December 2008 was a long time ago: George W. Bush was languishing in the last days of his presidency; the Great Recession had only just gotten underway; and a young fella named James Franco was putting together his second-ever short-film project for his filmmaking degree at NYU. His subject was Saturday Night Live cast member Bill Hader, but when SNL head honcho Lorne Michaels agreed to give him full backstage access, Franco decided to expand his focus and trace a week in the life of the storied sketch show.
The resulting documentary, Saturday Night, premiered at the SXSW Film Festival way back in March 2010. But thanks to a tangle of rights issues, it was never released beyond that — until now. With little fanfare or advanced notice other than a post on Franco's instagram feed, the doc dropped on Hulu Plus this past Friday, just in time for the premiere of SNL's 40th season.
Of course, there have been plenty of behind-the-scenes tales of the show in the past, from Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller's recently updated/expanded book Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live to a 60 Minutes report in 2004. But no two casts are ever the same, and Franco's doc homes in on the SNL zeitgeist of its day. Here's what we took away from it.
1. Franco is not the greatest auteur
For all its vaunted subject matter, Saturday Night looks like what it is — the work of a first-year filmmaking student. It's all shaky handheld camera work, some of it in grainy black and white for no apparent reason. Franco doesn't really know when and where to edit himself, and as an interviewer, he doesn't ask anything like tough questions; he's a besotted fanboy, getting to hang out on the set of the show he loves. Still, Franco's workmanlike, fly-on-the-wall approach isn't distractingly bad, and he manages to capture a lot of pretty cool moments.
2. SNL writers don't get much sleep
The creative process is about as frantic as you'd expect: On Monday, the writing team piles, clown-car-like, into Lorne Michaels's office to pitch rough sketch ideas to the producer and the host of the week (in this case, John Malkovich). Then, it's a frantic all-night writing fest as the gang tries to churn out as many completed sketches as possible for the table read on Wednesday. John Mulaney and Bill Hader hole up in an office and crack each other up like a couple of stoners; Will Forte practically pulls his hair out; and then-head writer Seth Meyers admits to having "comedy fever dreams."
3. There are thousands and thousands of sketches you'll never see
At least 50 sketches get written and performed for Lorne & Co. each week at the table read, but only nine will make the cut for the show; even more may be weeded out hours before airtime if the dress-rehearsal audience doesn't respond well. It's obvious right away which bits land at the table read, and which fall flat on their face. When the room doesn't laugh, you can almost see the writers' inner turmoil coming off them in waves. "I wanted to kill myself. I wanted to die," says then-cast member Casey Wilson about realizing she was bombing during the reading.
4. John Malkovich is game for anything
SNL has had its fair share of reluctant or comedy-inept hosts that the show has been forced to work around — lookin' at you, Bieber — but Malkovich isn't one of them. From the outset, it's clear that the acting vet is unafraid to tackle any and all weird, silly ideas that the writers throw at him. One of the final sketches involved Malkovich reprising his role from Dangerous Liaisons while submerged in a hot tub; another had him in full teen-girl drag as a messed-up Judy Blume heroine who'd grown a tail.
5. A sketch goes through a lot before it makes it to air
Will Forte compares waiting for the sketch list to go up on Thursday to a cheerleader waiting for tryout results. And if your bit does make the cut, that's when rewrites begin. Saturday Night follows a handful of sketches from conception to completion, and it's pretty impressive how quickly the process happens. Scripts get tightened and rejiggered during meetings and rehearsals right up to the last few hours before the cameras go live. Meanwhile, designers and builders are frantically creating entire sets in two- and three-day time frames.
6. It's all white dudes, all the time
Seriously, so many of them. White dudes calling the shots, white dudes leading the meetings, white dudes starring in sketches, Franco interviewing white dudes. There were only a handful of minority players at the time, and they're barely on camera; though Wilson gets a decent amount of screen time, there's an egregious lack of Amy Poehler and several too-brief BTS appearances of Kristen Wiig and Michaela Watkins. Franco should've done a better job of chasing down non-bro-dude talking heads, but it's not all down to him: The sea of faces at the table read are overwhelmingly male and Caucasian. Thankfully, SNL has gotten a little better about diversity since.
7. Bill Hader is an impressions fiend
Hader was Franco's original subject, so he gets the most airtime — meaning we get to see him show off his impressive impersonation skills. He does a mean Malkovich (while sitting next to Malkovich, natch) in a sketch about an over-the-top Italian interview show; talks to Meyers during a rewrite meeting in the voice of Seth Meyers; and cracks Franco up with his impression of Willem Dafoe. There's also an awkward scene in which Hader apparently apes Prince on a cover of "I Would Die 4 U," but there's no sound on it because Franco couldn't get the rights to the song. ("wtf?" reads a very strange title card.)
8. Lorne Michaels is very Zen
You'd think that Michaels would have grown tired of working on the same show for four decades — especially one with such a frantic schedule — but the guy shows no signs of fatigue. "If you get the right mix of talented people and it connects, there's nothing better. And when it doesn't, well then as I said, there's next week," he tells Franco in an interview.
9. There's a guy who has seen SNL live 563 times
As of 2008, that is — he's probably seen it more by now. The camera goes outside 30 Rock the night before the show airs to find a man and a woman standing outside in the bitter cold, lining up to be a part of the studio audience. He was at the taping of the first-ever episode in 1975, and he hasn't stopped coming since. That's dedication, guy.
10. John Malkovich once sang the Empire Today jingle, over and over again
Anyone who's ever owned a TV knows the ads for carpeting service Empire Today, with its catchy throwback musical tag. The tune stuck in Will Forte's head so hard that he wrote a sketch that featured Malkovich as a guy trying out as a jingle singer and being forced to sing the same riff ("800-588-2300, Empiiiiiiiire!") repeatedly while having a gradual emotional breakdown. The bit ended up being cut during dress rehearsal, but thanks to Franco, the world can now hear the Oscar-nominated thespian croon about flooring.