As a NYU film student, James Franco has been making student films, and one of them was a documentary on SNL.
First, Does James Franco's SNL Documentary Praise the Show or Bury It?
One review doesn't paint it well for SNL...
Writing the show in insomniac delirium, comedians-turned-writers like John Mulaney and performer/scribes like Will Forte riff on dated cultural references (skits inspired by Liza Minnelli, Judy Blume, and the Empire Carpet commercial are batted around) that are so lifeless that they could have only been collected prior to induction into this world. These people are making comedy that’s supposed to sum up our culture—a culture that has become obsessed with “sharing”—and they do it by locking themselves in an office building for a week, where they test out their material by cracking up their co-workers. Each writing session seems to devolve into uncontrollable giggles; the people who make SNL seem far more pleased with their own product than any viewer has been in a long while.
The show Franco captures was hosted by John Malkovich shortly before Christmas 2008. The documentary does a fantastic job at illustrating the stress, work and long hours devoted to making something that's gone in 90 minutes. It's a riveting and often hilarious film, shedding a light on the creative process at "SNL" like nothing else.
The documentary is structured as simply as possible with title cards demarcating the different daily tasks for the cast and crew: Monday is pitch day, when everyone gathers with that week's host in Michaels' office to suggest sketches. The suggestions are alternately funny and lacking, and you get a sense right away of the dynamic at play when it comes to getting an idea out there.
Much of the action of a given scene in the film is intercut with a cast member talking about their process or history with the show with stunning honesty, as when Will Forte says that the pitch meetings are "half bulls---" and that he has no idea what he'll suggest that week. (The sketch he winds up pitching makes it into the script but is cut after the dress rehearsal.)
Franco's smart to let the natural action of the creative process dictate the drama and humor. Though he's in several scenes as an interviewer, he's mostly content to let the cameras roll as writers bat around ideas, find good ones and get stuck on bad ones. Tuesday is writing day, with staffers working through the night to get their scripts in for the Wednesday table read. Their 50 submitted sketches are trimmed to nine.
Thursday and Friday are filled with rehearsals, construction and the filming of interstitials for certain sketches. Then it's dress rehearsal on Saturday night and a live show at 11:30 ET, and we're off to the races.
It's impossible to get a sense of the scope of the show's 35-year history in a 90-minute doc, but Franco covers some good ground by chatting with members about their comedy training and with a producer about how people invariably think the cast from their childhood years was the best. "SNL" is constantly in a state of reinvention. For instance, Casey Wilson, who has a prominent role in part of the doc, was axed more than a year ago. Yet "Saturday Night" is wonderful for the way it shows just how much of the work stays the same.