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The SNL Shorts: Part 1 - The Beginning of Creative Anarchy

11/21/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

If there is anything worse than being unemployed, it's being trapped in a terrible job and having to remind yourself that you're lucky to have one at all, even if it means driving for over an hour in traffic with a knot in your stomach and a lump in your throat twice a day, five days a week, then spending the day convincing yourself that you're not alone in this toilety economy. And, in my case, taking a few minutes to sob about it all in the ladies' room.

But at least there's "Dick in a Box."

What? Oh, yes -- that's how I make my day better, at least for a few minutes at a time when I can steal them from the crushing ennui. I watch the SNL Digital Shorts.

I've always felt like Saturday Night Live's video sketches had a sense of creative anarchy about them, like some punks lifted a camera, busted out to film something, then brought it back and said, "Look what we did while you were working, suckers!" Not just for the current shorts, but going back to the show's first season. Gary Weis, the second SNL filmmaker after Albert Brooks, told me that when he was hired by his friend Lorne Michaels, he was given free reign over his films and "freedom to do what he wanted" with little censorship. Tom Schiller, who succeeded Weis in 1977, looks back on his time at SNL "as a 'golden period,' when I experimented and made, with a lot of creative freedom, my early short films." It's pretty clear that a great deal of creative freedom has been granted to The Lonely Island boys, Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer, or else we would have never been treated/subjected to "Laser Cats." (One vote for "treated.") Maybe it's living vicariously through that anarchy that cures my work ills, since I am seriously on the verge of gutting a fish on my desk.

But from what did the SNL Digital Shorts evolve?

Brought on as a "new, hip Charles Kuralt," Gary Weis' films all had a "truthy" feel to them, meaning that they weren't necessarily out for laughs, but offered up material from real people that couldn't have been scripted, like Andy Warhol staple Taylor Mead talking to his cat. (Maybe you've never heard of "Taylor Mead's Ass." Well, now you have. You're welcome.) While Weis was not out to deliver sketch comedy, his short Beatles-inspired mockumentary about "The Rutles" with Eric Idle prompted a full-length version called "All You Need Is Cash." Yes, comedy nerds -- Monty Python and the Not Ready for Primetime Players actually joined forces at one point. And I own it on DVD. Jealous?

Tom Schiller, on the other hand, had an entirely different MO. While he was part of the original writing staff and made occasional appearances on camera, Schiller was always a filmmaker by trade and wanted to make "miniature movies," he says. "I wanted to create stylized short films that had the atmosphere of my favorite directors," including foreign directors Federico Fellini and Francois Truffaut, as well as vintage American films. While Weis' films found humor in truth and reality, "Schiller's Reels" were an escape from format and, sometimes, the present. Produced specifically to stand out from the rest of the show, they were often shot with an old-fashioned feel, in black and white or intentionally scratchy. He also put the show's then-rising stars in roles the audience had never seen them in before, like John Belushi as an old man, dancing (sadly, ironically) on the graves of his predeceased castmates, Gilda Radner lamenting the woes of fame, and Bill Murray as a bum-turned-Shakespearean actor. (Though he actually did become a Shakespearean actor in Hamlet.)

Schiller's Reels and later Schillervision served to buck conventional sketch comedy temporarily and hijack other genres, which makes them comparable to TLI's Digital Shorts. While some of the best Digital Shorts are pretty traditional commercial parodies ("Lettuce," for example, which is so great because it's played so incredibly straight), the most memorable ones do what Schiller's Reels did and take over genres, in their case, music videos.

One rule I learned from writing sketch comedy was "In this dimension, this is how this happens." In our current dimension, there was Color Me Badd. In the dimension created by TLI, Color Me Badd sang, with just as much sincerity and without a hint of tongue in cheek, about putting their cocks in gift-wrapped cardboard boxes. Why? Because they can. TLI wanted to take Color Me Badd, lift the tactful veil of cheesy lyrics and put it out there -- these guys want to show girls their junk. But besides creative anarchy, both Schiller and TLI fulfill artistic desires. I know I've always wanted to be shot in grainy black and white. And I know I've always wondered if I could do a rap video. I probably have no business doing either, and, really, do these other suburban white kids? Who cares? They can. And they did. (And so did I.) And some of you probably wish you could, too.

What all of these SNL filmmakers have in common is storytelling. We tell stories to entertain ourselves, maybe distract ourselves, and some of us want to tell stories for a living because we know how much people love it. And need it, especially right now.

And nowadays, we can all see so much more of it, whenever we want.

For your viewing pleasure:

"Dick in a Box"

And Tom Schiller's "The Acid Generation: Where Are They Now?":

The_Acid_Generation_-_Where_are_They_Now__by_Tom_Schiller

Tomorrow: Going Viral and Feature-Length

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