Young viewers today who turn back to these vaunted early episodes searching for belly laughs are apt to feel like someone who has stepped into a 3-D theater without special glasses: Few sketches "hold up" in the sense of being dazzlingly fresh and funny. Squint, though, and it's easy to see why they seemed so when they appeared. These early skits' exotic conceptualism and wild immediacy—Gilda Radner doing Roseanne Roseannadanna, a newscaster with a manners-and-decency problem, or John Belushi's samurai swordsman slicing sandwiches, ironic in conceit but brash and physical in execution—fit with the comic vanguard of the time, a lineup that included the madcap young Steve Martin and highbrow slapstick conceits like Woody Allen's Bananas. The model worked. SNL won four Emmys that May. Cast members showed up on magazine covers. By 1976, Saturday Night was the buzziest show on TV.
A program buttressed by the zeitgeist, of course, isn't built to weather change. Slowly, the show disintegrated. In 1979, John Belushi left to make movies. Dan Aykroyd followed. Eventually, so did Lorne Michaels and the rest of the cast. The season that ensued—"Saturday Night Live '80," it called itself, like the new model of an old coupe—is a peculiar artifact, a strange paean to'70s SNL and a eulogy for the youth culture it had once captured. The season launched right after Reagan trounced Carter and began with some of the all-new actors explaining to the audience which old cast members they resembled. "Did they really use drugs?" new guy Joe Piscopo went on to ask the host, Elliott Gould. "Sure, they all did," he answered. "Cocaine was everywhere—and not just the cast. The studio crew, the cameramen, everybody." The new cast cooed in surprise and demanded stories about John Belushi.
Was this funny because it was true? The new Saturday Night Live retained its format, but in other ways the show made its first public turns toward the industry establishment. An early-'80s season opener was hosted by the president of NBC Entertainment, in a suit. The mock White House parody that had been a running gag through the '70s (twentysomething Dan Aykroyd impersonating Jimmy Carter with his own somewhat quizzical disco-era 'stache; Chevy Chase appearing as "the president" in a blazer and no makeup change) gave way to more conventional political impressions. The show began to rely less on its own overriding cultural style and more on those of a few outlandishly gifted performers. Eddie Murphy joined the cast midseason in 1980 on the rise of a dazzling stand-up career and almost singlehandedly kept a waterlogged show afloat; when he left in 1984, SNL sank, fired several cast members, and finally wooed Lorne Michaels back to the helm. Michaels hired a mix of already-famous comics and virtuosic character actors, like Dana Carvey. By the end of the decade, the show was formally unaltered but miles from home: Trimmed with '80s show-biz glam, Saturday Night Live had grown into an early version of the entity it is today, an organ of the middlebrow entertainment mainstream.
In the mid-'90s, in fact, a strange thing had happened with the show, which was that you stopped needing to watch it. A viewer with a universal remote and a nearby multiplex could by then keep abreast of SNL'sstyle and substance without ever tuning in: Elsewhere, MTV and sketch-comedy competitors like In Living Color drew from the same stylistic and promotional (and, occasionally, acting) pool. Hollywood slapstick developed an SNL-like hue. (Note the tonal change that got us from Ferris Bueller's Day Offand Spaceballs, in the late '80s, to Austin Powers and Happy Gilmore—or, for that matter, Mrs. Doubtfire—in the'90s.) None of this was an accident. Seduced by successful spin-offs like The Blues Brothers and under pressure from NBC brass to cash in on the SNL name, Michaels strove to make the show a proving ground for box-office material. Wayne's World(1992), Coneheads (1993), Farley-Spade vehicles like Tommy Boyand Black Sheep, A Night at the Roxbury(1998), Superstar(1999), and The Ladies Man (2000) were all results of his new small-screen-to-big-screen production belt. The culture at Rockefeller Center changed accordingly. "It got to be when cast members and new people came in, they sort of had this template to go by, which is do the show, become a star on the show, get movies, and become Eddie Murphy," Al Franken, a longtime writer, said. The stylistic boundary that had once distinguished SNL from the Hollywood comedy factory was gone.
These days, SNL is to the industry of lower-middlebrow comedy roughly what Princeton is to banking. As a finishing school and feeder, it is nearly peerless. As a participant in the landscape of new comedy, though, it feels—well, it feels like a school. The stylistic distance between SNL and goofball Hollywood fare seems vanishingly small today, and yet direct comparisons between the two are seldom flattering. For every Night at the Roxbury (co-starring Will Ferrell), there is a Zoolander(co-starring Will Ferrell). For every beloved sketch, there is a more maturely conceived Judd Apatow project. SNL has become less of a destination than a route to larger venues turning out the same creative products, only better.
The past decade has found the showtrying to backpedal from this busy intersection. More and more, the writers favors gags that are riffy, repetitive, and focused—gags wrought, in other words, in the style of an inside joke—rather than the more generalized parody of the early '90s. Given a few lines of careful writing and some gifted performers, this more offbeat approach sparkles. Sketches like "more cowbell" (which took up an inherently funny thing, cowbells in pop music, and iterated it absurdly) or the recurring "luvah" sketches (which riffed, like 12-year-olds in sleeping bags, on the pronunciation of one of Rachel Dratch's college teachers) reconjured SNL's lost clannish tone: If you enjoyed these weird, insider-esque jokes, you felt some cultural bond to the show's fellow travelers. (Die-hard members of this demographic can purchase "more cowbell" T-shirts.) But such convergences are rare. More often, SNL's recent sketches end up labored and moribund, so empty of concept and verbal effort that not even a tone-and-timing virtuoso like Kristen Wiig can make them work: