An early photo of Saturday Night Live cast members

An early photo of Saturday Night Live cast members

Did Saturday Night Live help to put George W. Bush in the White House? That’s one of the more interesting questions raised by a new documentary about the show’s 40-year history, Live From New York!

  SNL has spoofed politicians ever since Chevy Chase stumbled around the stage as an accident-prone President Gerald Ford. But it’s always avoided taking sides. Nevertheless, some people connected with the show wonder whether it helped to influence the 2000 presidential election, in which Bush squeaked to victory despite losing the popular vote to Al Gore.

  You may recall that SNL’s versions of the 2000 presidential debates featured Will Ferrell as a dimwitted Bush and Darrell Hammond as a pompous, patronizing Gore. Looking back on the skits for the documentary, Ferrell and others theorize that they gave Bush an advantage by making him seem more just-folks likable than his opponent.

  Personally, I think there were too many other factors at play—including Ralph Nader’s Green Party candidacy and Florida’s “hanging chads”—to conclude that SNL played a decisive role. But the fact that Bao Nguyen’s documentary raises the question demonstrates one thing: For better or worse, the film takes Saturday Night Live very seriously.

  The “worse” part of the equation is the doc’s celebration of SNL as a comedy show that’s grown into a cultural icon. One critic has called the film a virtual infomercial for NBC’s weekend staple.

  The “better” part is that the documentary is conscientious enough to ask just how responsible a cultural icon SNL has been. Besides questioning the show’s role in the 2000 election, it also investigates its record on such issues as sexual equality and ethnic diversity.

  The former question doesn’t receive a clear answer. Early host Candice Bergen claims the show’s environment could be pretty sexist, while original cast member Laraine Newman praises executive producer Lorne Michaels as a champion of women’s humor.

  Things get a little more interesting on the question of racial diversity.

  Black comic Garrett Morris was a cast member when the show debuted on Oct. 11, 1975, but he sometimes chafed at the limited roles he was allowed to play. In an interview, Morris recalls that he wasn’t permitted to play a doctor in one skit because it was feared the audience wouldn’t accept a black physician.

  On the other hand, it’s generally accepted that Eddie Murphy almost single-handedly kept the show afloat during a difficult period (1980-85) when Michaels was away doing other things. Yet it was only two years ago that SNL satirized its own lack of black female cast members by forcing guest host Kerry Washington to play both Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey in a single skit.

  One interviewee complains that the show hasn’t been “ahead of the curve” on diversity. Of course, neither have other programs, she adds, pointing out that none of the Friends was black.

  Somehow, though, we expect more from a show that’s always prided itself on thumbing its nose at mainstream entertainment and society in general, whether it’s spoofing TV newscasts, commercials or politics.

  The documentary charts SNL’s evolution from a youth-oriented variety show to an institution that is counted on to summarize and satirize the week’s news.

  In the most moving segment, it also recalls the time when SNL cautiously returned to the air following the 9/11 attack that left its native New York and the rest of the country in a state of shock. Even if you’ve seen that historic episode, you’ll gain new appreciation for it after hearing about preparations for the sublime opening, which had Paul Simon singing “The Boxer” as the camera panned over the faces of saddened first responders.

  This moment, like most of SNL’s best moments, reflects the taste and savvy of its executive producer, Michaels. But the doc points out that the show also owes much to the mere fact that it’s performed live. Otherwise, Sinead O’Connor could never have made headlines by tearing up a photo of the pope, and Ferrell couldn’t have gotten away with turning his patriotic boxer briefs into a patriotic thong for a memorably disgusting skit. (The actor reveals that he dodged the censors by waiting until airtime to pull the briefs up between his butt cheeks.)

  A documentary like Live From New York! can’t please everyone. Some complain it’s too worshipful of its subject, while others will carp that it left out too many favorite moments. But if you like Saturday Night Live and were justifiably disappointed by the show’s own 40th-anniversary celebration, you owe it to yourself to take a look.

  Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

  Live From New York! (unrated) opens Friday (July 3) at the Gateway Film Center in Columbus.


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