Saturday Night Live's finale this weekend will be hosted by Justin Timberlake with help from Lady Gaga, bringing a youthful blush back to a program that, given a number of hosts this year—Helen Mirren, Elton John, Jeff Bridges, Dana Carvey, Robert De Niro—was starting to seem comfortable in the deep folds of middle age. Why shouldn't it be? SNL's cold-open and "live from New York" call have spanned more years of airtime, at this point, than the entire broadcasting career of Edward R. Murrow. As a cultural presence, the show is something like the verbose, watery-eyed uncle at the far end of the dinner table: in-your-face, given to crude gags, often tedious, sometimes funny, obsessed with election politics, versed in daytime TV, weirdly wistful for the'70s, and grudgingly beloved. This year, as every recent year, the finale will not be a bittersweet farewell so much as cause for relief that the plates are being cleared from the table just in time.
For the past three decades, no show's reputation has been quite as volatile as SNL's, or quite as famously beside the point. At 36, the late-night comedy special seems virtually inviolable in its time slot, even as it churns out humor that's notoriously hit-or-miss. It's grown into a comic-entertainment brand; to many viewers, though, that brand's virtues remain perpetually mysterious. (The New York Times, last week reviewing SNL star Kristen Wiig's headlining debut, Bridesmaids, praised the movie first for being "unexpectedly funny.") Unlike the razor wit and zany jujitsu of The Daily Show or The ColbertReport, SNL's comic style seems targeted at somebody's seventh-grade sleepover: To watch 90 minutes of the program straight through as an adult is to end up feeling as if you've eaten half a pizza and a hefty bowl of peanut-butter M&Ms. Although the show has flashes of zeitgeist importance—during the 2008 election, it was said to influence the tone of campaign coverage; this spring, Tina Fey's memoir made SNL's backstage life and gender dynamics topics of discussion once again—it's hard to argue that SNL holds any stable role in this country's dialogue with itself. How has this formulaic, famously mediocre comedy show outlasted everything else on TV?
The answer has less to do with the substance of SNL's comedy than with its premises and style. Saturday Night Live came into being on the back end of the counterculture, and its role, from the start, was to safeguard the dying creative mood of that era. The show hit its first run of wild success by channeling the taste and sensibility of the boomer youth. Since then, it's been laboring to reconjure its old popularity. SNL today is caught between two roles, offering viewers a welcome narrative of outsider creativity while hewing to the taste and ambitions of mainstream entertainment. It's the industry feeder that flies under the flag of summer stock.
Given the limp and ashen entertainment-industry sausage SNL has become, it's hard to fathom just how strikingly connected to the youth zeitgeist the early program was. George Carlin hosted its 1975 debut while very stoned, tossing off jokes about blue food or trying to smoke the hash marks on a football field. Billy Preston came on to sing "Nothing From Nothing"; folk wunderkind Janis Ian performed her outsiders' anthem "At Seventeen." The following week, host Paul Simon sang several songs in patched jeans and camera-unfriendly tweed, reuniting with Garfunkel on-air for "The Boxer" and "Scarborough Fair."
Live music on TV was by no means new in 1975, but Saturday Night, with its deglamorized performers and close, well-lit audience, offered something more: a new tenor of intimacy on-air, a clubhouse for a generation on the comedown from its great cultural moment. "We wanted to redefine comedy the way the Beatles redefined what being a pop star was," Lorne Michaels once explained. "That required not pandering, and it also required removing neediness, the need to please. It was like, we're only going to please those people who are like us." Michaels was a 30-year-old veteran of psychedelics as well as a variety-show writer, and the "us" here (far from being an aloof cabal) was the largest, most powerful demographic of the late 20th century. Saturday Night's genius was to create not a performance venue but a cultural environment, one that took the old lodestars of boomer exceptionalism—youthful clannishness, counterculture code words, institutional distrust—and set them in the one form that was still untouched by this mood: TV comedy. Previously, live-style hosts like Carson or Dick Cavett served as ambassadors to a changing culture, making Joan Rivers or John Lennon palatable to an audience that hailed from the time of Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. SNL was willing to lose that crowd. The show's great innovation was never its jokes. It was its audience.