Tribeca Film Festival spotlights comedy icons
At age 14, the Tribeca Film Festival has become something of a New York City institution. And this year it’s paying tribute to two venerable and one not-so-venerable comedy institutions: the Monty Python troupe, “Saturday Night Live,” and National Lampoon, the humor magazine that tickled and ticked off ’70s readers and became a cultural juggernaut until its steep decline in the 1980s.
“Saturday Night Live” was the subject of the Fest’s opening-night film, Live from New York, a 90-minute documentary by Bao Nguyen that couldn’t help but skim the surface of that NBC sketch series’ 40-year history. Nguyen’s goal wasn’t a retrospective of the show’s countless comic highlights, but a look at specific aspects of its role in American culture: its shortcomings in terms of diversity, its influence on Presidential politics, its comforting response to the September 11 attacks, its contribution to the viral video phenomenon. These topics are all worth covering, but the portrait of the series feels highly selective and very incomplete: There’s not even a mention of the final Dick Ebersol year that brought in established talents like Billy Crystal and Martin Short, or original producer Lorne Michael’s misbegotten return to the show with a young, truly “Not Ready for Prime Time” cast including Robert Downey, Jr. and Anthony Michael Hall. “SNL” alumnae dominating the doc include Chevy Chase, Chris Rock, Tina Fey, Amy Pohler and Andy Samberg, but there’s no input from 1970s cast members Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd.
One of the show’s newest cast members, Leslie Jones, gets a healthy share of the film’s short running time, as it focuses on her breakout monologue conflating body issues and the legacy of slavery, a commentary that raised the ire of many black viewers. Nguyen, who is Vietnamese, also notes the show’s lack of any Asian cast members; longtime production designer Akira Yoshimura had to be recruited to play characters like Sulu from “Star Trek” and even Connie Chung.
There are conflicting accounts of the show’s treatment of its female performers and writers. Original cast member Laraine Newman says creator Michaels doted on women and that the show was a true meritocracy; Julia Louis-Dreyfus, representing what she humorously calls “the anti-golden age” of the early ’80s, feels her talents were barely tapped because of the boys’-club atmosphere there.
A documentary about “Saturday Night Live” can’t help but be entertaining and nostalgic. Nguyen’s choice to emphasize social issues is a fine one, but you still leave the movie thinking only a mini-series could cover all aspects of this landmark show’s four decades.
It’s fair to say that “Saturday Night Live” would not exist without its predecessor in counterculture humor, National Lampoon. The hugely popular magazine and multi-media venture that grew out of the Harvard Lampoon was essentially raided by “SNL,” which grabbed talents from its stage shows and radio programs like John Belushi and Gilda Radner and writers like Michael O’Donaghue and Anne Beatts. But thanks to NBC’s Standards & Practices Department, “SNL” could never be a fraction as outlandish and shocking as the equal-opportunity offenders at the Lampoon.
Douglas Tirola’s Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon gathers a huge number of the creators, writers and performers from this comedy time bomb, and a wild bunch they were, steeped in sex, drugs and (thanks to its stage shows) rock ’n’ roll. The staff was unapologetically sexist; a staple of the magazine was bare-breasted women and its aesthetic was driven by horny (but smart!) heterosexual males. (Writer Anne Beatts jokes that she got into the publishing world “the same way Catherine the Great got into politics—on my back.”) Those attitudes would get more flack today, but they were part and parcel of the uninhibited free-love climate that arose in the late ’60s.
The sheer political incorrectness of the Lampoon was also of the age. The magazine gleefully embraced racial and ethnic stereotypes for its shock humor, but often with the goal of exposing polite society’s many hypocrisies at a time when the country was angrily divided by the still-raging Vietnam War.
The tragic figure at the center of the film is co-founder Doug Kenney, a brilliant, prolific, troubled writer with major drug and alcohol problems who either jumped or fell to his death off a cliff in Hawaii at the age of 33. He was one of the magazine’s workhorses, but he also alienated many on the staff when he disappeared for two months, a victim of burnout.
In addition to colorful reminiscences from publisher Matty Simmons, co-founder Henry Beard, art directors Peter Kleinman and Michael Gross, and writers like Tony Hendra, P.J. O’Rourke and Chris Miller, the doc also features testimonials from the likes of Judd Apatow, John Goodman and Billy Bob Thornton. Best of all, Tirola and his team have gone through the archives and assembled a dizzying parade of magazine covers, cartoons, photos, graphics and rude articles from the magazine’s heyday. (One of my favorites is the faux album cover, “F—k the Beatles.”)
On the other side of the Atlantic, or course, another anarchic, iconic group of comics debuted one year before the Lampoon: Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Monty Python: The Meaning of Live chronicles the group’s 2014 reunion performances at London’s O2 Arena, the first time they had performed live together in 34 years. “We mustn’t be embarrassing,” Eric Idle says of the pressure on these seventy-something gents to deliver a show worthy of their devoted fans, and by most accounts they did. It’s a pleasure to watch these very disparate talents renewing their bonds (minus their late colleague Graham Chapman, who died in 1989). There’s great warmth on display here, despite the clashes in their personalities; the formidable John Cleese observes that “most of us are not natural fast friends” and that “I don’t think [Terry] Gilliam has ever said anything I agreed with.”
For his part, Gilliam, the lone Yank in the troupe and their resident animator who went on to direct such visionary films as Brazil and The Fisher King, confesses that he was always in awe of the others: “I was okay, they were brilliant.” Gilliam takes pride in being part of a group whose cerebral, antiauthoritarian comedy “encouraged people to think.” And like the Lampoon and “SNL,” “causing offense was part of it.”
The delightful Monty Python: The Meaning of Live premieres on Saturday afternoon, April 25, as part of Tribeca’s Monty Python celebration, which also includes their three original feature films.