Spend Saturday Night with James Franco

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Published May 18, 2010

With last week’s Alec Baldwin-hosted finale, Saturday Night Live wrapped up 35 seasons of comedy. Through seven presidents, 11 spin-off movies, and 656 episodes, SNL has persistently, if not always successfully, sought to make us laugh.  Evolving from a network experiment to a television institution, the show has launched the careers of everyone from Bill Murray to Tina Fey. In James Franco’s directorial debut, Saturday Night, he follows one week in the life of the comedy show. While SNL and its players have been subject to previous exposés–and at least one E! True Hollywood Story–the inner workings of the show itself had never been filmed. After a recent screening, Franco was joined by cast members Keenan Thompson, Jenny Slate, and Will Forte to discuss how to stay funny week after week.  

The idea for the film came from a homework assignment Franco had while studying in  Columbia’s MFA program: “The assignment I had was an observation documentary… But I wanted people to feel the process rather than just hear about it. And then Lorne told me that the Maysles’ old partners, Pennebaker and Leecock, asked if they could do a documentary in the ‘70s.  I guess Lorne thought that with that cast, they shouldn’t see behind the scenes. [LAUGHS]”  SNL is an inherently light show, but the scenes behind the curtains are heart-wrenching. The film follows one sketch in which Will Forte offers an absurd take on the Empire Carpet Commercial. The bit kills at every stage–until it reaches its final audience.  At the panel, Forte discussed dealing with the death of a good sketch: “It happens all the time. You never know when it’s going to be the perfect combination. Sometimes the audience will have different tastes… Sometimes they end up getting on and doing really well, sometimes they–don’t.”  

First-year cast member Jenny Slate talked about separating the good sketches from the crazy ones: “It’s like remembering a person with who you had super fun wild night with and the next day or three hours later, you have to look a them like ‘Uhh…oh  wow, this is definitely five in the morning.'”  The frenetic pace of producing the weekly live show means that the new cast members are immediately thrown into the deep end.  Keenan Thompson, now a veteran, remembered his early impressions of the show: “We go into it with such humility.  Everybody [who] gets to do it is a very competent person but…now you’re around these icons.  To have to witness that and then introduce something you think is funny–you’re like a naked baby.”  While previous SNL tell-alls might have found debauchery or feuding cast members, Franco’s observational film a finds a group of talented if disheveled comedians doing anything in search of a laugh.  Veteran cast member Will Forte, who stars in the eleventh SNL spin-off, MacGruber, sums up his start as “I just wanted to not be the worst person ever on stage. At least second to last.”