Great moments in SNL history: Short films

Say what you will about last weekend's three-act SNL Digital Short that had Andy Samberg and Paul Rudd painting each other in the nude, attempting to sell one of the paintings at auction, then casting it all as a movie to be talked up in a press junket — after all, the short is titled, "Everyone's a Critic." But it certainly got viewers talking. That's what every great Saturday Night Live sketch over the past 34 seasons has accomplished. Though most of the show remains live TV, the show long has held a place or two for short films. They weren't always digital, naturally. A young Albert Brooks showcased six short films during SNL's first season, among his earliest efforts we saw of him as a writer/director. In recent years, the SNL Digital Short has been the playground for Samberg and his Lonely Island colleagues.

Let's look back at some of the great defining moments in SNL short film history, from then to now. We start with the debut episode in season two, when Lily Tomlin's Ernestine character reminds us that large corporations might not care about us little guys (a timely reminder given how big business is reacting to the economic recession of 2008, eh?):

Season Two also brought us Mr. Bill. I remember hearing cries of "Oh, no, Mr. Bill!" echoed from my neighbors growing up. For a while, I don't know if I knew it had anything to do with SNL. Then again, I was too young to know. Certainly had no idea that this short came from New Orleans, as Jane Curtin mentions in the intro. How's that for a previous generation's version of YouTube? Mr. Bill returned to our commercial airwaves earlier this year. Just in time.

The second wave of SNL buzz arrived almost immediately in the first episode of season seven, Oct. 3, 1981, courtesy of a new cast member, 20-year-old Eddie Murphy. Here he is in "Prose and Cons," with his enthralling poem, in which he vows to "kill my landlord, kill my landlord, C-I-L-L my landlord!"

Murphy later showed us his affinity for disappearing into characters that would become trademarks of Coming to America, The Nutty Professor, and even Norbit. But in "White Like Me," Murphy tackles racial issues and paved the way for sketches such as Dave Chappelle's blind Klansman. It also probably prompted a lot of "black people are like this, white people are like this" jokes. Just watch this sketch from 1984. So earnest. So funny.

And then there was the magical in-between season of all-stars that included Billy Crystal, Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer and Martin Short. Their 60 Minutes spoof is an all-time great. That doesn't seem to be online, but Shearer did upload part of this other great filmed sketch from that season, in which he and Short are aspiring synchronized swimmers. Dig. A hole. Hey, you, I know you. Watch it:

The late 1980s and 1990s saw the short film fall out of favor. Sure there were still filmed ad spoofs, but the show mostly went live. The main exceptions: "Jack Handey's Deep Thoughts" segments, and later, TV Funhouse animated shorts. Do you remember Chris Rock in this 1996 filmed short, Russell Simmons' Def Emergency Room Jam?

And then along came Samberg and Lonely Island, who got hired on SNL based on the popularity of their digital shorts. They first hit paydirt with the December 2005 music video, "Lazy Sunday," which caught the show and NBC by surprise when millions of people watched it online via YouTube without having watched it on TV. Imitators appeared online with their own versions, too. An accidental viral hit.

A few months later, they followed that up by getting Natalie Portman to rap, gangsta-style. But it was a full year before they really took the next vital leap in music video making, with Samberg and Justin Timberlake singing "Dick in a Box." It won an Emmy, inspired the woman who'd later create Obama Girl, and further forced NBC to realize it had to start embracing online video sharing and viewing.

Since then, we've had the silly Samberg videos (best examples include Andy punching people in the face while eating, Andy popping into frame, laser cats, and extreme challenge with Kristen), Will Forte's MacGruber segments, the "New York Stories" and more instances of celebrities going out on a limb to make funny. Here are the two best moments from that last category to enjoy, Peyton Manning has an unusual way of following United Way in 2007, and Steve Carell and Ricky Gervais take part in an outrageous Japanese edition of The Office earlier this year…

So what do they have up their sleeves now? And do you have a favorite you think I overlooked?

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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3 thoughts on “Great moments in SNL history: Short films

  1. If you’re not in the U.S., you should maybe still be able to see most of these SNL clips on the NBC site.
    And good catch on Adam McKay. Although I’m not sure how defining his few SNL Digital Shorts were in terms of getting the masses talking about them, it cannot be denied that this was the birthplace of the collaboration between McKay and Will Ferrell that would to an entire site for digital short comedy films: Funny or Die! So. Duly noted.

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