RIC MEYERS: Saturday Night Valet
“Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” That deathbed sentiment, most often attributed to either actor Edmund Kean or actor/director Sir Donald Wolfit, was much on my mind as I enjoyed this week’s offerings.
Actual dying, as well as the comic derivative (in which a stand-up delivers his routine to an unamused audience), has long been the purview of NBC’s Saturday Night, a.k.a. and n.k.a. (now known as) Saturday Night Live. There have been entire seasons during its thirty-two year run where an honest laugh was hard to come by, but, given its longevity, its influence and success far outweigh the flop-sweat.
So it was with a small amount of caffeinated anticipation that I watched Starbucks Entertainment’s initial toe-in-the-exclusive-DVD-waters — Saturday Night Live: The Best of ‘06/’07, which resulted from a strategic alliance with NBC and Broadway Video, which, in turn, resulted with an enclosed, promotional, extra DVD featuring a free episode (complete with deleted scenes and a “Bonus Featurette”) of the spin-off series 30 Rock.
I’ll admit to being a veteran fan of SNL, even during the eras when every uninspired wag declared it “Saturday Night Dead.” Even at its worst (and that gets really bad), it was interesting, from an instructional sense, at the very least. Thankfully, recent seasons – being the head writer Tina Fey era, closely followed by the present head writer Seth Meyers (no relation) era – have been as fitfully entertaining as some of the glory years featuring Billy Crystal, Christopher Guest, Martin Short, Mike Myers (also no relation), Dana Carvey, Chris Farley, Adam Sandler, and, oh, so many others.
Having seen virtually every episode on TV, my usual DVD meat here were the extras, which went some distance in communicating the particular problems and triumphs only available to SNL. First, there were two comedy sketches that were taped during their dress rehearsal that were cut from the telecast show – one from the Peyton Manning episode and the other from a Justin Timberlake installment. The one thing both had in common is that they really only worked because of the featured players’ talents – those players being, respectively, Kenan Thompson and Timberlake himself.
In fact, one of the only quibbles I had was the lack of Thompson, who started his career on the Nickelodeon Channel’s SNL knock-off All That, on the audio commentary – especially during his recurring “Deep House Dish” bit. I would have liked to hear what he had to say about his lone minority status amongst the present SNL men. Otherwise I was gratified to hear many of the writers and actors describing what life is like trying to put together the show and be funny in the kill-or-be-killed comedy gladiator environment producer Lorne Michaels has maintained.
My only other quibble was with the idea of what constitutes “The Best.” I’m not sure in what stratosphere it’s okay that the obvious, redundant, predictable, uninspired “Julia Louis Dreyfuss being persecuted by an insane boom mike guy” sketch is included while the hilarious, beautifully performed Alec Baldwin/Kristen Wiig “Car Pool” sketch is omitted. I can understand it, however, given that, truth be told, the best of ‘06/’07 would simply be the Alec Baldwin and Justin Timberlake episodes alone (with one or two of the SNL Digital Shorts thrown in – especially Peyton Manning’s United Way piece and the “Dick in a Box” music video, which is shown uncensored on this DVD).
But all was forgiven when I saw the disc’s final special feature: the jokes that were cut from SNL’s Weekend Update news satire between dress rehearsal and broadcast. The jokes themselves were funny (almost all showcasing Seth Meyers’ [still no relation] more daring, sadistic, side), but what really had me laughing aloud was Seth and co-anchor Amy Poehler’s reactions to the audience’s groans, disbelief, or gasps.
After that, the 30 Rock disc was all pleasure, despite the featurette being a glorified commercial for the Season 1 DVD and up-coming Season 2. 30 Rock deserves its enshrinement as one of TV’s best comedies, since it’s obvious that even its deleted scenes are cut because of time concerns, not humor content. Each display the wit of the scripting as well as the exceptional skill of the performers.
Speaking of wit and skill, remember this name: Francis Veber. If you’re a true fan of comedy cinema, you probably already know it, along with the names Neil Simon and Richard Curtis. After all, he’s been writing and directing some of the screen’s greatest comedies since the 1970s. Okay, so you may not know his more than a dozen international screen hits, but you’re bound to know the fairly lousy American remakes of his French films, which were directed by everyone from Billy Wilder to Richard Donner and starred the likes of Jackie Gleason, Richard Pryor, Tom Hanks, and Martin Short, among many others.
Well, screw them. Just about the only decent Anglicized spin-off from Veber’s delightful work was The Bird Cage starring Nathan Lane and Robin Williams (as the “straight” man!) and the Broadway musical La Cage Aux Folles. So forget Hollywood. Thanks to DVD, we can go right to the source and see the original French films. Hollywood makes pancakes, and not always very well. Veber makes light, delicious, airy, soufflés – and very funny ones at that.
The latest is The Valet, coming out on DVD September 18th. The title and cover illustration display the awkwardness with which America approaches his work, given that the film’s original title could be better translated as “The Stand-in,” and whoever poorly photoshopped the picture felt the need to stick an gawky “Parking” patch on the title character’s jacket.
Once beyond the awkward airbrushing, the brisk, entertaining film is sweet, as are the few, but prime, special features. For Veber fans, “The making of” featurette is a rare pleasure – a subtitled French TV documentary that goes behind the scenes at every production point. For Veber novices, it’s a tad tricky, since they reference his past classics and on-going themes with the reverence he justly deserves. For instance, anyone who doesn’t know that he repeatedly gives his leading character the name Francois Pignon, no matter who the actor playing him is, may have a rough patch during the doc. The other treasure for Veber fans is the audio commentary, in which the imaginative writer/director performs his chore for the first time in English.
So, naturellement, if you’re a Veber fan, The Valet is a must. If you’re not, The Valet is a good place to start. It, like most of his other farces is fast, witty, informed, observant, sweet, and satisfying, not to mention funny in an appreciative ha-ha, not a knee-slapping haw-haw kind of way. Quel pleasure!
Ric Meyers is the author of Murder On The Air, Doomstar, The Great Science-Fiction Films, Murder in Halruua, For One Week Only: The World of Exploitation Films, Fear Itself, and numerous other books and has (and sometimes still is) on the editorial staff of such publications as Famous Monsters of Filmland, Starlog, Fangoria, Inside Kung-Fu, The Armchair Detective and Asian Cult Cinema. He’s also a television and motion picture consultant whose credits include The Twilight Zone, Columbo, A&E’s Biography and The Incredibly Strange Film Show.