I have a very weird and distinct memory of the first time I was exposed to the iconic sketch comedy show, Saturday Night Live. I was on a family vacation to Victoria with my parents and my oldest brother. And for some reason, I have a vivid memory of hearing the words “it’s by **** in a box” over and over again. This was in 2009, so I was about 9 years old and in my humble opinion far too young to be hearing the usually crude words of songs by The Lonely Island’. But nevertheless, this was (probably) the first time I witnessed Saturday Night Live. Something, that would turn out to be one of my favourite things. And so, it is no surprise that I would immediately want to watch the documentary Saturday Night, which follows the cast of SNL‘s 34th season through the weekly creation of an episode of SNL (with this week’s host being John Malkovich). Showing us how they get from the initial pitch meeting on Monday, all the way to the live show on (you guessed it) Saturday.
This documentary was shot by James Franco (yes, the well known actor who played Tommy Wise in The Disaster Artist) while he was studying film at NYU (it’s also worth it to note that he had hosted the show once before this). And, it also happens to be one of the most difficult movies to find online. I think that’s partly because it was a school assignment first and foremost. While it was filmed in 2008, it didn’t premier at the SXSW film festival until 2010, and then didn’t get widely released until 2014. In the end I finally found it, on Youtube of all places.
That being said I was so eager to watch this because it not only highlights one of my favourite eras of SNL, but because there is literally nothing else like it. SNL is relatively secretive of its process — I did the NBC studio tour last time I was in New York and they won’t even let you take a photo of the hallway. and while past and present cast members have told stories about the show and talked about the creative process, it’s unprecedented that Franco was able to do this film because there’s nothing else out there actually showing us the writers in the moment. If you don’t know, SNL starts on Monday with a pitch meeting in Lorne Michael’s office. Then everyone writes as many sketches as they can on Tuesday, then they do a table read of all those sketches on Wednesday, then they narrow it down to less sketches, practice those, have the dress rehearsal at 8:30 on Saturday, narrow it down to even less sketches, and then have the live show at 11:30pm. It’s a lot. And so, I was extremely excited to be able to see all of that in this documentary. Although, that’s not exactly the case.
The main issue with the documentary is it feels like a school assignment. It’s messy and the production value isn’t amazing. It often goes between colour and B&W— which I at first thought was going to be used to differentiate between the creative process and various talking head interviews — but it was ultimately just used randomly and (I think) for no apparent reason.
The other problem I have is it often finds itself too In the moment, and I can’t help but think that someone who has little to no knowledge of SNL would end up being confused. I could tell it would be like this from the second it began. We of course start on Monday, the day of the pitch meeting, and we get a little interview with cast member Will Forte (2:18)— who is a consistent voice throughout the film. Franco says to Forte “So, the pitch meeting” to which Forte begins to explain what exactly the pitch meeting entails — that is before Franco cuts him off abruptly saying, “we know what it is, but how do you feel?” To me this shows that this movie isn’t really going to try and educate the people watching. What if the viewer actually doesn’t know what the pitch meeting is? They might not know that the pitch meeting is where each writer AND cast member introduce themselves to the host of the week and pitch something to them. We are not told this, and the footage we get of the pitch meeting itself doesn’t exactly convey it either.
Another similar moment is when we take a peek at the SNL Digital Shorts (57:18). We suddenly cut to footage of the song “Jizz In My Pants” and a title card comes up reading “SNL Digital Short.” To me, I thought this would give us insight into how the digital shorts are developed and shot, as well as a bit of information about how it was Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, and Akiva Schafer of The Lonely Island who popularized them in the first place. Although, we instead got clips of the song/video they (supposedly) wrote that week and an interview with Andy Samberg (which didn’t relate to the digital shorts at all)
And speaking of interviews, there was little to no skill of interviewing cast members, writers, producers, and even people they talked to in the SNL standby line. Not only did they not explain what the standby line is (it’s a line that begins 24 hrs before the live show that you can stand in for the chance to see the live show or dress rehearsal) but there was an excruciatingly awkward interview with one man in line. Long story short they kept mishearing what the man was saying and to me it read as quite unprofessional and sloppy.
Although, with all that negativity there were some positive aspects as well. For starters, it does do a good job of portraying the ups and downs of working at SNL. On Tuesday night we see many different writers and cast members slaving over their sketches trying to get them done. A couple of my favourite moments being John Mulaney and Bill Hader laughing hysterically at one other over office supplies jokes, the testing of multiple fart sound effects to figure out which one is the best, Seth Meyers going to the producer’s office on the morning of the table read to ask if he should write a sketch (which ended up making it to air), and everyone talking about how normal it is to go to sleep at 8am on Wednesday morning.
It also shows the ways in which certain sketches start as a little idea, and grow into something greater. As well as the way in which a sketch can seem amazing at the table read on Wednesday, get developed further and brought to fruition — only for it to be cut 30 minutes before the live show at dress rehearsal.
I also really enjoyed the interviews that they did with Lorne Michaels (the creator of SNL), as well as Steve Higgens (long time producer). While I commented earlier on the low quality interviewing skills, the words that they were able to get out of these two SNL legends were definitely high quality. I especially liked the bit where Lorne talked about how the cameras being present definitely had an impact on the ways in which the cast members acted throughout the film —which I think is quite true. It put an interesting thought in my mind of documentaries as a whole, especially because I know that I would act differently if I knew someone was filming me. For instance during the part of the film that chronicles the writing process, we get a shot of head writer Seth Meyers taking a nap — and then we are shown him again once he has woken up gets back to writing. To me, I could feel the slight tension of Meyers wanting to go back to writing in private, but he was far too polite to tell the crew to maybe leave him alone for a bit. And despite the fact that Bill Hader has spoken a lot about the extreme anxiety he experienced while doing SNL, he doesn’t show any signs of that here, (and while I do acknowledge that anxiety is not always visible — he has spoken about the way that it affected his work) whether that be because they edited stuff out, or he tried to act differently for the documentary as a whole.
In my mind this was going to be the perfect little look into the process of SNL but it rather felt like someone “vlogging” their week at SNL. Showing us the highlights of the week, but leaving out the more nitty gritty parts of the show and the more “boring” parts of how it all gets put together. To me, this is sad, because I want to know every single thing about the show. I know there are books that talk about the show, and another documentary called Live From New York! But I think neither of those really achieve the idea that I have in mind. Going through each step of the week (pitch meeting, writing, table read, revisions, set design, costume design, rehearsals, dress rehearsal, the live show — and even more) while also giving the history of each element. I don’t know if there could be anything that is like that because a.) it would be about 10 hours long if it was a film, and b.) I think Lorne Michaels is very selective about who is able to chronicle the ways in which he makes SNL work. For instance, it is very clear that James Franco was a friend of the showing having hosted before he filmed this — and he has since hosted 3 more times.
Although, I know I will probably come back to this film from time to time, just to enjoy the chaotic energy that exudes from the whole cast. and that odd joy mixed with stress that each of the cast members seem to be harbouring throughout their creative process. While they’re staying up until 8am the next morning writing sketches that will probably never see the light of day — they’re still doing it. They love their job even though it drags them through the mud a bit, and it is entirely worth it when you see the end product.