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It seems like every few years, someone tries to sum up what Saturday Night Live is, was, will be, and should be. Is it funny? Is it relevant? Is it well past its best-before date? Has it been eclipsed by other, sharper, edgier comedy?

It’s hard to answer any of those questions in eighty-two minutes (let alone five hundred words), so perhaps its best that LIVE FROM NEW YORK doesn’t try to be the definitive living document on Saturday Night Live. What’s more, recusing itself from trying to do that allows the film to look beyond just what has happened on SNL; it allows itself a chance to look at how it has played off our very lives, and sometimes even shaped them.

LIVE FROM NEW YORK comes armed with so many major moments in the lives of the “Not Ready for Primetime Players”. Present are impressions of Ford, Bush (both of them), Obama, and Clinton (both of them). There are dicks in a box, ignorant sluts, Sinead and The Pope, Wayne and Garth, Hans and Franz, and so many more iconic moments.

We come to understand what happens before these scenes go on the air, and consider the ripple effect after. We hear Brian Williams mention how the show plays differently when one isn’t watching it live, and we ask ourselves if that’s true. Is there something about the humour that works better after the witching hour? Or does the funny remain intact when clips go viral in this information age?

LIVE FROM NEW YORK never tries to ask any tough questions – the closest it ever gets is underlining the show’s track record with race. However, as we sift through forty years worth of innovation and impact, we realize that this isn’t the sort of institution we want to pose tough questions to. There’s a romanticism that comes with SNL, a Rockwellian glow. Sure, we may mutter about how it isn’t funny anymore, but we’ve been muttering that since the last member of our favorite casts left. To hold SNL’s feet to the fire would be like critiquing your mom’s apple pie.

What this documentary understands is that people who tune-in to Saturday Night Live regularly want a certain degree of familiarity. The markers can be moved now and then if someone like Tina Fey or Leslie Jones comes armed with something particularly great. But with so much in our lives being in a state of flux, we want SNL to bring context to it…not add to it.

Not only has the world changed several times over since SNL first arrived in 1975, but so has the way we discuss what’s happening in the world and play off those discussions. As Amy Poehler puts it:

“Saturday Night Live is the show your parents used to have sex watching that you now catch-up with on your computer”

So yes: much has gone on inside of 30 Rockefeller Plaza, and outside of it. No one documentary could ever hope to sum it all up. Happily, LIVE FROM NEW YORK does a good job at summing up the important bits.

 

LIVE FROM NEW YORK has finished its Hot Docs engagement. It will screen in selected cities through the next several weeks, and play on NBC next autumn. (official website)