Like many Americans, director Bao Nguyen first discovered “Saturday Night Live” by staying up past his bedtime and secretly watching the latenight television show.
As a teenager, Nguyen’s introduction came in the form of the mid-1990s cast of Adam Sandler and Chris Farley — a time of Opera Man, the Gap girls, motivational speaker Matt Foley and “The Chanukah Song.” In other words, several iterations and recurring sketches ago, but it’s a relatable initiation.
“Everyone has grown up watching ‘SNL,'” he said. “When it came out in 1975, the idea of doing a live comedy show was revolutionary. Now it’s become an institution.”
It fell to Nguyen to connect the generations of comedians who passed through Studio 8H and the impact that the show continues to have on popular and political culture with his new film, “Live From New York!” The documentary look at the show’s four decades on the air and boasts interviews with producer Lorne Michaels, as well as interviews with dozens of cast members and hosts such as Chevy Chase, Tina Fey, Chris Rock, Amy Poehler and Alec Baldwin. It will premiere as the opening-night film at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 15.
“It’s the only place we ever thought to debut the film,” said producer J.L. Pomeroy. “Our film is in many ways a love letter to New York, because the city is such a part of the show. It’s ridiculously synergistic.”
The film recounts high points, such as the blazing talents that were John Belushi and Eddie Murphy, along with low moments like the Dick Ebersol era. It also recounts the key role the show played in helping a country devastated by the 9/11 attack deal with its grief, inviting New York City firefighters and then Mayor Rudolph Giuliani on its first show after the Twin Towers were destroyed.
“There was so much uncertainty,” said Tom Broecker, a producer on the film and “Saturday Night Live’s” longtime costume designer. “The entire city was on edge.”
In order to defuse the tension, Michaels kicked off the show by asking Giuliani if it was alright to be funny, to which the mayor quipped, “Why start now?”
“It broke the ice,” said Broecker. “We were healing by laughing.”
The changing city reflects a show that has morphed from its early anti-establishment roots into a more genial form of satire. Just as the city has turned its back on its grimy ’70s legacy to become a gleaming playground for the well-heeled, so too has “Saturday Night Live” abandoned its drug-fueled humor in favor of lampooning hit television shows and Oval Office occupants.
“Saturday Night Live’s” willingness to evolve has helped keep it relevant. It’s also helped that the format of the show, a weekly program made up of stand-alone sketches, works well at a time when comic bits are shared, tweeted and streamed online and often after they air. NBC’s venerable program helped coin the phrase “going viral” after its rap parody “Lazy Sunday” became a YouTube sensation, and just this month, a Scientology send-up demonstrated that “Saturday Night Live” is just as able to generate social-media buzz.
“They’ve kept up with the Internet,” said Nguyen. “It’s almost as if in designing the show they predicted what the Internet was going to be. All of these clips need no context and they’re three to four minutes. They’re perfectly set up to viral.”
It also helps that “Saturday Night Live” has so seeped into the popular consciousness that whenever something awkward, embarrassing or notable happens TV viewers tune in to see how the show will mine humor from the situation.
“They so accurately reflect what’s going on in the country at a particular moment,” said Pomeroy. “They become a pop culture water cooler that you can’t wait to see how ‘SNL’ will handle an absurd presidential debate.”
Its acerbic influence can be felt across the entertainment landscape. It would be impossible, for instance, to imagine “The Daily Show” or “The Colbert Report” had “Saturday Night Live” not pioneered the concept of “fake news” with its “Weekend Update” report. It also has populated the comic A-list for 40 years by introducing the world to the likes of Kristen Wiig, Jimmy Fallon, Bill Murray, Mike Myers, Will Ferrell and Gilda Radner.
“I can’t think of anything that’s as powerful in terms of a casting tape for the comedy world as ‘Saturday Night Live,'” said Nguyen.