When Is It OK to Crack Up? Some Ground Rules for the Cast of SNL.

Slate's Culture Blog
July 25 2013 5:27 PM

When Is It OK to Crack Up? Some Ground Rules for the Cast of SNL.

Stefon_SNL
When is this OK?

Still from "SNL actors breaking character" on YouTube

Slacktory just posted a supercut of Saturday Night Live actors “breaking”—aka “corpsing,” aka not being able to keep from laughing mid-skit—from the show’s late-’70s golden age to the current cast. The video, apparently a celebration of these slip-ups, provides an opportunity to discuss an important issue that’s been irking Brow Beat for some time: when breaking is, and is not, OK.

First a bit of background. Elsewhere familiar from movie blooper reels and undergraduate improv performances, breaking is a binary phenomenon: Sometimes it gives the comedy a boost, while other times it’s just supremely annoying. It also seems to be somewhat contagious: The strong late-’80s SNL lineup (Phil Hartman, Dana Carvey, Jan Hooks, et al.) tended to keep an extremely stiff upper lip, while their otherwise worthy successors in the turn-of-the-millennium cast (Will Ferrell, Tina Fey, Jimmy Fallon, et al.) seemed particularly susceptible to giggle fits. More recently, Bill Hader’s inability to get through a Stefon sketch without breaking devolved from a delightful crack in the fourth wall to an irritating tic—almost like another tiresome SNL catchphrase. (Judging by the Slacktory video, the Stefon experience has made Hader more giggly in general.)

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If breaking on SNL is infectious, then Jimmy Fallon—whose ample corpsing crimes are notably underrepresented in the Slacktory supercut—was its prime pathogen. (Horatio Sanz was almost as bad, but he never seemed to find his own breaks as adorable as Fallon found his.) No less than Tracy Morgan excoriated his fellow cast member for “laughing and all that dumb shit he used to do,” explaining, “That’s taking all the attention off of everybody else and putting it on you, like, ‘Oh, look at me, I'm the cute one.’ ” Morgan isn’t alone among comedians: On an episode of Family Guy, Peter Griffin savagely beats Fallon on the Studio 8H stage for the sin of breaking: “This is for laughin’ and lookin’ at the camera during every sketch you’ve ever been in,” he says between blows. “Who do ya think you are, Carol Burnett? ... You haven’t earned what she’s earned, buddy.”

Loath as one might be to ascribe moral or aesthetic authority to the author of “We Saw Your Boobs,” Seth MacFarlane draws a useful line in the sand here: Breaking is acceptable, and often hilarious, if you’ve earned it. That is, if you are the heroic Hartman, known as “the glue” of the SNL cast for an entire decade, it’s okay to dissolve into laughter during, say, a five-minutes-to-1-a.m. Frankenstein sketch. It’s likewise fine if you are the valiant Ferrell, who has to face the jumping-bean Fallon all but goading him into laughing during “More Cowbell”—Jimmy Fallon, you don’t even need to be in this sketch! Sit down behind your drums and be quiet!—but still more or less keeps it together. Which is all to say: You’re allowed to break if the audience would never expect you to break. In that light, watching the usually unbreakable Will Ferrell crack the slightest smile in “More Cowbell” is a fond reminder that, under the Neanderthal coif and winking belly sag, that is one stone-cold professional.

Jessica Winter is a Slate senior editor.

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