James Franco’s ‘Saturday Night’ Documentary: A Must Watch for Any ‘SNL’ Fan
There’s something to be said for a documentary that can be interesting to a potential audience member who had no prior interest whatsoever in the topic of the documentary. In this respect, James Franco’s ‘Saturday Night’ – which chronicles the making of one episode of ‘Saturday Night Live’ from start to finish (which is now available on Hulu Plus) – sort of fails. But, to be fair, I’m not sure that was ever the point. If someone has no interest in ‘Saturday Night Live’ whatsoever, ‘Saturday Night’ isn’t going to be particularly appealing; it’s the definition of “wonky.” On the other hand, for people who do like ‘Saturday Night Live’ (this reporter falls into that category), boy, ‘Saturday Night’ is an absolute delight. It ranks alongside Tom Shales' and James Miller’s ‘Live From New York’ as a must see/read for ‘SNL ‘ fans.
Like a lot of people, I’ve read enough about ‘SNL’ to have a pretty strong idea of how the week goes leading up to the Saturday evening live show. I’ve sat in the writers’ room during a live show (the same season Franco’s documentary was filmed) and I’ve sat in the audience for dress rehearsal. More than anything, these experiences gave me a few visual cues as to what the cast members and writers often talk about. Even with that, that’s only a fraction of what’s going on for the entire week. What goes into the rest of the week only kind of lived in my imagination of what it might be like. What Franco’s documentary does is bring what used to be shrouded in mystery to life.
John Malkovich was the host of the December 6, 2008 show, but Franco’s film begins that prior Monday and takes us through the entire week with behind the scenes footage that had never been out there before. It actually works in the film’s favor that it took so long to be released publicly (it’s played in past years at film festivals) because it now almost exists as a time capsule. We now know the fates of everyone involved. We now know that everything would turn out OK for that timid-looking new cast member named Bobby Moynihan. We know that things didn’t work out for Casey Wilson on ‘SNL,’ but that she would go on to great success after leaving the show. It would probably be more difficult to watch this if it had been, say, last year’s transitioning cast. Instead, we get a look at one of the most cohesive units to ever be on ‘SNL,’ with names like Hader, Meyers, Samberg, Wiig, Forte and Sudeikis. (And, funny enough, we do see a young, bearded Colin Jost in the writers’ room.)
As the film takes us through the week, here’s what I found most fascinating about each particular day:
Monday Pitch Meeting
On Monday, the cast and writers all pile into Lorne Michaels' office to shout out ideas at the host – and, yes, we all knew this. But, my gosh, it’s incredible to see it in action. Will Forte (who left in 2010, is credited by the on-screen graphics as being a cast member until 2014; there are a lot of these type of errors) admits later that if the pitch is really funny, it’s not a real pitch. In other words, that person is just trying to get a laugh at the pitch meeting; if it were a real pitch, he or she would save the punchline for the Wednesday table read. Forte also pitches a sketch about the 1-800-588-2300 Empire Carpet jingle that becomes a recurring theme for the week. (It plays well at the pitch meeting.)
Tuesday Writing Night
This is the most famous non-show portion of any given week of ‘SNL.’ In the ‘70s, this was the night a lot of drugs were taken in order to stay up all night and write sketches. Now, it just looks like a lot of really tired people who sometimes get the giggles (there are plenty of dick and fart jokes). At 8 a.m., a large portion of the cast and writers are still up because maybe they have time for just one more before the scripts have to be ready by the Wednesday producer meeting – which is where the script order of the 3 p.m. table read is chosen.
Wednesday Table Read
Casey Wilson reads through what she admits later was a terrible sketch. It’s painful to watch. While Wilson reads through a parody of ‘Chicago,’ there’s no laughter whatsoever in the crowded room, just a lot of people looking down. And the sketch just keeps going and going. It was worse than watching a sketch bomb on air. Forty sketches are read through; Forte’s ‘Empire Carpet’ sketch kills.
Thursday Production Meeting
The most interesting thing about Thursday is a visit to The Scene Shop, the off-location place where all of the sets are actually built. For some reason, I just always thought a good number of the sets were reused or were just “around,” but here these guys are, building everything from scratch based on what someone who hadn’t slept wrote on Tuesday night.
The cast makes their way through the sketches that made the cut (which, as mentioned by Jason Sudeikis and Will Forte, is like learning if you made the cheerleading squad), which goes pretty much like how you think it might. The most interesting thing here is, at one point, Malkovich is playing a part where he’s looking at himself in the mirror -- the cue cards are written backwards so that Malkovich can read them in the mirror.
There’s one more early morning dress rehearsal, then that night there’s the full dress rehearsal with an audience, followed by the live show. A lot of this has been documented before, but what fascinating was how Will Forte’s ‘Empire Carpet’ sketch played at the dress rehearsal in front of an audience. All week, it’s been killing with the cast. At the table read, Bill Hader was slumped over in laughter. In front of an audience … crickets. And just like that, it’s gone forever, never to be seen on the live show -- an entire set, built for nothing.
The film ends with Hugh Laurie, who was the host the week after Malkovich, back in Lorne Michaels' office, listening to new pitches. Everything that came the week before is gone, wiped from the slate, and then they all do it again. If a cast member had a bad week, it starts over. If a cast member had a good week, it doesn’t matter. Everyone is back to square one. And this is the reason the show has worked for 40 seasons.
Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and GQ. He is the senior editor of ScreenCrush. You can contact him directly on Twitter.