by Brenda Hillegas
For me (for most people), Saturday Night Live is a huge part of the American pop culture pie. Filmmaker Bao Nguyen strongly agrees. His new documentary, Live From New York!, explores the cultural phenomenon that is this show. From the very beginning in 1975 to its 40th season, Nguyen shows America that SNL is a time capsule with four decades worth of politics, media, misfortunes and culture all parodied in over 800 episodes.
Nguyen comes from a family of Vietnamese immigrants. “Their sense of American culture isn’t the same as most people,” he says. “[My parents] would have me watch the nightly news to get a feel for the culture of America.”
To Nguyen, the news made America seem like a dangerous place. Watching SNL bridged that gap for him. “It showed me what America was like at that time,” he explains. “The cold open, Weekend Update…they explained a lot of pop culture to me. Saturday Night Live was my lesson in American history.”
His earliest memory of Saturday Night Live was as a nine-year-old sneaking out of the bedroom to watch the show. This is a memory that many of the SNL cast members throughout the years also says is one of their first. In May, Saturday Night Live’s 40th season concluded. A lot of memories have been discussed in the past few months about this iconic series, including a three-hour 40th anniversary special on NBC in February.
So why now? With all the magazine covers, cast/producer interviews, documentaries that have been made over the last decade- why would Nguyen choose the 40th anniversary to release his SNL documentary the same time so many other SNL-related tributes were taking place?
“I wanted to show this [documentary] from the perspective of an outsider looking in,” says Nguyen. His documentary stands out because he’s looking at SNL in a very reflective way. “SNL throughout the time reflects culture and history. There are many sketches meaningful to American culture.”
The election sketches (Darrell Hammond’s Bill Clinton, Tina Fey as Sarah Palin), even sketches like Chris Farley’s Matt Foley, Celebrity Jeopardy, and how about “more cowbell”? Whether you watch SNL religiously or just catch a sketch here or there, you may not realize it, but this show has impacted your life in one way or another.
How about those digital shorts that are shared on social media constantly? YouTube launched in February of 2005. On December 17th of that year, SNL’s comedy troupe the Lonely Island (featuring cast member Andy Samberg) released their “Lazy Sunday” video on that night’s episode. The video quickly made its rounds on the internet and helped create awareness for YouTube. If you look up the term “going viral” on Wikipedia, “Lazy Sunday” is the first example mentioned. In Nguyen’s documentary, Amy Poehler says that Saturday Night Live is a show you once stayed up late to watch and now people just watch it from their computer the next day.
“It’s totally good fortune on [Saturday Night Live’s] part that they have these short segments,” says Nguyen. “It’s totally luck, totally genius. Something like “Lazy Sunday” helped what it means to be viral. SNL’s new format of comedy in 1975 shaped what a viral clip could be.”
Nguyen’s Live From New York! shows us how rare it is for a television show to last as long as SNL did and how it still manages to stay fresh. It evolves with the times, features musical guests from all genres and appeals to all ages, and helps us understand, cope with and follow what is happening in our world everyday. No matter how heavy or touchy a subject is, SNL knocks it down and tells us it’s okay to laugh. It’s okay to express our opinions.
Will Ferrell, another cast member interviewed in the documentary, sums up what Live From New York! is trying to show us about Saturday Night Live. He says the show truly is a living, breathing time capsule and he calls it the “finger on the pulse of what was going on” at any given time. Political comedy, for example, was dead on television when SNL began. With SNL- People began speaking up, they reflected what was happening at that time.
Summer time may be filled with “popcorn” movies, big blockbusters with even bigger budgets. But before all that- take a look at Live From New York!, a documentary that chronicles 40 years of American history with interviews from cast members from past and present, previous hosts and musical guests. Whether you’re a fan of Saturday Night Live, history, pop culture, or television production in general- this is worth watching. Live From New York! opens nationwide starting June 12th, including right here in Philadelphia at the Ritz Bourse.
Look for our entire interview with Bao Nguyen in our upcoming That Mag print issue. More info on the documentary can be found at www.livefromnewyorkmovie.com. Additionally, a great SNL exhibit just opened in NYC which takes you through the process of putting together each week’s show. Tickets are on sale now at www.snltheexhibition.com. For my personal Saturday Night Live adventures, including cast meetings and attending live shows, follow my blog at campsnl.blogspot.com.