One of my all-time favorite pop culture documents is Live From New York, the oral history of Saturday Night Live. It’s an impressively thorough work that traces the grueling writer’s room structure of the sketch comedy institution back to the coked-out shenanigans of the 1970s. The absurdly late hours & rapid-fire turnaround that give the show’s more gloriously inane moments their loopy, “Why would someone even write that?” absurdity seem like a very peculiar business practice, but make total sense when considered in the context of their 1970s origins. Over the three decades of SNL covered in the book, not much changes institutionally. The show is like a river that only gradually shifts its course as a constant supply of fresh faces flow through it.
In case you are interested in how SNL functions, but can’t be bothered with the ~700 page task of Live From New York, James Franco has your back. His 2010 documentary Saturday Night was seven years behind the definitive oral history, but is much more easily digestible and covers much of the same territory. The premise is simple: Franco films the one-week cycle of the production a single SNL episode. On the starting Monday, the writers & cast cram into Lorne Michaels’ office to pitch seeds of ideas for sketches that could possibly be developed that week. As the days roll on the crew develops around 50 sketches that get torn down & rebuilt through a series of table readings, producers’ meetings and live rehearsals. They frantically grasp at sketch comedy straws & avoid sleep like the plague with only the faint promise that something they develop makes the live broadcast. After a single day of rest it’s Monday again and they’re pitching sketch ideas for the next SNL host. It’s a punishing/fascinating creative process that may be a hangover of the 70s party scene when rampant drug use could get you through the ordeal, but it’s one that pays off with some of the more bizarre realized ideas on broadcast television for four decades running.
Saturday Night starts with its most amusing moments. It’s genuinely delightful to watch the wheels turn in writers’ & performers’ heads when they’re excited about getting to work on an infant sketch idea. The fun fades a bit as the work gets more difficult, the frustration involved with the detailed logistics of developing a sketch on full display for the camera. Franco’s choice to film a week John Malkovich hosted pays dividends, as his subject is an endlessly fascinating personality even when just standing around idling as the SNL machine swirls around him. Cast members like Bill Hader & Will Forte also carry the film a long way, especially early in the creative process when they’re frantically riffing or selecting fart noises from a sound board. There are a few moments when Franco’s personality becomes intrusive, like a frustratingly useless scene involving Hader’s dressing room mirror & the intentionally conspicuous absence of Amy Poehler, but for the most part he pulls the film off with a calm, low-key tone that benefits the laborious process he documents. Saturday Night is a great companion piece to the more definitive Live From New York book. There are less mind-blowing anecdotes & juicy gossip than in the whopping oral history, but the film brings the day-to-day logistics of the pop culture institution’s unfathomable workload into vivid focus.
Saturday Night is currently streaming on Hulu.