Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Ummm... pretend this is a clever title regarding Saturday Night Live.

As a nerd, I am very passionate about the pieces of media I do and don’t like. While I sometimes let my more embarrassing tastes go unmentioned, I still often have trouble ignoring a negative remark about a movie or TV show that I love, regardless of the situation or how I will be perceived for standing up for that given piece of media. Something that has likely been noticed by friends of mine is that this happens far more often with Saturday Night Live than it does with anything else.

SNL is easy to dislike, and tough to love, so I don’t necessarily have a problem with friends saying that they don’t like the show. Sketch comedy simply isn't everybody's taste. However, I take issue with how few people tend to actually have valid points when attacking the show. Invariably, people who don’t watch the show consistently will say something along the lines of how “it used to be funnier,” or even worse, "it just sucks." Luckily, I watch SNL enough that I can talk shit about it adequately, and then defend the show immediately after.

The show is not, nor has it ever been, consistently hilarious. If you get one show per season that features exclusively funny sketches, you’re getting lucky, and there are a variety of reasons for this. It isn’t necessarily the fault of the writers or the performers, but more Lorne Michaels’ desire to craft the show in a way that ensures there is something for every viewer. Michaels likes to front-load the show in order to get as many viewers as possible to stay with the show through to Weekend Update, which is why you’re getting a lot of character sketches in the first half. Keeping as many viewers as possible doesn’t mean necessarily putting your best sketches first, it just means putting the broadest sketches first. This creates a loose structure for each show: you’re going to get a political sketch as a cold open, the host monologue, an ad parody, a few character sketches, Weekend Update, and then the rest of the show is seemingly up for grabs to the writers. This desire to attract a wide range of people is what leads to the character sketch dilemma: when Michaels sees a sketch kill in the second half, he assumes it will kill again and another sketch starring that character finds itself in the first half of the show a few weeks later. While the show has always had character sketches, from what I can tell these characters began to recur much more often starting with Michaels’ return to the show in the mid-1980s. Upon leaving the show after its fifth season, Michaels attempted to succeed as a Hollywood producer and failed professionally for the first time in his life, which both lead him back to SNL and made him more willing to appease NBC executives when he returned. In the 1970s, the show was new and graced with incredible luck, so they could put on whatever sketches they desired and still find an audience. By the mid-1980s, however, the show had lost a lot of its audience and Michaels had to become more adept at appealing to wider audiences to keep the show on the air (SNL was perpetually on the verge of being cancelled for most of the 1980s). While I wish Michaels were less afraid to stray from this format, I realize that the television industry has undergone extensive changes since the 1970s, and that this is what is necessary to keep SNL alive in the modern television industry.

Another reason the show isn’t always great are, again, faults of the format: writing for the coming Saturday’s show begins on the Monday previous, creating a time crunch, and sometimes you just can’t write for a host who is not funny (if January Jones follows this, know that I’m talking directly to you). Again, I know it’s a flaw of the show, but at this point Saturday Night Live is the last remaining relic of the live variety show, and in order to keep it going you need to put up with its flaws. I love live sketch comedy, but don’t reside in a major city, where it can often be difficult to find live comedy that isn’t awful. While the massive budget behind SNL does take away some of the charm, if that’s the way it has to be for me to see live sketch comedy, then so be it.

The biggest thing working against how people perceive SNL, however, is time. It has been around forever, and almost nobody seems to be able to objectively judge the show because of this. I read a quote from a long-time writer on the show saying that, at any given time post-1980, people complain about the show’s current level of quality while saying how much better the previous cast was. I wish I could find the quote, because that is just about the most accurate statement I have ever read about SNL. Five years from now, Kristen Wiig and Andy Samberg will be well liked, but right now everybody seems to want Tina Fey and Will Ferrell back. As much as I love the latter two comedians, the writing on the show is better in the past two seasons than it ever was with Fey as the head writer and Ferrell as the star.

Sketch comedy rarely ages well, and as funny as most of the original SNL cast were as performers, the writing in the first five “golden” years of the show are no exception. There are plenty of sketches that are still funny, but a lot of the sketches aren’t because I am simply too young to understand the context. The show has always been current, and many sketches directly comment on events that have occurred mere weeks or even days before the show's airing. When I made a documentary on SNL about a year ago (links below), I watched much of the first few seasons and found that a lot of it simply isn’t funny. Like I said here a few months ago about people who claim movies are currently worse than ever, SNL detractors tend to have a similarly hazy memory: if a sketch doesn’t make you laugh or isn’t remarkably bad, chances are that soon enough it will be completely out of your memory. I remember watching Seth Rogen’s appearance on SNL a year ago with my then-roommate, and we recently discussed the hysterical Fast & Furious sketch, but I had a hard time remembering one other sketch from that show. I remember it was a fairly high quality show, but over the past year I have forgotten all but the funniest sketch. This same method of thinking can be applied to every SNL from years past.

After about five years of sporadically watching SNL, I started watching it more consistently, and have probably seen most of the shows in the past five years and all but 2 or 3 in the last few seasons. The current cast is unbelievably talented, and the writers and producers seem to have figured out how to best use everybody. Amy Poehler has finally left Update, allowing Seth Meyers to become the most clever and honest anchor since Norm Macdonald was fired for being too funny. The show lacks a breakout sketch star, but I think that allows for more creativity in the writing, as it can cut back on the need to write a sketch specifically to get a popular performer more airtime. Sketch comedy should be about the ensemble, and the current cast is representative of that. Just think back to a decade ago when it seemed like every other sketch was a popular Will Ferrell character, and I’m happy for the increase of variety the current cast gives us.

I guess I’ve said an equal amount of good and bad things here about Saturday Night Live, as I probably should. The show is incredibly flawed, but I still love it and feel that its existence is important for our media-saturated culture. The influence the show has had on the television medium is always mentioned by SNL defenders, but almost never adequately broken down (and this paragraph will likely be no exception). There are the obvious things like Update allowing the Daily Show to exist and all of the great writers and performers given a platform by the show, but the influence of SNL is far more impressive than that. Advertisers owe an incredible debt to the show, for adding humour to advertisements can be attributed at the very least in part to SNL’s penchant for parodying products that has been present since the show’s inception. We owe the same debt to SNL, for I’m happy to at least get an occasional laugh from advertising… imagine how frustrating our ad-saturated world would be if every advertisement was boring and awful (as opposed to just most of them).

Being influential, however, is not reason enough for the show to remain in existence now, and I think SNL is still important culturally outside of merely being influential. Chevy Chase says the initial idea behind Saturday Night Live was to be a platform with which to satirize the television format. As television has expanded, that satire has become both more necessary and more easily accessible through other shows that have followed SNL’s lead. Making fun of CNN’s political coverage may be an obvious joke to make, but that it is being made on such a big stage makes it valuable. I don’t believe that a piece of media has much power to enact any sort of real change, but SNL adds awareness to a lot of media-related topics that I like to see publicly addressed.

Finally, once or twice each season, a sketch or moment will stretch outside of the show to reach the masses (think last year’s “I’m on a Boat,” or when Jenny Slate accidentally said “fucking” on-air earlier this season). The show still holds a huge amount of cultural capital, and it is one of a small number of television shows that are so widely entrenched in our culture that a significant on air moment is a discussion-worthy topic to such a large group of North Americans. In a time-delayed mass media culture that tries to cover up anything deemed overtly offensive by higher-ups, I find it oddly comforting that I can still hear the occasional uncensored, albeit accidental, f-bomb on live television, and SNL’s decades of tradition is what allows it to remain one of the few truly live broadcasts on television. The show may use a format abandoned long ago, but what it uses the format for still holds cultural weight… even if it isn't always funny.

Live from Wall Street

Live from Wall Street. part one of four. from alex stephenson on Vimeo.

Live from Wall Street. part two of four. from alex stephenson on Vimeo.

Live from Wall Street. part three of four. from alex stephenson on Vimeo.

Live from Wall Street. part four of four. from alex stephenson on Vimeo.

Just for fun, here is a list of media products that would not have been possible without Saturday Night Live:
Ghostbusters, Fletch, Trading Places, Anchorman, Hot Rod, A Mighty Wind (The Folksmen debuted as an SNL sketch in 1984) and countless other classic comedy films either written by and/or starring SNL alumni
The Daily Show, and by extension The Colbert Report
30 Rock
Late Night with Conan O’Brien

And a list of things SNL certainly made more possible:
Mr. Show
The Office (US)
Office Space
Chris Rock’s success as a stand-up comedian
(Debatably) most of Judd Apatow’s career

*For the Seinfeld fans: Larry David once quit his writing job at SNL on a Saturday over a sketch he wrote not making it on air. By the next week’s Monday meeting, he had realized he made a mistake and showed up to work, pretending he never quit. If this rings a bell, it’s because George Costanza did the same thing when he worked for the Yankees. Other Seinfeld episodes were also inspired by David-penned sketches, and David first met Julia Louis-Dreyfuss when she was an SNL cast member.

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