Best-of compilations of Saturday Night Live have been a home video staple going on 30 years; I still remember with fondness catching up on Gilda Radner, Dan Aykroyd, and Bill Murray, among others, via VHS tapes that offered a little more depth than the 20-minute Best of Saturday Night Live episodes that played in syndication throughout the ’80s.
Despite their longevity, the SNL home video producers have never quite taken full advantage of the of the DVD format. Of course, there are now full-season sets of the show’s first five years, but no one is holding their breath for the other 30, given their natural up-and-down quality and up-and-further-up music licensing rights. Most of the SNL presence on video shelves, then, has been in the form of highlights reels of its various beloved (and semi-beloved) cast members.
Rather than collecting a comprehensive two or three hours of great sketches, though, these collections simply take specials broadcast on NBC in the SNL timeslot (running a little over an hour without commercials) and add in a few extra sketches, plus a handful of bonuses like audition footage and a sketch or two cut from dress rehearsals. Typically, the packages run well under two hours and seem like a holdover from the space restrictions of the VHS era.
The new Best of Will Ferrell disc inches closer to the potential of what could be done with a Saturday Night Live disc. It makes sense that Ferrell would be the subject of this slight upgrade: he’s the only cast member to inspire two best-of volumes, and a third is on the way. Confusingly, this disc is essentially an expansion and reissue of the first volume, even though both volumes could probably fit on a single disc.
Ferrell works as the subject of these format experiments because of the way he set the mold for today’s SNL comedians. Before Ferrell’s late-’90s run began, most of the show’s famous alums hung on for three to five years, treating the show a bit like comedy college. Ferrell took his studies to a Ph.D. level, staying for seven seasons and combining the versatility of Phil Hartman with the star quality of Bill Murray or Mike Myers. Since he left, tenures for seven or eight years have become more common; the current cast has been around for the better part of a decade.
As a result, there’s a wealth of Ferrell material to choose from. He’s got the usual hacky over-recurred characters like the Spartan Cheerleaders and the Roxbury Guys (here distilled into a single sketch each, and much funnier for it) and oddball impersonations (Alex Trebek, James Lipton), but also a variety of bizarre, vivid one-offs, as when he plays the devil striking a deal with Garth Brooks for a hit song, only to utterly fail to produce a single decent riff. The inclusion of those deeper cuts assures that The Best of Will Ferrell, in its repackaged form, does a decent job of representing the star’s gifts for absurdity and commitment, even within the (pointless) 70-minute confines.
The new version adds, among the bonus features, another half-dozen bits, including the first Bill Brasky sketch, an insane recurring piece where grotesque blowhard businessmen swap increasingly outlandish stories about an unseen colleague, a pure-comic antidote to the familiarity of the cheerleader and Roxbury stuff. It also includes a second previously unseen cut-from-dress sketch, apparently from his 2009 hosting gig, alongside the classic never-aired “Old Prospector” bit from the first release.
You can also watch Ferrell’s audition, or a few talk show appearances; it’s really the extras, then, that gesture toward the archival feel that these collections should be aiming for. The recent Best of Amy Poehler went so far as to include a commentary track, a step in the right direction nonetheless absent here.
Despite the quality of the material, The Best of Will Ferrell still feels, like so many of its compilation siblings, far from complete, even given the “best” limitation. The disc offers a decent Ferrell 101 course, but the as-yet-unexpanded Volume 2 remains funnier, weirder, and more eclectic: even a refurbished first volume lacks any concentrated dose of Ferrell’s Neil Diamond, or his bizarre doctor character (“Beverly!”), or low-rent sleazebag Ted Brogen, all present on the second.
Ferrell did seven seasons on the show, including several where he seemed to appear in virtually every sketch, yet this is still a relatively uninspired run-through of familiar material. This robs future fans — kids sifting through these discs the way I checked out the Gilda Radner tape — of a sense of discovery that might better recreate the feeling of seeing some strange, wonderful sketch on Saturday Night Live at the time. The lack of context isn’t crippling, but it is disappointing; SNL deserves curators, not just casual fans.