Live, In Documentary and Exhibit,
It’s Saturday Night…
Casual fans and knowledgeable enthusiasts will find different things to love and hate in two new ventures covering the history and influence of Saturday Night Live
By Michael Shashoua
“Saturday Night Live: The Exhibition” has been open for several months, but it is interesting to compare what this New York attraction, just under 15 blocks from SNL’s studios in Rockefeller Center, offers for fans, in comparison to “Saturday Night,” a documentary about the show just recently made available on Hulu.
The documentary, directed by actor James Franco, focuses on a single episode hosted by John Malkovich in 2010, showing a lot of the behind-the-scenes process of writing and producing “Saturday Night Live.” This is the same purpose and mission as what the exhibition promises, but by its nature, cannot completely deliver.
In bits and pieces, the exhibition, featuring costumes of popular SNL characters, props, memorabilia, notes, keepsakes, and audio-visual monitors with clips and interviews, tries to give its audience a feel for both the history of SNL and its continued immediacy and relevance.
There are certainly instances and pieces in the exhibit that are illuminating, such as a clip displayed in a control room set showing a frantic effort to get scenery in place for the start of a sketch, which almost failed and left one wall of the set still shaking as the bit started on air. Some of the memos and notes in display cases tell a story unto themselves, like Jimmy Fallon’s thank you note sent to producer Lorne Michaels after his audition for the show, and a scrawled note from Bill Murray that evokes his deadpan demeanor in your imagination – he writes “I got here on time, but no one was here, so I left.”
Some of the material in the exhibition, like the introductory video narrated by Alec Baldwin, and the closing video of Tina Fey on a replica of SNL’s home base monologue stage, comes off self-congratulatory and simple – geared not to fans but to tourists who may know very little about the show.
That is where James Franco’s “Saturday Night” excels – straddling the balance between informing those who are new to the show and offering an inside look and new details to fans who already are very knowledgeable. The documentary’s approach of showing a single week’s production process includes just enough introductory material, but not too much lauding and worship of its past, and really gives insight into how sketches are written and chosen – or eliminated.
SNL has, for instance, sometimes generated sketches playing off local New York-area TV commercials, and Franco’s documentary shows a sketch in this vein, “Empire Carpets,” that ended up getting cut. You can see why it had potential, but also how and why it might not have played well enough, since it depended on Will Forte repeatedly and abusively yelling at Malkovich to sing a jingle over and over to get it right. This premise appeared to have nowhere to go after it established itself.
The documentary also gives you the flipside of the same episodes – sketches that worked well, like Bill Hader’s recurring Vinny Vedecci character, and one where Malkovich played a teenage girl with anxieties about maturing that she doesn’t want to reveal in a “truth or dare” game at a sleepover with her friends.
The exhibition, by comparison, doesn’t really contain any examples of the processes behind writing and producing any specific sketches. Its approach is to show a broad overview of the same weekly process, day by day. So while the exhibition contains numerous face casts and special makeup effects, and blueprints of set construction, to illuminate these aspects of production, Franco’s documentary gives you a tidbit of set designers discussing construction of a hot tub for a sketch, noting that the electric hum of a hot tub motor had created audio problems when a similar set had to be made in the past. The exhibition gives viewers certain things like this in a concrete way that the documentary cannot, but also vice versa.
Similarly, the documentary probably is more satisfying to SNL nerds than the exhibit, for its detail. But you can’t pose with authentic costumes and sets by watching a documentary, which can also be part of the fun for SNL fans and nerds alike.
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© 2005-2017 Michael Shashoua