'Live From New York!' Director Talks the NBC Sketch Show's Ongoing Diversity Issues
By Dino-Ray Ramos
For 40 years, Saturday Night Live has come into our living rooms on a weekly basis and has churned out some of the world's biggest stars and comedic legends. It has unapologetically skewered the news and pop culture, while cementing itself as an American institution. Director Bao Nguyen has managed to fit those 40 years in a taut 82-minute documentary, Live From New York!
The documentary may not be the retrospective that you might be hoping for. Sure, there are highlights of some of the show's most popular sketches and interviews with some of your favorite cast members over the past four decades (Tina Fey, Dana Carvey, Chevy Chase and Jane Curtin among them), but Nguyen spends his time highlighting points in the show's history and focuses on how SNL influenced American culture -- and vice versa.
Through interviews with notable SNL alums, crew, hosts and everyone in between, Nguyen puts the show under a microscope, examining its longevity and importance in American history. Ahead of its theatrical release, ETonline spoke to Nguyen about his approach to covering the coveted comedy institution, his connection to SNL and how the documentary tackles the show's struggle with diversity.
ETonline: What is your first memory of Saturday Night Live?
Bao Nguyen: It goes back to when I was 9 or so. I was growing up in a Vietnamese immigrant household and my parents didn't really let me watch too much television except for maybe the nightly news. So sometimes on a Saturday night, I'd sneak out of my room while they were sleeping and turn on Saturday Night Live. It was a great way for me to experience America, pop culture and current events through a different prism. That was my connection to SNL when I was younger. It was a different way to look at America in a way that my parents couldn't teach me.
SNL is such a coveted American institution. Did Lorne Michaels and NBC have any say in how you made the documentary?
In the beginning, our producers J.L. Pomeroy and Tom Broecker approached Lorne with the idea that we should do a different kind of documentary about SNL that's not rehashing of things that we know from the retrospectives or the “Best of’s” but looking at SNL as a way to view American history and how it reflects culture and society. [Lorne] was hands on deck in terms of the approach. He's obviously a very busy guy so he was kind of hands-off. He didn't see a cut of the film until we had our premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. He let us become part of the SNL production by letting us observe the show and film on set. In terms of his involvement, it was very little to none, besides letting us just be there. It's kind of a testament to who he is as an executive producer because he really trusts the people around him and the creative team.
Was there any overlap with filming the documentary and the televised 40th anniversary special of the show?
We had finish filming before they aired that. For them, that came together quite quickly. For us, we knew we wanted to make something that could come out around the 40th anniversary, but there was no relation between the two projects. It was just a time when we knew that people would be thinking about SNL more in a nostalgic way. We thought it was a different approach to a subject that people know about already.
SNL has had hundreds of cast members, hosts, and musicals guests. How did you manage to land some of the people you interviewed from such a gigantic pool?
That was definitely one of the most challenging parts of the film: Out of 40 years, who do you want to talk to and what stories do you want to tell? We had plenty of production meetings to see out of all these legends, cast members, hosts, and musicals guests, who were the people that were going to tell the story of SNL that we were trying to tell. We all put out names and the list was like 200 people in the beginning, so we knew we had to whittle it down to something manageable. Once we did, we ended up talking to about 50 people total which is a huge amount of material. We weren't trying to find the most popular cast member or the most the successful host or star, but the people that could talk about SNL as a way to reflect American culture and society.
Diversity is a big portion of the film. How did you approach this and did you feel you had to be careful with how diverse or non-diverse SNL has been throughout the years?
I mean, going over 40 years of any subject, there's going to be people who have different experiences. So we really wanted to interview everyone in what they thought about this and that helped inform how we were going to tell the story of diversity or the lack of diversity. For me, one of my favorite scenes in the film is when Leo [Yoshimura], the production designer, was often cast in the show as an Asian American character like Sulu because there were no Asian American cast members. That was in the 1970s and 40 years later, some things have changed and some things remain the same. Again, it's just not indicative of SNL, but of the whole industry. I think SNL reacted to that criticism with the hiring of Shasheer [Zamata] and Leslie Jones a couple of years ago. I think they hear the criticism and they've been trying to react to it, but sometimes I think a lot of people forget that sketch comedy is not something that is easy to do. If there is a funny Asian comedian, some people will say, “Why isn't that person on SNL?” For the producers, they are just trying to find a person that's not only funny but who can fit with what SNL is.
What made you choose Leslie Jones as the focal point for the issue of diversity?
It's kind of the luck of the draw when it comes to documentaries. You're just filming everything and then you get this moment that becomes much bigger than you thought it would be. We got lucky when we shot her first time being on air [on Weekend Update]; not just getting the moment of her being so happy and relieved to finally do it, but also the backlash of her commentary. That has a lot of things to say about how SNL reacted to diversity problems but also the limits of comedy – especially if you're a comedian of color. Are you able to tell your experiences without worrying about that backlash and being politically correct? It was luck – and a little strategic planning. One of our producers Owen Moogan actually worked with Leslie before. The first day we were on set, he said, “Keep your eye on her, she's gonna blow up!” So we followed Leslie a little closer than most people, but again, with documentaries it's all about luck.
Did you consider expanding the discussion of diversity to include openly gay cast members?
We had a scene where we talked about how SNL handled that type of diversity in relation to what was going on in 1980s America with the HIV crisis but it didn't work. It took people out of the story. I think there's room for conversation for all types of diversity, but I felt like it didn't flow well and had to end up on the cutting room floor, unfortunately.
Being a person of color and covering diversity in a documentary like this, how do you stay objective?
The thing with an institution like SNL that has been around for 40 years, is that everyone has certain ownership to it. I never wanted to impose my specific point of view because I know that everyone owns the program in their own way. For me it was managing all the stories and experiences that we heard and showing a whole spectrum and those that illuminated diversity. The only thing you can do as a documentary filmmaker is to be as honest as you can. We just wanted to show all the different sides and try to make it honest without having too much opinion about it and let the audience decide on their own if the show is diverse or not.
Live From New York! seemed like a project that was outside of the Asian American-centric documentaries that you usually do. What was your reaction when they approached you to direct it?
I never want to second guess myself as a director. I just felt everyone has their connection to SNL. There isn't anyone who doesn't know about SNL. Everyone has their own story and connection. Because of my personal connection and the film's approach, it didn't seem like that big of a stretch from my other films – but I would think the same exact thing that you were thinking. Fran Lebowitz was asked in our film about the state of gender equality and she said it hasn't changed much because she's still being asked that question. To be a total realist about things, that's the state of the industry with gender and diversity. I hope films like this that talk about American institutions don't just speak to certain group of Americans, but reaches diverse audiences. As long as a director has a connection to the story, that's all that matters.
Live From New York! opens in theaters Friday. Relive the most memorable moments from Saturday Night Live below!