A Look Back at the Filmmakers and Short Films of ‘Saturday Night Live’

The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 150,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)

When one looks at Saturday Night Live as one giant TV show that has aired for more than three decades, it’s interesting to see how much things have changed and how much things have stayed the same. After the explosion of the Digital Shorts, the pre-taped, short film aspect of the show is just as integral to the show’s success as the traditional live sketch portion referenced in the show’s title. There have been pre-taped sketches from the very beginning, from Albert Brooks in the first season, which I extensively profiled earlier in this column, to The Lonely Island guys of the recent past. In October of 2001, the Paley Center brought together four of Saturday Night Live’s short filmmakers to talk about this very exclusive club and the pitfalls and unique issues that come along with making shows for the seminal late night show.

Each of the four filmmakers invited that night came up to the stage and shared a film that they had made for the show. The first was Adam McKay, now the director of your favorite comedy movies, who had at that point just finished his stint as head writer of SNL. He chose to show “The Procedure,” which at that point, had aired once in a rerun of the Jackie Chan hosted episode, after being cut from four dress rehearsals in a row. He has since uploaded it to his website Funny or Die and I present it for you here:

Next up was Tom Schiller, one of the original writers for the show, who would later return when Lorne Michaels did in the late eighties to create new short films with the next generation of cast members. He showed his classic “La Dolce Gilda,” which was a parody of Federico Fellini’s film “La Dolce Vida,” who, according to Schiller, was shown “Gilda” and said that it reminded him of his own work.

Next was Aviva Slesin, who started as an editor with the show working on Eric Idle’s Rutles special. She was asked what her dream short film would be about and replied “singing dogs” and was given $4,000 and Bill Murray. The short film, which featured barking dogs edited to sound like they were singing “Hava Nagila,” played at the New York Film Festival, but does not currently play on the Internet as far as I could find.

Last up was Robert Smigel, longtime writer for the show, and was also introduced as the person who on Late Night with Conan O’Brien portrays Triumph the Insult Comic Dog and Bill Clinton’s mouth. He showed the episode of The X-Presidents embedded below, even though the Paley Center wanted him to show Conspiracy Theory Rock, which was only aired once because it talked about NBC’s parent company GE building nuclear weapons, because he didn’t want to rub salt in the wound.

Following the presentation, the four filmmakers sat down to discuss their experiences with the show that arc across a long period of time. The first question asked the creators to discuss their paths to the show and reflected their very divergent backgrounds. Smigel and McKay were both comedy performers in Chicago, hired as sketch writers, who then turned to making short films for the show as a way to continue to be involved with Saturday Night Live while not having to come in every single day. Tom Schiller explains that as a teen he desperately wanted to make films in the style of French New Wave director François Truffaut and the aforementioned Fellini. His father also worked in television, and he just followed the path to SNL where he was able to write, direct, and edit his own short films with great freedom. Aviva, as previously mentioned, was an editor. Her films were different because she wasn’t a writer. She would provide the idea, for example, Bill Murray is a television executive introducing a group of real birds that dress in clothes, and then Bill would perform and improvise that role. She credits this experience with her later career as a documentarian, which would later lead to an Academy Award for her film about the Algonquin Round Table.

Creating short films for SNL gives one a lot of benefits that other filmmakers doesn’t have. One, obviously, is audience. Another is the disposable nature of the show (a trait that, in the age of the Internet, may no longer be valid). Due to the fact that it is broadcast live, a short film can live in the moment and if it doesn’t work, it can be forgotten, just as a bad sketch would. The filmmakers of SNL also have a very talented cast at their disposal. Schiller talks about the advantages of working with a Gilda Radner or a John Belushi just before they were household names, saying “They came to the set on time during those days. They’ll do whatever you want, because they’re happy to get the screen time on the show.” At this point, McKay cut in, “That was Will Ferrell for a time. But for the third film we made he showed up four hours late, so we had to dump the first three scenes. I said ‘Will, you’re late,’ and he was really confrontational about it. He said, ‘what are you going to do about it?'” As he’s relaying this juicy gossip, suddenly a familiar voice from the audience shouts out “YOU SHUT YOUR MOUTH!” Adam continues, “he got in my face, and then he put me in an awkward kind of bear hug that went on for four hours. We had to scrap the whole day of shooting.” Smigel states that the entire cast agreed that Chris Farley made everyone laugh the hardest, but overall he felt that his work as a performer in the Superfans sketches was grossly under recognized.

Smigel briefly discussed how working in animation changed things a little bit for him. His shorts took five weeks to complete which is an incredibly fast pace for animation but that’s five weeks longer than most SNL sketches take. Lorne preferred to be surprised by the material and see it on its feet during dress rehearsal, however, because it was animated and voices could be dubbed in and changes made, it was possible for Smigel to tweak a short between dress and air if required. However, despite the amount of money and work it would require to make the shorts, that didn’t mean they would all end up on the air. This panel took place in October of 2001, just a few weeks after Saturday Night Live returned to the airwaves following the September 11th attacks. The first show back was still a comedy (obviously), but shied away from topical material about the attacks. The cartoon Robert prepared for that evening did not. Using recycled material from earlier shorts, it featured Lorne Michaels, played by Smigel, discussing why the show made the brave decision to return to work to serve as an inspiration to New Yorkers, only to reveal that Lorne was in a bubble, flanked by security guards. Also, Horatio Sanz, despite claiming to be Latino, would have to walk through a metal detector before each sketch, just to be safe. Since the cartoons take some time to create, the one intended for the evening, Freddie the Farting Flag, is no longer appropriate, so Lorne introduces a classic Ambiguously Gay Duo short. “Lorne” then proceeds to fast-forward through now-objectionable material like violence, and evil geniuses, but has no problem with a penis-shaped car driving into a cave that resembles a butt. The sketch closes with Lorne reflecting: “It’s comforting to know that in times like this we can still turn to humor about anal sex.”

Later in the evening, Tom Schiller is asked about what is perhaps his most famous and most ironic short, entitled “Don’t Look Back in Anger.” In it, John Belushi, playing himself as an old man, visits a cemetery where the rest of the original SNL cast members are buried. The idea of nostalgia is one that clearly interested him as another of his films, “The Acid Generation: Where Are They Now?” featured elderly Floridians pretending to be aging flower children, saying things like “I remember Jimi Hendrix like it was yesterday,” and, “You can’t get good acid any more.” Schiller claims that he has the ability to look at a person and accurately imagine what they will look like when they’re 90. From this skill came this iconic film that John Belushi once jokingly called “the best thing [Schiller] ever did.”

Since 2001 the world of Saturday Night Live‘s short films exploded in popularity with The Lonely Island making more than 100 during their tenure (and another one after they left). As the show evolves over the years to come, the pretaped sketch will continue to allow the writers to show things that simply can’t be done on stage, and hopefully continue to create filmmakers like these four that go on to use what they’ve learned at SNL to conquer Hollywood.

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, the head writer of his website, a podcaster and a guy on Twitter.

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