But for the most part, Saturday Night is, surprisingly, not too self-indulgent. Franco relishes his role behind the camera, only occasionally showing up for a crinkly-eyed reaction shot in a stray interview here and there. Most of the interviews remain focused solely on the subject. Still, Franco has a lot to learn when it comes to getting honest, interesting answers from his documentary subjects. Despite the fact that he’s hosted the show and knows the cast already, they don’t seem very connected to him. Everything is a bit too obvious, like talking to Andy Samberg about being a comedian vs. being an actor (Samberg: “I feel like I could tell a dick joke real good”) or asking if there’s a “lot of pressure” involved in making people laugh (I think we can all figure out the answer to that one). When Franco finally sits down with Lorne Michaels toward the end of the film, he asks the hard-hitting question, “What’s your biggest worry? That you’ll have a bad show?” “Obviously,” Michaels responds.
The problem with a Saturday Night Live documentary is that we already know so much about how Saturday Night Live works thanks to countless articles and the popular book Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live, as Told By Its Stars, Writers and Guests, which practically everyone with even a fleeting interest in sketch comedy has read. We know about the grueling schedule, so it’s not a surprise to learn that cast members don’t get much sleep during the week. We know that sketches get cut, that the writers often pair up with an actor, that they do a dress rehearsal before the live show to gauge the audience’s reaction.
That said, there are still some good moments in Saturday Night that makes it worth checking out. It centers on a John Malkovich-hosted episode, so it’s fun to see how sketches are crafted to work specifically for him. Casey Wilson’s confessions of insecurity after a bad table read — “I want to kill myself” — are sweetly honest (and sad, since her stint was so brief); watching everyone make each other laugh during rehearsals is pretty cool; and the glimpses into the lives of lesser-known crew members — such as the ones who have to build a hot tub within two days — is interesting.
A wonderful scene involves John Mulaney and Bill Hader working together but mostly just cracking each other up, laughing in that uncontrollable and hysterical way that college kids do when they’ve been up too late writing toward the end of finals week. In fact, parts of the documentary reminded me of my own years spent writing for a college humor magazine, particularly the cast’s table read, where it’s clear the things they find completely hilarious might not work as well for the larger public. It’s reminiscent of stoners thinking of the funniest thing in the world and realizing, the next day, that there’s no actual punchline there.
Saturday Night is fairly inconsistent, with a handful of nice touches that fail to build a complete documentary. It’s light even for 90 minutes. It’s a strange case, because James Franco has remade himself as an oddball, self-indulgent, and divisive artist, but his touch is barely felt in this documentary. He’s reined himself in significantly, which should be a good thing, yet Saturday Night suffers from being so typical and basic. It’s possible I’ll regret this sentence in the future, but: Maybe we need weird James Franco after all.