The very first episode of Saturday Night Live featured a short film called “The Impossible Truth.” It was a Ripley’s Believe It or Not!–style faux-newsreel, written and directed by Albert Brooks, depicting such wonders as New York City’s first totally blind cab driver and the state of Israel agreeing to trade places with the state of Georgia. Brooks — who’d turned down an offer from NBC to be the permanent host of a late-night show in what became the SNL time slot — ended up contributing six films to the show and then moved on to make his first feature, 1979’s Real Life. “The relationship was symbiotic while it lasted — it helped me, it helped them,” he told Bill Zehme years later. “I learned my craft and got out.” But from that point on, the short film was as much a part of the show’s DNA as the musical guest segment or “Weekend Update.”
This was partly a practical consideration. A brief filmed segment could be slipped into the lineup if a show was running a few minutes under; it could also be bumped to the following week if necessary. They gave the show — and the cast — a chance to catch its breath. But over the years, the shorts have also served an important aesthetic purpose. They’re expressions of the SNL sensibility that aren’t bound by the formal constraints of live TV or sketch comedy. In a sense, the short-film space is the one recurring segment where the rules are still up for grabs, and over the years, it’s produced some of the most memorable bits in SNL history, from the endless agonies of Mr. Bill to the Lonely Island’s blinged-out sea cruise, “I’m on a Boat.” Sometimes they’re the funniest thing on the show; there have been periods when they’re the only funny thing on the show. And sometimes they’re memorable because they’re not really funny at all.
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In the film “Love Is a Dream,” from December 1988, an old woman (played by Jan Hooks) visits a bank on a snowy day and takes a diamond tiara out of a safe-deposit box. She places it on her head, and black-and-white gives way to color as Hooks dreams she’s young and beautiful, waltzing with a handsome prince played by Phil Hartman. They sing the Bing Crosby song with which the film shares its title; then they part, and Hooks finds herself alone in the bank once again. As she shuffles out of the vault, the guard tips his hat. It’s Hartman, also in old-age makeup. She blows him a kiss. In 1988, the joke, to the extent that there was one, was that there was no joke; it was a romantic fantasy that happened to star two funny people. Hartman died 10 years later; “Love Is a Dream,” rendered retroactively poignant, was the last segment aired on SNL’s 1998 memorial tribute special.
The director of “Love Is a Dream” was Tom Schiller, who made a series of short films for the show between 1977 and 1981, then returned as SNL’s in-house filmmaker during the second Lorne Michaels administration. Schiller’s father was a writer for I Love Lucy; Schiller grew up in Los Angeles, aspiring — in his words — to make “foreign films.” He had a snob’s distrust of television and took a job on SNL against the advice of his friend and mentor Henry Miller. Schiller was a writer during the show’s first two seasons — he wrote “Samurai Hotel,” which introduced the world to one of John Belushi’s most enduring characters — before inheriting the job of in-house filmmaker from Brooks’s successor, Gary Weis. The “Schiller’s Reel” segments — collected only once, on a now out-of-print VHS, although still available on the Saturday Night Live DVDs — ranged from faux-documentaries about human cloning and Picasso’s (fictional) stint as a New York City resident to a film-noir parody about caffeine addiction.
As a founding SNL writer, Schiller was close with the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players, and that intimacy bled into the films, many of which now double as prophetic or bittersweet portraits of the cast members involved. In “Perchance to Dream,” from 1979, a bum finds a bottle on the sidewalk, drinks the contents, and imagines he’s onstage reciting Shakespeare; then he’s rudely awakened by a cop with a nightstick, ordering him to move along. The bum is played by Bill Murray, whose emergence as a dramatic actor was still decades away. The Federico Fellini homage “La Dolce Gilda,” shot in and around an SNL after-party, stars Gilda Radner, lonely despite the presence of a swinging jet-set crowd (including Dan Aykroyd in the Mastroianni role, going full swag in a white suit). And in what may be Schiller’s most famous short, the eerily prophetic “Don’t Look Back in Anger,” an aged John Belushi visits the Not Ready for Prime Time Cemetery and recounts for the camera the circumstances of each cast member’s untimely death.
“Why me?” Belushi wonders. “Why did I live so long? They’re all dead.” He pauses. “I’ll tell you why. Because I’m a dancer!” And he’s off, frolicking among the graves.
How did you first meet Lorne Michaels?
When I was about 17, I was already working for a documentary filmmaker in the Pacific Palisades and working on documentary films. I made my own film on Henry Miller. My father was a writer on I Love Lucy. I grew up on the set of I Love Lucy. I was actually there for the grape-stomping sequence when I was 6. And one day my father said, “You’ve got to meet this guy — he’s this Canadian writer, but he knows all the great restaurants in L.A.” I thought, I don’t really care about the great restaurants in L.A., but OK. So Lorne came over to the house, and he seemed like a nice enough guy. The surprising thing was, he lit a joint in my room, which I would never do in my father’s house. I thought, Hmm — interesting, and I started hanging out with him at the Chateau Marmont, which had a lot of colorful regulars, some of whom would become the nucleus of Saturday Night Live.
Lorne kept talking about this late-night show, this comedy show he wanted to do. Like 24/7 he would talk about it, to the point of boredom. He kept asking me if I’d like to come work on it, and I was conflicted, because my then-pal Henry Miller said, “Don’t go work on TV, it’ll kill your soul.” But Lorne kept painting this picture of New York, and being a writer, and working on a late-night show, and it sounded kind of interesting. Since I wanted to be a foreign-film director, L.A. didn’t seem like the place to be, and I finally succumbed and took his invitation. In the summer of 1975, I was in a little office at 30 Rockefeller Plaza with Lorne. I was sitting there with him as he started hiring all the writers and cast.
You were there for the big bang!
Yeah. We used to go to Catch a Rising Star and the Improv to watch performers. I remember seeing Chevy Chase and Richard Belzer. There were auditions, and John Belushi came and auditioned as the Samurai, which led me later to write “Samurai Hotel” for him. Lorne was going around and meeting people. I remember we went to Bernie Brillstein’s office, who was Lorne’s agent at that time. Having grown up in the business, I had a suspicion of agents. We met Dick Ebersol. And we went to NBC in Burbank, where Lorne screened the Monty Python show for this executive there. We sat in the back of the theater for an hour and the executive was on the phone the entire time, which was funny to me. I was like a fly on the wall, watching all this stuff happen.
I imagine, since you’d sort of grown up in that milieu, that you were more at home in that world than Lorne, in some ways.
I was more at home, and not as impressed.
You didn’t start making films for SNL right away. What was your official job title when you first got hired?
Well, at first, I was just sort of Lorne’s assistant. But since he had talked me into being a writer, I was quickly made one of the first writers, along with people like Michael O’Donoghue, Anne Beatts. I hired [Al] Franken and [Tom] Davis from a whole bunch of scripts, and they came out, too. Chevy Chase was a writer, too. People like that.
Had you ever written sketch comedy before?
Never in my entire life span. I didn’t even know how. I don’t think I got anything on the air in the first 10 shows, except one parody commercial for “Triopenin,” which was an arthritis medicine that you couldn’t open, because it had the safety cap.
I remember that one. The guy is struggling with the cap the whole time, and then at the end the bottle is busted open.
And it was for poor, arthritic people who couldn’t work their fingers. I was so excited when that thing finally aired — it was my big triumph. Those were Chevy’s fingers, because he was very good at finger work. He did a hand-puppet thing in The Groove Tube, by Ken Shapiro, if you remember that film. It’s sort of like [John Landis’s] Kentucky Fried Movie. Those were both precursors of Saturday Night Live.
You were the third person to make films for the show.
Albert Brooks did some terrific films, but they were so long. They were like five minutes, seven, and they became longer and longer. The ideal length for a film on that show, I discovered, was two and a half minutes. That’s as long as you could sustain someone’s interest without imposing on the show. Also, it’s a challenge to do a beginning, middle, and end in two and a half minutes. Anyway, some of it got so long that they stopped using Albert Brooks. Then they used a guy named Gary Weis, who I knew from growing up in L.A. at Topanga Beach. He was a surfer, but he used to make films and show them to the surfers. One of them was an airplane flying overhead, and then he superimposed a seagull flying at the same time, a double image, and he showed this to the surfers, and they were like, “Oh, wow, man, that’s good.” Not to knock him — he did do some really sweet films for that show. And then I don’t know what happened. I guess he moved on, and it was my turn. My first one was called “The Acid Generation: Where Are They Now?” It was all these old people remembering Jimi Hendrix as if it was yesterday. So that was the joke. I shot it in Venice [California] in an old people’s home.
Had the show become a cultural phenomenon yet? At what point was it clear to you that you were part of something huge?
I’d say within the first two years it started to catch on. If you were out, and said, “I’m a writer on Saturday Night Live,” suddenly everyone would take interest in you.
What was the process like? Was it hard to get them to sign off on something you wanted to shoot?
At the beginning, I had a lot of freedom. At the writers’ meeting, I would say, “I’d like to do a film on John Belushi, where everyone else is dead in the graveyard and he’s the oldest surviving cast member.” Everyone would just say, “OK, yeah, go ahead and do it.”
Wow. So you had a budget, and this great cast, and the resources of Saturday Night Live behind you, without a lot of oversight.
Yes. It was like having a miniature studio behind you — as long as I kept it not too horribly expensive, it was taken care of.
That’s amazing. How old were you at this point?
I was about 25, 24. I think I was the only short-film maker ever to make money at it. I don’t envy those poor people who have to enter those festivals all the time.
And on SNL, the films didn’t have to run the same gantlet that a sketch did?
Yeah. When I wrote sketches, you would go in and out of Lorne’s office and rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. It was almost excruciating sometimes, what you had to do. Even down to airtime and dress rehearsal, you have to change it. It was very horrible. But if it went on the air and it worked, then you were happy.
With a film, I think I’d have to show it to Lorne or some head writers, and they’d have to say “OK.” But usually in the beginning, they just accepted them right away. It was only later, after the five-year lapse, when Lorne went away and then we all went back again, that they became more scrutinized, and it was more painful, and it didn’t flow as easily.
Things were more policed in general?
Exactly. There were more people with clipboards walking around. [The show] was established and it had a formula.
You had a number of famous people in “Sushi by the Pool.” I assume you knew Desi Arnaz Jr. through your father, but how did you manage to get Carrie Fisher and everyone else to be in it?
I can’t remember. I met a lot of people and actors through Saturday Night Live. I was good friends with Chevy, and he knew those people. Steven Keats was an actor. The guy whose pool I used was an agent who I was friends with. He was also friends with Hal Holbrook — that was him running down the hill shouting, “Earthquake!” I thought that was quite a coup. He did it twice. I said “Could you do it for a close-up?” Which was really funny. Carrie Fisher I had met through Saturday Night Live.
Of that original group, who were you tightest with?
I was pals with Lorne for a long time. I was great friends with Chevy for a long time, and he was my introduction to New York. Then, strangely enough, I was friends with Bill Murray when he came in for a while. They sort of have half-lives, these friendships, because the people become so famous that they’re inaccessible after a while. But those were the people I was really friends with.
That intimacy comes through in the films, in which a lot of the cast members play themselves, or versions of themselves.
I knew I could do a really good one on Belushi, because to me — to everybody — he was the face of Saturday Night Live. He was like the mascot. Gilda [Radner] was like the heart of Saturday Night. Billy [Murray] was good, too. He already had that character, the Honker, so I had him do that, in the one about him being a bum who could recite Shakespeare suddenly. Many of the cast had already-established characters when they came to the show, so those were ready-made.
The Samurai was one of those, too, right?
Belushi had that, but no one knew how to use it, so I thought of “Samurai Hotelier,” and they changed it to “Samurai Hotel,” because they didn’t think the audience would understand what “hotelier” meant. It was the first time that I came up against people saying, “Well, a television audience wouldn’t know what that word meant.”
Those three films — the one with Belushi, “La Dolce Gilda,” and Bill Murray — all have a strange resonance to them, given the trajectory of these people’s lives in the years that followed. Even the Murray one is really affecting, because it seems to capture some frustrated desire in him to be something more than a goofy comic actor. Did you have any sense that you were tapping into something as you were making the films?
“Don’t let me film you or you’ll die.” I had no idea [Belushi] was going to die. It was a tragic way for a film to become famous and prophetic and sad. But he did have a “live fast, die young, leave a good-looking corpse” attitude — or in his case, a corpulent corpse. I don’t know. But thank you. I think when you hang out so tightly with all these people, you begin to see what their essence is, and what the best thing is that they can do, and that led to me making those films. Later, when I came back to the new show, I wasn’t able to hang out with as many people like that. I didn’t exactly know what the essence of Adam Sandler was! So I wasn’t able to make films as deep and meaningful as the earlier ones.
But I’ll tell you about “La Dolce Gilda” — I went to Italy, and I went to Fellini and I said, “I made a film — an homage to you.” He said, “We must arrange a screening.” And so I showed “La Dolce Gilda” to Fellini, and he said, “It’s sweet — it has the atmosphere of some of my films.” He was my great idol, so I was in heaven. I was floating on air.
Like a lot of people from the class of ’75, you left the show around the time Lorne Michaels did, in 1980. Was that about solidarity with Lorne?
Something like that. We were all kind of burned-out anyway. It’s amazingly stressful to write that way. People think it’s so easy to write comedy, but even my father will tell you — it burns you out. At that point, I was chosen to make a feature film, which I did for the next year. And then we all left, until Lorne came back about six years later, and asked me to join him again, and I stayed another six years.
You reenlisted for another tour.
Yeah, probably another five years longer than I should’ve.
You did some really good stuff in that later period!
The feature was Nothing Lasts Forever. That was the first Saturday Night Live movie, in a way.
There had been one before by Gary Weis, called The Rutles — he did that with Eric Idle. But I think it was a TV movie, not a full-fledged movie. So maybe you’re right, that my film was Lorne’s first foray into feature films.
But this was after Animal House and Caddyshack and Chevy’s Foul Play, so there must have been a sense that the SNL guys could open a movie. Were people just coming to Lorne with bags of money, asking him to make them some kind of Saturday Night Live movie?
Yeah, I think so. I think he had a deal with MGM, and he had five of us write films. One was by Guido Sarducci — Don Novello — who I think wrote one about himself. Franken and Davis wrote one called 1985, set in the future, but it had millions of AMC Pacer cars in the opening, which would be too expensive. And Lorne was writing one with his friend John Head, based on an old novel — not Wuthering Heights, but something like that.1 And then he told me to just write a Tom Schiller movie. I had no idea how to write one, but I thought, Oh, boy, here’s my chance, and I started writing.
But you never felt, as you were writing, that you were writing Saturday Night Live: The Movie.
No. I thought, I’m going to write a great feature film that will propel me into the stellar group of great filmmakers of America.
Was MGM expecting something more like the show?
Yeah, I think so, and I think that’s one of the reasons it wasn’t distributed. I think they thought they were going to get something like Airplane! When they chose to make it, and I was astonished that they chose my film to go, not one of the other ones. I think they thought it was the cheapest way to get out of the contract. Don’t forget, at the time, MGM was wobbling. They were in really bad shape. Different presidents coming in and out. They were being bought by Gulf and Western. So I don’t know what happened, but it may have been a financial thing.
“We can get an SNL film on the cheap …”
Right. “And it’ll have Bill Murray in it and stuff.” But he was only in maybe 15 percent of the movie!
So you still don’t really know why it didn’t get distributed? I’ve read that there were some issues with your use of stock footage and clips from older films.
I think that’s what they say. There are some music cues, as well. I have no idea what the real reason is. I think it’s just not commercial, and it would cost too much to bring it out and advertise it and pay the actors and stuff. That’s my real feeling.
Surely at this point, there must be enough interest in it for somebody to put it out. It’s the lost Saturday Night Live movie!
It’s owned now by Warner Bros. They always threaten to release it, this guy at Warner Archives, which is where it is. But it never quite gets out. They still could, but — as saddening as it is that it didn’t get released — there’s something satisfying that it’s become an underground favorite, and that people discover it and get to see it for the first time. I’m going to a screening in Jacksonville, Florida, next month. It’s always fun to show it. It’s just great to have a small group of people that appreciate it.
As an American-born foreign filmmaker, I imagine there’s something appealing about that for you. You released a movie directly into myth.
It became what I always wanted it to be. It’s a succès d’estime, as they call it.
When you were making it, was that what you wanted?
No, I thought I was going to be the next Cecil B. DeMille.
Right, although as you alluded to, it’s not the most lucrative growth industry. I think there’s a number of things in that later SNL run, some of them are harder to see now, but I remember some of them being really great. It sounds like you don’t look back on that period with as much fondness.
No, I think the craft is still there. I think maybe the actors weren’t. “Love Is a Dream,” with Phil Hartman and Jan Hooks, I’m proud of that. I made one thing which you can see online called “Broadway Story,” based on the serials of the ’30s and ’40s. It’s a four-parter. It uses the whole cast at that time, but it never got the showing that I thought it would get.
It never ran?
They ran three and then they yanked it.
And you were also involved with “Sprockets” when you came back, right?
I did a few little insert things for the “Sprockets” show. Those were fun. [Mike] Myers was fun to work with.
You did the German-expressionist movies for the “Germany’s Most Disturbing Home Videos” segment, right? With Kyle MacLachlan as the German Bob Saget?
That’s right. Myers was good at that. He knew that stuff and was funny. I also did one with Chris Farley, where he’s in the restaurant and gets fake coffee and he goes berserk.
Farley died young, too. Does this ever freak you out?
It’s like I told you: Don’t let me film you.
You’re bad luck.
Good entertainment, and bad luck.
Have you paid much attention to SNL’s Digital Shorts, or the stuff on sites like Funny or Die?
Yes, I’ve seen them. I think they’re hilarious, but they’re so different. What I tried to do was imitate French films and stuff, and they’re doing some bizarre, wild, off-the-wall interesting video stuff. It’s not my thing, but I think it’s very funny.
You were usually trying to reproduce some aesthetic — that was always half the joke.
Also, my stuff is much more soppy and cloying compared to today. I’m trying to tug on your heartstrings a little bit, and I don’t think people doing videos of cats being zapped with electronic machines are trying to do that.
Illustration by Linsey Fields