For 40 years, NBC’s Saturday Night Live has been an institution of comedic genius, producing American popular culture’s most memorable comedy characters and sketches while creating a host of monumental stars in its wake, many of whom have gone onto iconic careers on their own television series and feature films.
For the show’s 40th anniversary in spring of 2015, a special live broadcast collected many of SNL’s notable alumni from various eras in a presentation which was largely memorable if wholly uneven. On the heels of the end of the 40th season of live broadcasts, a new documentary, Live from New York!, takes an alternative approach to paying tribute to this celebrated series and its many contributors, not only the show’s “Not Ready for Prime Time” players, but its many writers, designers and technicians.
“Myself and Tom Broecker, the costume designer [on SNL] for the last 20 years, were having a chat one day,” said producer JL Pomeroy who created the feature-length project with Broecker. “‘What kind of documentary idea could we come up with that would be really different?’ There are all these retrospectives. Tom wanted to see something completely different – an anthropological take on it – an interesting way to reflect culture. We took the idea to [SNL executive producer] Lorne Michaels and we proposed it to him. He gave us a green light.”
After Michaels’ official blessing, Pomeroy and Broecker produced the entire documentary in 11 months, amassing 40 years of archival footage plus 130 hours of new footage. Their final edit – a lean 82 minutes which leaves the viewer wanting more – supported their thesis of the film: TV show as significant cultural staple.
Given the filmmakers’ approach, for Pomeroy, the process was a combination of documentary and narrative story. “It was a constant puzzle with many variables,” she said, noting the near impossibility of giving equal time to all of SNL’s many famed eras, each with its own dynamic team of cast members, mandating that only specific time periods would be covered. “Filmmaking is a dynamic process and you make decisions. It was really tricky to cover the ’80s. What are you going to talk about? We weren’t at war. There weren’t any major life events that happened in America. It was about shoulder pads, music and entertainment. There wasn’t a lot of serious heft going on. We touched on the ’80s, but it was just a reference point.”
Surely, accessing 40 years of talent both in front of and behind the camera would be a daunting task for any documentary project, but Live From New York!’s filmmakers endeavored to bring in a healthy selection of interview subjects, both familiar and less expected. “We have an amazing talent producer, Sarah Cowperthwaite,” Pomeroy noted. “She booked all 50 people who we interviewed. Everyone wanted to participate. We are so blessed. They were honored to be a part of it. It was just about scheduling. Mick Jagger said, ‘Yes.’ He was on tour. Right until the last second, we were trying to fit in a couple of folks. We hated to let it go. Obama’s office wanted to participate, but we couldn’t make it happen. Equal parts heartbreaking and challenging.”
Some of SNL’s most revered cast members and onscreen moments not surprisingly came from the original show during the formative years of 1975-1980, but a problem existed in researching archival material from that period. “In the early days, especially, Lorne was absolutely militant about not letting anything happen on that stage,” Pomeroy explained of their relative failure in finding behind-the-scenes footage from the show’s heyday. “We had a team of archivists trying to help us. [Michaels] doesn’t let a lot of access on set. Even the shows are tricky. 40 years is a long time. We had to hunt down some of those early sketches. It was a fun challenge.”
Of course, with nationally recognizable names including Chevy Chase, John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner and Jane Curtain, the early SNL is often considered by the show’s casual fans to be the best. However, a quick review of casts from the 1980s, 1990s and beyond reveals Eddie Murphy, Joe Piscopo, Dennis Miller, Dana Carvey, Adam Sandler, Chris Farley, David Spade, Molly Shannon, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Will Ferrell. The fact that SNL has repeatedly produced such major stars belies the notion that the show has not met the standards it originally set in the 1970s. “One of the most impressive things about the show is the ability to reinvent itself over and over,” Pomeroy said. “They also do it season after season, cast after cast. They keep finding these incredible unknown talents.”
Among the gems in Live From New York! are original screen tests of famed actors from just after a particular show’s full cast had been selected. Bolstered by clips from sketches, monologues, songs, “Weekend Update” news segments and other key set pieces from the hundreds of shows, plus a host of current interviews, an enormity of material is packed into the documentary’s 82 minutes. During production and especially in the editing room, Pomeroy and Broecker discovered that their thesis was intact of SNL at first being a barometer of post-Vietnam American life, followed by decades of worthy and often equally commendable versions of the show. “We have been using the word ‘zeitgeist’ by which people can measure what’s happening,” Pomeroy said. “What’s fun about this film is that you can watch it as a fan and witness the nostalgia. Or, for some audiences, ‘I had no idea.’ The British people loved it, and they didn’t grow up with it. That’s something that, for Tom and myself, was really important to us. It brings back that nostalgia, like gathering around the TV back in the day.”
In the end, Pomeroy feels as though her celebratory project, now in select theaters and heading to primetime U.S. television in September, stands alone, separately from the material it documents. “Lorne gave us complete autonomy,” she said. “If he’s going to give us that level, we want to be respectful. We try to cover it with a completely unbiased perspective. It’s an interesting reflection of us culturally: holding a mirror up and shooting it back at America.”