There are tony places and achievements that few can say they’ve experienced first-hand, though about which many are innately curious: attending an Oscars ceremony, getting an invite to Diddy’s birthday party, winning three Pulitzer Prizes in one year. This past week, two documentaries premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on institutions that represent pinnacles of their unique subcultures: Live From New York!, Bao Nguyen’s look at the cultural impact of Saturday Night Live, and Very Semi-Serious, Leah Wolchok’s behind-the-scenes peek into how those oft-befuddling New Yorker cartoons make it to print. They are, in some important ways, covering very similar ground. Both Saturday Night Live and the New Yorker have become well-regarded, prestigious institutions in their own right; to be associated with such a selective cultural gatekeeper is to have, in some ways, “made it.” And due to that selectivity—or, in blunter terms, that exclusivity—both have been accused of and lampooned for over-representing a particular white and male aesthetic and sensibility.
But the ways in which Nguyen and Wolchok approach their subject matter couldn’t be more different. Considered in tandem, the films offer an illuminating look at what makes a documentary work and what doesn’t. Live From New York! is Exhibit A, the documentary that latches onto decades’ worth of stories and footage, and filters it through a particular point of view to make a specific argument. This incisiveness comes as a bit of a surprise considering the fact that the storied history of SNL has been pored over throughout various media more than perhaps any other TV show, most recently during its several-hour 40th-anniversary broadcast back in February. Also, this generic trailer made up of long-familiar greatest-hits compilation clips from the show didn’t seem promising:
But, thankfully, Nguyen’s not all that interested in Steve Martin’s King Tut or Chris Farley’s Chippendales dance. His goal is more focused and succinct: To take a closer look at the ways in which this comedy, once a rebellious pioneer and now an established powerhouse, influenced American politics and the culture. This doesn’t mean that some iconic moments don’t find their way into the film—but they appear for reasons beyond highlighting how funny they are. Chevy Chase and Dana Carvey, for instance, discuss the art of presidential impersonation: How each took the small tics of their respective targets (Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush) and ran with them, to the point that it’s now hard to recall what was actually said by the former commanders-in-chief and what was the stuff of SNL writers’ imaginations. Will Ferrell breaks down his infamous American flag thong sketch when the film gets into how SNL reacted to the post-9/11 era. (He insists that he wasn’t criticizing this type of jingoism, but that he just found it funny.) It’s refreshing to see a retrospective of the show that’s not bogged down by overly detailed timelines and the desire to wax nostalgic.
Very Semi-Serious pulls the curtains back on an institution that’s just as legendary as SNL, though with a less transparent behind-the-scenes image to the public imagination. But it gets a bit lost in the weeds. Is it a doc about the near-century’s worth of history of New Yorker cartoons, or their current state? Is it about the aspiring cartoonists or the veterans, or both? Is it about how current New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff finds talented new artists, or about his personal life? It’s about all of these things—but that’s a lot for Wolchok to cover in less than 90 minutes, and the film rarely stays with one idea or person very long.
Mankoff is her logical point of entry, and his acerbic wit and unfiltered candor make for some of the more enjoyable moments in the film. We watch as Mankoff goes through his weekly routine of bringing younger, less experienced cartoonists into his office for direct critique, a sort of American Idol ritual for humorous artists. “You’re not mainstream. Even your voice isn’t mainstream,” he tells the charming cartoonist Liana Finck. “Might be the Asperger’s,” she replies, with no hint of irony whatsoever.
But Mankoff turns into a problem for the movie, as when Wolchok focuses a long stretch of the film on the writing of his memoir, named after one of his most famous cartoons. A meeting with his memoir’s editor is uninteresting and unnecessary, as is a scene of him at a book signing once the memoir’s finally done. You will almost certainly learn more new and surprising things about the magazine in Very Semi-Serious than you will about SNL in Live From New York!—and yet the latter is the stronger, more riveting exploration, in large part because it never gets too distracted by its own man behind the curtain, Lorne Michaels.
Both films at least try to address the lack of diversity within the respective institutions. In Very Semi-Serious, New Yorker editor-in-chief David Remnick admits to “prodding” Mankoff to seek out “more diversity” in voices, and in another scene a female editor specifically seeks out a cartoon from a female artist for that week’s issue, after noticing that all of the ones chosen so far have been by men. Live From New York! goes a bit deeper in this regard, devoting segments to the backlash against Leslie Jones’ slavery joke during a 2014 Weekend Update segment and featuring several female cast members discussing SNL’s treatment of women. (Julia Louis-Dreyfus found the atmosphere to be “sexist” when she joined the show in 1982; Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph felt as though the doors were “wide open” for them by the time they joined in the early ’00s.)
Anyone looking for a deeper evaluation, however, won’t find it in either doc—these are, after all, films made with the cooperation of the establishments they’re representing, and self-criticism will only go so far. (Lorne Michaels, unfortunately, isn’t seen saying anything on camera about the show’s issues with race.) Very Semi-Serious lacks the clear-cut execution of premise that makes Live From New York! a strong piece of critical analysis and artistic exploration. But what both docs do provide are a chance for us mere mortals to briefly inhabit a very exclusive club, if only from afar.