Saturday Night Live
The embarrassing uncle of American comedy.
A sketch like this is funny in almost exactly the sense that a cucumber is sexy—finding it so requires a suggestible cast of mind, willful imagination, and unusual tolerance for the ingressions of cold vegetal matter. The show's average ratings over the past decade sit lower than those of recent episodes of Pawn Stars.
When SNL's comedic style needs a dose of vindication these days, as it sometimes does, all eyes turn to Tina Fey, who cut her teeth as a writer and performer on the show in the late '90s and early '00s and subsequently launched the freshest, most critically lauded sitcom of the decade. She and 30 Rock have taken to serving as salespeople for SNL's creative renaissance. But what, exactly, are they selling?Look closely, and 30 Rock seems less a tribute to SNL's modern dynamism than an effort to retouch and laminate its founding image. Co-produced by Lorne Michaels, the sitcom returns once more to the old mythology of SNL's off-screen life, the idea that the show is borne by uncontrollable actors, quirky-genius writers, and nonce, seat-of-the-pants creativity. By all accounts, Fey's era was less colorful, though: Jimmy Fallon liked to kvetch about the bleary workaholism in Rockefeller Center; Cheri Oteri described the lives of most SNL folks as "kind of boring"; Ana Gasteyer referred to the show's production ethic as "the system." (Fey at first wanted her sitcom to be about a different kind of show entirely, but NBC suggested recasting it in a workplace that resembled SNL.) 30 Rock is partly an effort to educate another generation in the narrative of Saturday Night Live's lost golden years.
In light of this portrait, SNL does remain a product of its time, albeit grimly. The way this industry cog constantly rehearses generations-old mythologies about its fearless innovation, wild times, and spunky creativity is too comfortably of a piece with many of today's aesthetic affectations. It is hard to contemplate SNL's faux-funky set without thinking about a Season 1 fake add for "Berkeley Collection" wallpaper—a roll of decorating material printed with radical graffiti. In 1975, this was a laughable idea. Now décor of that kind turns up in SoHo clothing shops. The lore of innovation has become the stuff of mainstream style; creative people dress up their pursuits in myths of freer times, then dutifully follow roads that are paved and well-trod. It's not enough. The frustrations of watching SNL today are the frustrations of seeing cowed and formulaic work broadcast under the premises of fearlessness and risk. In answer to the show's longstanding claims of creative daring, we viewers are inspired to offer a simple plea: try harder.
Nathan Heller is Slate's "Assessment" columnist. You can follow him on Twitter.
Illustration by Charlie Powell.