a restaurant in a good location.”
True enough, and “SNL: Backstage” is little more than another latenight snack.