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Live from New York! It's a Bland, Artificial Promotional "SNL" Documentary

By Dustin Rowles | Film | March 17, 2010 |

By Dustin Rowles | Film | March 17, 2010 |

Saturday Night is James Franco’s documentary on the behind-the-scenes machinations of “Saturday Night Live,” which began, at one point, as a five-minute graduate thesis on Bill Hader, and was expanded to a full-length doc on Lorne Michael’s suggestion. In it, Franco follows the writers, cast, and production people on the show around for one full week, leading up to an episode hosted by John Malkovich. It’s an amusing doc at times, those times mostly revolving around Bill Hader, but it doesn’t really add any new insights. If you’re a fan of “SNL,” or once were, or have read much about the show over the years, there’s nothing really new here.

In fact, though Saturday Night is not a scripted doc, it seems Lorne Michaels may have had a hand in the editing. There’s no real contention in the final product. No squabbles. And no major drama, which is hardly typical of the average workplace, much less one that involves scores of self-interested egotistical writers and actors working together. Everyone seems genuinely pleasant in the doc, a notion that’s difficult to imagine given the lack of sleep, the harried nature of putting a show of this nature together, and the clashing egos you’d imagine were on set.

The major players are head writer Seth Meyers, who seems awfully easy going and agreeable for someone who you’d think would have to be ruthless about what skits are chosen and what skits are not; Bill Hader, an insane goofball — there’s hardly a moment involving Hader where he’s not on, though maybe that’s just part of his real-life persona; Will Forte, who is funny and charming; Fred Armison, who seems incredibly committed, or at least eagerly expresses how committed he is to being funny (the results leave that up for debate); and Andy Samberg, whose only moments in the movie involve a confessional where he reveals that he’s never been interested in anything except comedy and making people laugh. Not exactly groundbreaking material, there.

The only two people who provide even a small measure of what you’d think goes on emotionally behind the scenes are newbies Casey Wilson and Bobby Moynihan, who show occasional signs of the insecurity you’d expect from cast members who have to struggle and compete for screen time. Other cast members like Darrell Hammond, Kristen Wiig, and Jason Sudeikis have only the briefest of appearances and reveal nothing about themselves or the process. (Amy Poehler was on that show, too, and only her voice can be heard off screen). Morever, while host Malkovich gets plenty of screen time, there’s hardly anything revealing or intimate about him, except perhaps that his daughter prefers James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces over Judy Blume. If the cast or crew had to offer any direction to Malkovich, it’s not shown onscreen. Indeed, if all you had to go on was Saturday Night, you might be left to believe that hosts simply show up and read through the lines before arriving at the final show. Obviously, it’s a far more grueling experience than what is presented here.

As for that process itself, there was a segment on “60 Minutes” a couple of years ago that explored it with just as much detail: There’s a meaningless pitch meeting on Monday, a frantic 36-hour writing session where the cast and writers put together approximately 50 skits and sleep less than a couple of hours a piece. Those are then semi-performed at a table reading on Tuesday and whittled down to 15 or so, and of those, only 9 make it to the final show, after several more are cut during and after rehearsals. What is somewhat fascinating, however, is how good some of those ideas are, and how they lose much of their humor as they are rehearsed and polished for the final show. There was one skit, for instance, that involved Malkovich singing the Empire Carpet jingle (588-2300, Empiiiiire) that killed at the table reading, but fell completely flat in rehearsals and winded up not making the final cut. Of the skits that did, only three or four of them were even mildly amusing. Franco also interjects himself into the documentary on several occasions, which might have been obnoxious if not for the fact that they were some of the more amusing scenes, particularly one where he had Hader perform several impressions in front of a mirror.

Near the end of the doc, Lorne Michaels suggests that, with the cameras on, the writers and cast were probably less like themselves than usual. From the looks of the doc, that’s fairly likely. Knowing they were being filmed, there was probably a considerable amount of performance in their appearances. It all felt very artificial. It’s a shame, too. A hidden-camera doc might have been more revealing and, ultimately, far more entertaining.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.