Saturday Night Live: The embarrassing uncle of American comedy.

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
May 20 2011 5:26 PM

Saturday Night Live

The embarrassing uncle of American comedy.

Illustration by Charlie Powell. Click image  to expand.

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.

Nathan Heller Nathan Heller

Nathan Heller is staff writer for The New Yorker and a film and TV critic for Vogue. You can follow him on Twitter.

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.

Advertisement

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.

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:

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.