“Live From New York!,” Bao Nguyen’s unfocused, skimpy history of “Saturday Night Live,” resembles a smiley-faced Sunday morning infomercial for a vintage pop music collection. Stumbling upon such an ad, chances are you might linger long enough to feel a nostalgic tug upon hearing a fragment of a favorite oldie but goodie before changing channels. You are also reminded of how much time has passed and how quickly the years have flown. The show’s 40-year existence, after all, is roughly half a lifetime.
There are scattered moments of interest, such as an opening sequence of what are apparently excerpts from original cast members’ auditions. In its scruffy early years, the show was an impudent, mildly subversive reflection of post-countercultural euphoria. Then, a fallow half-decade followed the 1975 departure of that cast along with the show’s creator and producer, Lorne Michaels. In 1980, Mr. Michaels returned to rebuild “S.N.L.” into a mainstream show-business institution.
Hyperbole abounds. Will Ferrell calls “Saturday Night Live” “a living, breathing time capsule.” Others describe it as tracing “the arc of America” and of being a cross between “60 Minutes” and Monty Python. All true, I suppose. But why is any time given to tangential commentators like Bill O’Reilly, Fran Lebowitz and others who have nothing useful or amusing to say, while the show’s inner workings are left unexplored? As you watch its parade of stars spoof current events, you still wonder what direction American comedy might have taken had “Saturday Night Live” not been created. The documentary stresses the importance of the show’s nature as a live broadcast, which lent it a special immediacy. Bizarrely, no mention is made of the Hollywood franchises the show has spawned, and many famous “S.N.L.” alumni, like Eddie Murphy and Adam Sandler, are missing or barely seen.
This 82-minute film goes out of its way to address ticklish issues like the cast’s relative lack of racial diversity and its boys’-club sexism. At one point, it suggests that “Saturday Night Live” unintentionally influenced the outcome of the 2000 presidential election because Mr. Ferrell’s impersonation of George W. Bush was more likable than Darrell Hammond’s Al Gore.
Controversies mentioned but not dissected include Andrew Dice Clay as a host, Sinead O’Connor’s ripping up a picture of the pope, and the sexually provocative 2006 skit with Andy Samberg and Justin Timberlake that became an instant YouTube sensation. We see political candidates confront their “Saturday Night Live” doppelgängers (Tina Fey as Sarah Palin and Amy Poehler as Hillary Rodham Clinton). In the most squirm-inducing moment, the movie awkwardly approaches 9/11 in a sequence with Rudolph W. Giuliani that is made all the more creepy by the conspicuous presence of his disgraced right-hand man, Bernard B. Kerik.
“Saturday Night Live” deserves much better than the documentary equivalent of what a book editor would surely dismiss as a rushed, careless clip job.