Let’s face it: The conventional four-year college system is broken. It’s impossibly expensive, and filled with unnecessary prerequisites of dubious value. That’s why it’s time to enroll in The Dissolve’s Streaming University, a free online institution that uses documentaries available online to explore the complexities and richness of our crazy modern world.
Film: Saturday Night
Director: James Franco
Streaming On: Hulu Plus
Primary Focus of Study: Saturday Night Live
Secondary Focuses Of Study: Human psychology
The premise for Saturday Night is so simple and ingenious, it’s surprising it took decades for someone to realize it. James Franco’s documentary, which was filmed years ago and played film festivals in 2010, but is only now being widely released via Hulu Plus, explores a week in the life of Saturday Night Live. The film traces the lifespan of a single episode from its rough, ragged beginning, when many of the sketches are just half-assed ideas in writers’ foggy, sleep-deprived minds, through the live performance on Saturday night when, through the magic of collaboration and a rigorous process perfected through the decades, they flower majestically into half-assed sketches performed for underwhelmed viewers and audience members.
One of Gene Siskel’s criteria for evaluating a movie was to ask, “Is the movie I am watching as interesting as a documentary of the same actors having lunch together?” I’ve often wondered the same thing about Saturday Night Live episodes. When Franco brought his cameras to 30 Rockefeller Center in late 2008, the show’s cast and crew was overflowing with talent—the Lonely Island guys, Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, John Mulaney, Fred Armisen, Will Forte, Casey Wilson—all of whom are much funnier going about their daily business than they are in front of the show’s cameras. A shaggy esprit de corps unites them. There’s a sense of fellowship and solidarity rooted in both the inhuman pressures of the job and the sense of intimacy and collaboration necessary to pull off the weekly miracle of creating 90 minutes of new, live comedy every week. The reward for pulling off this weekly miracle is the grousing of audiences convinced the show has been running on fumes for decades—and the opportunity to repeat the miracle all over again the next week.
The writers and cast of Saturday Night Live live and work in a bubble. Their office becomes their universe, and they work such long hours, it’s remarkable that anyone is even awake by the end of the week, let alone able to put on a show. Watching Saturday Night, it’s jarring just how young the cast and crew are: Some of the writers look like they could be in high school. Among them, Lorne Michaels doesn’t just feel fatherly, but grandfatherly.
One of the many fascinations of Saturday Night lies in just how much thought and effort goes into making even sub-par sketches. In one memorable sequence, writer Paula Pell plays a series of fart noises from a soundboard with the look of grim concentration a detective might bring to scouring a crime scene the first time. Sketches and scenes that fail as comedy triumph as drama.
John Malkovich’s presence as the episode’s host adds an additional element of weird intensity to the whole project. Yet despite his reputation as a prickly, world-class weirdo, he proves to be a consummate trouper willing to leave his ego at the door and become putty in the hands of kids young enough to be his children. Malkovich sings the Empire Today phone jingle—the one with the number “588-2300” in sing-song—over and over again for a tyrannical director played by Will Forte, becoming more and more desperate and unhinged with each repetition. It’s a bizarre, incredibly obscure idea for a sketch, but the cast at the table-read howls with laughter; the sketch ultimately doesn’t make it onto air.
Saturday Night only ever really falters when Franco is in front of the camera, talking to the cast about his own experiences hosting the show, or peppering them with questions that are too often banal, as when he asks Andy Samberg, who earlier said he has little interest in being an actor, why he prefers comedy to drama. Still, Franco’s occasional onscreen presence isn’t enough to harm a fascinating exploration of the complexities of the comic mind and how it manifests in the creation of a show that occupies a special place in our culture.
Franco is a perpetual student of life. (As well as various universities.) He is defined by his curiosity about the world and his fellow artists, and that curiosity makes Saturday Night easily the best film he has ever directed. It also bodes well for his direction of The Disaster Artist, Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell’s wonderful book about the making of Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, which is another story about artists reaching for, but not always achieving, transcendence.
Educational value: Exceeds expectations
Entertainment value: Exceeds expectations