Inside the ‘SNL’ Documentary ‘Live From New York!’ with Director Bao Nguyen

The world premiere of the new Saturday Night Live documentary, Live From New York!, opened the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival on April 15.

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Director Bao Nguyen to discuss the process of making the documentary, what is was like to have access to the show’s archives, and how SNL can stay culturally relevant for the next 40 years.

Congratulations. Were you pleased with the response?

Thank you. Yeah, it was overwhelming. We, the team, have seen the film so many times, and we stopped laughing after a while with certain sketches. Just to see the response and really see how people still connect. You know, everyone is laughing at very different parts of the film too. SNL being around for over 40 years and it being really kind of a generational show, I was interested to see would people laugh at the early seasons as much as they would the last? And it seemed to be kind of a consensus response, so I was completely overwhelmed and thankful. I thought that was kind of the best place you can watch a film like that in New York, opening night at Tribeca, and having people just laugh out loud the whole time.

Were you a fan of Saturday Night Live growing up?

I was. My first memories of watching SNL was when I was maybe like 9 or something. I would sneak out of my bedroom on a Saturday night. My parents were asleep and I would start watching the show as a 9 year old. I didn’t know exactly what I was watching, but I was like, oh, this looks fun. And then I would get this idea of America that I wouldn’t get from other types of programs.

I grew up in an immigrant household. My parents immigrated to America after the Vietnam War so they were making me watch the Nightly News to kinda get a sense of America. And from watching the Nightly News, I get a sense that America had lots of shootings and things like that.

By watching SNL, I get this perverse version of America, but it’s still pretty accurate because, you know, every week they have to reflect what’s going on. And also not in just politics and in news, but in pop culture, celebrity culture, television shows. So even the shows that I wasn’t allowed to watch, I could understand it through the lens of SNL and what they were doing.

Who were your favorite cast members growing up?

I guess the bad boys of the SNL years. Early ‘90s. Adam Sandler, Chris Farley, David Spade, Chris Rock. Those are the years I remember, but even going into college and, or high school and seeing Will Ferrell do his thing and seeing him from the beginning and seeing how he is now, it’s sort of crazy. Then I really loved Tina Fey on Weekend Update. It’s hard to pinpoint a certain cast member because everyone has their different qualities and different talents. You can always find one cast member in every group that you really enjoy watching.

Did you have a favorite sketch?

You’re always thinking about the first memory you have of anything, like when you think about your favorite food, it’s the one your mom cooked for you back in the day. For me, the sketch that I remember really vividly growing up was the GAP Girls sketch. It’s Adam Sandler, it’s David Spade, and Chris Farley dressed up as female GAP employees just whining about their day.

It’s kind of hilarious and every time I watch that, they just have great replay value, those sketches. Because even if you know what the punch line is, it’s just their delivery and you get this nostalgic feeling watching it again. Because you know exactly what’s going to happen. You think about the memory of the first time you watched it. In a way, I think that’s the beauty of watching SNL.

As a long-time fan, how was it to have access to the SNL archives?

It was crazy going in to something that’s been around for 40 years. As a filmmaker, I was overwhelmed. As a fan, I was like, this is great. I can just watch SNL episodes. Or really kind of pinpointing our specific approach to the subject, which is not necessarily the funniest clips, the most popular clips, or the most likable characters, or the most controversial cast members, but it’s how SNL really reflected and impacted America sometimes. With that specific approach, it made it easier filtering through all those archives. But of course, you can’t ask for anything more than watching all these hilarious clips.

I’m used to doing a lot of social issue documentaries where you have to watch a lot of more depressing archival footage, but this was quite a pleasure.

Why did you choose SNL as a subject?

Well, I didn’t choose it. Actually I was approached with this project from our producers Tom Broecker and J.L. Pomeroy. Tom has been a costume designer on SNL for 25 years and he’s a close advisor to Lorne. He’s worked with J.L. in the past, so they wanted to build something around the 40th anniversary. And something that was different from all the old Ken Bowser documentaries that were made before which look at very specific eras and cast members. But we wanted to do something that was a little broader, but had this specific approach.

I had worked with J.L. in the past on a short film and they just came to me and asked me, “Would you be interested in working on a project about SNL?” And I jumped at the opportunity.

What were some of the major themes and elements you were trying to get across in this documentary?

I mean there’s a lot of controversial themes. Maybe not controversial, but themes that people don’t really talk about on some of the specials. Like the lack of diversity on the show, the certain forms of racism that sketches address and also cast members experienced on the show, lack of gender diversity, things like that.

As an Asian-American filmmaker, I definitely wanted to explore diversity in media. I think SNL is ahead of most programs in media, but maybe that’s not saying a lot right now. I hope that this has been a good year for diversity and I hope that continues.

I think sometimes people think that if you’re an Asian standup comic, then you can be on SNL. But SNL has a very specific form of sketch comedy that’s really hard. The work environment at SNL is a really high energy, high pressure of environment, so I don’t think someone who does standup maybe could handle that type of pressure.

I think it’s better for people to kind of take their time and find someone who’s really right to be on the cast than rush someone and think let’s just kind of fill in this role. And then they fail miserably on the show.

But, we saw with someone like Leslie Jones who, at first, she’s a standup comic and she came on as a writer. And she’s been great on Weekend Update and now she’s doing sketch and she’s coming into her own a lot more. But I think she really kills it on Weekend Update every time she’s on.

That was one of my favorite parts of the documentary. Leslie Jones was almost like the star of the film.

Exactly. I guess that was the only time we focused on one cast member in a way, but I think it said a lot about today as a whole. How we react to comedy and react to certain taboos in comedy. Her sketch was the launch pad for us to talk about that more.

With all the material you had, was there anything you were disappointed to have to cut out and edit from the finished film?

40 years that’s edited into a feature film is quite a feat and we could have made a 10-hour film and still missed a lot of things. Hindsight is 20/20. I think maybe, looking back, I would talk about diversity a little more in depth and talk about it on a critical standpoint. But again, we included kind of the most critical sound bites from people.

Even Chris Rock is saying that funny is the first part of being a comedian. That’s SNL’s role, to be funny and entertaining. Its role is not to kind of fill quotas and be that iconic, diverse institution. I mean, they realize that by having diversity it helps their cause in the end by hiring Sasheer [Zamata] and Leslie [Jones]. There’s so many different things they have to juggle and now that that’s happened, I think they’re definitely keeping it on the forefront when they’re casting.

How did you decide which cast members and hosts to interview?

I mean, you have, again, 40 years of casts and hosts and musical guests. Just walking through those hallways of 8H. Just looking at all the photos, I’m like, Jesus, everyone has walked through here. That was the hardest part of the film is figuring out who we’re going to talk to.

We had a very specific thesis to the subject of SNL, that’s through the lens that we picked people and how we filtered who we were going to talk to.

We didn’t necessarily pick someone who was the most popular character, or the most wealthy cast member to come out of SNL, or who was a fan favorite, but who really had sketches that reflected American culture, and in many cases, impacted American culture, and what was the story behind that? And not so much the story behind like Opera Man or something like that.

From being on the set and seeing how the show came together, what was the most interesting thing you learned about the process of SNL?

In terms of the process specifically, getting to meet all these amazing crafts people. A lot of them have been on the show for 20 plus years, and a few of them have been on the show since the beginning. We highlight two of them in the film. Eugene Lee [set designer] and Leo Yoshimura [production designer]. And Leo has only missed one show in 40 years. He’s been on the show longer than Lorne has really.

And to see how much passion that they have for their job still. When you’re working at such a high-paced and high-energy environment, it’s crazy. I don’t see anyone with that type of dedication to a job in any field and, and in film in general, or film and television, people get pretty tired of things quickly.

So to be on a show that’s lasted 40 years and been working on that show for 40 years, it’s a testament to how well Lorne trusts the creative crafts people on the show and how people really love making the show.

It’s crazy because they make those sets in less than 24 hours.

Exactly. And sometimes they’re fixing it up five minutes before they go on air. Joe, one of the production designers, said we’re making and fixing sets up to 11:30. Even later sometimes. Which is crazy because I think audiences might think, oh, by 11:30, they’re all ready to go. But it’s a high energy environment even when you’re doing a live show, you can always make adjustments.

Did you have a chance to see a lot of the shows live in the audience?

Yeah, I even had a better perspective because I was with the crafts people watching the show and seeing that aspect and that perspective.

There are moments of quiet when the sketch is on because you can’t do anything, right? It’s live TV. Everyone has to be quiet. And right after a sketch ends, everyone’s just bolting to the next room. The person in one sketch might be in the immediately next sketch, so they have to change hair and makeup. But I think they plan it as much as possible so you’re not jumping from a Transformers costume to being the President.

How do you think SNL can stay relevant for the next 40 years?

A show like SNL that is weekly and that always has to reflect what’s going on that week or that month or that time, it’s constantly going to be relevant because it’s always with the time. You look at the early episodes and you see it in the 1970s, 1975, and it really was this time capsule that was going on then, and now.

It’s just got to keep doing that every week. It never seems dated because it turns nostalgic right away for audience members. I think by just maintaining this live aspect too and making sure what they’re talking about, what their staff are satirizing is current. If they keep that format, I don’t know when they will ever end.

Michelle Houle received her B.A. in Theater Arts from Clark University in 2013. She attended the Kennedy Center Playwriting Intensive and studied improv and sketch comedy writing at the Second City Training Center in Chicago. Michelle writes for Creative Screenwriting magazine, among other publications. You can follow her on Twitter here.

Inside the ‘SNL’ Documentary ‘Live From New York!’ […]