Live From New York is an intimate look at the stories behind the sketches that have entertained for forty years on Saturday Night Live. The stories about SNL’s rise to become a fixture of weekend television have been told many times before but what makes this version unique is how it gives both an overview of the massive changes made during run of the show, as well as some of the many technicians and stage personnel that have given an off-screen consistency over the decades.
Producer J.L. Pomeroy and Director Bao Nguyen sat down for an exclusive interview with Dork Shelf to talk about the challenges of making the film stand out from a crowded field, and the responsibilities they felt in doing justice to the legacy of SNL.
Dork Shelf: What was the first SNL episode you remember watching?
Bao Nguyen: I guess I was about 9 or so. My parents immigrated to the US from Viet Nam. I was born in the States, but they didn’t really let me watch TV that much. They would let me watch the nightly news, thinking that was going to teach me about America. But growing up in the late 80s, America was a pretty dangerous place so that was the perception I got at that time.
So while they were sleeping, I would sneak out and watch television and then I discovered this show called SNL. It became this perfect portal of American culture, politics and society for me. So it was kind of this bridge from my immigrant Vietnamese home to the outside in a way.
J.L. Pomeroy: Oh gosh, that’s a hard one. I used to sneak down when I was very young to watch shows I wasn’t supposed to. I think probably the first one that I remember was a rerun of the third or 4th episode in 1975. I was just fascinated by The Blues Brothers at a very young age, so those were kind of the first people I remember.
DS: Wasn’t Super Bass-o-matic on the 3rd one?
JLP: I’d have to go back and look at it [ed: nope], but The Blues Brothers were.
Oh my god, I love Bass-o-matic, there’s literally none that I don’t love, that’s the problem.
DS: I assume the biggest challenge was fitting everything in while still giving everyone what they expect to see
JLP: As far as fitting everything in to the run time, that’s definitely a fair comment. As far as giving everyone what they expect or want to see, not so much!
My producing partner [is] Tom Broecker, he’s actually the costumer designer on SNL for 20 years [and] you get to meet him in the film. He and I conceived of this idea and brought it to Lorne [Michaels].
Our idea was very specific – How do we look at SNL in a different way than it’s been looked at before? We wanted to really elevate it, not just as a comedy sketch show, but as an American cultural institution. How does SNL reflect what’s going on in our country at any given moment? How does it impact what’s going on in our country?
That thesis and that throughline were the bones of this operation. It wasn’t about delivering things that people had seen or hadn’t seen, it was about showing them how to look at SNL in a different way
DS: So rather than a clip show, it’s a more top-level examination of it as an institution?
JLP: That’s exactly it, and we had 82 minutes to do this!
We had two really strong objectives: One was how do we look at it from this overarching view and its impact culturally? Objective 2 was how do we make this a really enjoyable experience for a filmgoer, because this is the first time in 40 years that SNL fans can watch this in a theatre setting with a room full of strangers, collectively laughing and responding to things in real time.
That’s kind of a special thing and we wanted it to feel that way
DS: How did Bao get involved?
JLP: I had directed a short film for JLP in the past and they came to me with this kind of different approach to SNL I thought this approach, the way of looking at SNL and how it’s impacted it was a refreshing take and as a filmmaker, I’m always skeptical about something that’s been so well covered.
DS: What then did you bring to the table as a director?
BN: J.L. and Tom brought the concept and the approach, but they had never made a film before. In terms of the technical things, production, how to tell the story, how to go through 40 years of American history, having the one approach doesn’t make a film, that’s where I came in.
I wanted to make sure we were interweaving a lot of different aspects of SNL. It wasn’t just looking at clips but making sure we contextualized these clips by looking at news archival and things like that to really get a texture of what was going on.
If it was a different approach, if it was this definitive history, then I would have talked to many different people that weren’t in the film. But with this specific approach we formed in a way that it told this story.
DS: Were there specific voices that you wanted that did not participate?
BN: I mean, there’s a certain person in the 80s that’s quite famous . . .
DS: I’ll be blunt – Did you try to get Eddie Murphy?
BN: We reached out to Eddie.
We wanted to shoot all of the interviews at 8H to kind of get the sense of nostalgia and let people reflect on that space itself and their memory of that space. 8H is still a working studio, we had to work around the schedule of not just the talent but also of the show. Eddie Murphy doesn’t give that many interviews and not that many about SNL. Of course, I wish we would have spoken to him, but sometimes you have to play with the cards you’re dealt.
The story we told could be told with other people and not just Eddie Murphy.
DS: What was the most difficult sketch to not include?
JLP: It never came down to which sketches do we include or not include, we didn’t go that direction, we went the other direction. We went from a direction of what historical moments – what sort of staccato highlights of our American history do we want to incorporate into this film, and then how do we reflect their time on SNL.
DS: As a long time viewer of the show, I’m always fascinated that it always seems people complain that it used to be so much better five years ago. There’s a strange nostalgia wrapped up in this comedy show, and the occasional dismissal of it when it’s actually airing.
JLP: That’s interesting. You’ve really kind of hit the nail on the head of something that will always endlessly be talked about when it comes to SNL. After having spent a year on this project and having come from the outside and looking in and having this incredible opportunity to be inside the looking glass, I feel that the magic of SNL is this ability to balance the rich legacy and history and tradition of the show.
It’s the same structure – a cold open, a monologue. It’s shot in studio 8H. Many of the craftspeople have been there for 40 years, Lorne has been there for 35. It’s a living, breathing organism.
Weeks ago, there was an ISIS sketch that was just about as dead on as one could be. A week after that, there was a new impersonation from Kate McKinnon about Hillary Clinton and 48 hours later, she was announcing her run for the U.S. Presidency.
That to me supersedes the endless discussion of which cast was the best.
Almost everyone we speak to, the years that resonate with them are their high school years. That’s the best cast because that’s when I was in high school and that’s who I loved.
To your point, the next year, it’s like oh, actually, these guys were pretty good, but always backwards and never in real time.
I think that’s kind of the beauty of the show and I think that the fact that you’re asking that question and the fact that that’s an endless dialogue is kind of the point.
DS: Was there any pressure from Lorne or others to gloss over any of the show elements that failed?
JLP: We had complete and total creative freedom, which is extremely unprecedented and unusual. We had no pressure from Lorne, no involvement from Lorne. He’s now been quoted in many publications as saying that he saw the film for the first time at Tribeca and that is the truth.
We really felt like we tried to attack everything as objectively as possible as outsiders. We tackled some pretty serious topics, like racial diversity and gender equality and response to tragedy, so we weren’t shying away from necessarily being critical of the show.
But again, because our thesis was how does SNL reflect what’s going on in the country, we’re just focusing on how does SNL reflect the country. If it’s a silly sketch that was a disaster that got cut on a given week, it’s not going to impact that, so we’re just taking our specific story and telling it.
[We put] in the quote “we don’t go on because we’re ready, we go on because it’s 11:30”. The reality is, if you’re going to do a live show, there are going to be some terrible things. You’ve got to try some things and they’re not going to work, and you try some other things, and they’re totally going to blow your mind and work really well. And that happened every episode of every show for 40 years, including 1975, the greatest revered years. There’s all sorts of terrible sketches in there that are a disaster. There was muppets for god’s sakes. There was lots of bad things. But that just wasn’t the nature of this film.
DS: Did your perception of the sketches change as you delved in?
BN: When anyone first watches SNL they come at it like it’s just a sketch comedy show. They’re laughing about it and they just connect to certain characters. The way we looked at it is on a macro approach, looking at the micro idea of the sketches and seeing how it impacted an election per se.
Take the “lock box” sketch. When you’re watching it, you’re not thinking oh, this is really going to create this perception of Al Gore that’s not going to be reversed. Oh, George Bush is so likeable, that could actually swing Florida. So, taking a step back in the way we were able to examine it. When an election is that close, as Al Franken was saying, the perception and the public image created by a show like SNL is so important in the first impression that some people have, especially young people.
When they see George Bush as Will Ferrell, they’re like oh, this guy’s really funny, he’d be a cool President.
DS: “I could have a beer with him.”
BN: Yeah, exactly, it’s a little scary, but that was enlightening for us to see. I studied politics [as an] undergraduate and I learned that perception is kind of the most importnant thing when it comes to elections and political campaigns. SNL can create this impression that a politician can’t overcome because they don’t have the resources or the platform that SNL can offer.
DS: When you see SNL on TV, do you watch it differently now that you’ve done this project?
BN: I still watch it as a fun show, I mean, there’s little details that come about, like oh, I wonder how long it took the costume designer to do that, or that’s in interesting lighting choice, but that’s just coming from a filmmaker’s perspective, that’s not coming from someone who’s seen how it’s made.
JLP: It’s fascinating how differently I watch it now. We got to know these people, we became friends with some of these people, it’s an extraordinary community and while they were hesitant, they were welcoming and ultimately just fully embraced us by the end.
Now, when I watch the show, I see Donna dragging the host off the stage. I see her tossing it over to Jenna who’s running the thing and I see Chris running the stage. We see the people and they’re not just bodies in the background, they’re humans that we know and got to have relationships with. [We’re] seeing the choreography and the beauty of that live machine, when they pull back the camera and you see them switching it’s just a completely different context for me that’s just wonderful.
DS: It remains remarkable that a man in his 70s is still the patriarch of a comedy institution…
JLP: If you look at who [Lorne]’s hiring, he’s still hiring 20 to 30 year old kids. He’s not hiring 70 year old contemporaries. He himself is an archetype of that show. His presence is very felt, very known, he’s not the person writing those sketches, [but] he’s not the person that’s ultimately guiding those actors. That’s all happening with his team that he’s given complete and total autonomy to.
[Lorne] came in as a young contrarian who wanted to destroy TV. Now the show’s become an institution and he’s become an icon. Can you still be funny if you’re the institution at which you used to poke fun? I think that they’ve proven that they can, it’s just from a different perspective. Instead of just attacking everything because it’s an institution, they’re just attacking particular institutions.
DS: So they remain funny even though they are now writing for prime time?
JLP: Exactly. They are ready for prime time players.