Saturday Night Live deserves to live forever
Calls for the show's death are predictable, stale and shortsighted
The reviews for “Saturday Night Live” are in:
“Even an offbeat showcase needs quality, an ingredient conspicuously absent from the dreadfully uneven comedy efforts of the series."
"'Saturday Night Live' should be allowed to die a decent death...It's no longer outrageously funny, but redundantly boring and embarrassingly sophomoric… should have gone out on top as the champ it was."
“The 'SNL' formula is tired...the current crop of regulars can be quite good, but at the moment there doesn't appear to be a major breakout performer in the lot...trapped in a time warp, saddled with memories of a triumphant past."
"The Same Old Saturday Night Dead."
"The hosts are stiff...writers beat sketches into the ground...critics slam it...everything about it stinks."
If you are an avid Twitter user, these comments all could have applied to the recent SNL season 48 opener. After the show, I ran a Twitter poll asking my followers who should take the helm of the nearly half-century old institution when creator Lorne Michaels retires. More than half the responses were along the lines of, “just let the show die.”
But the critical reviews referenced above weren’t hot takes about how bad SNL has recently gotten over the past decade. They are from, in order, 1975 (New York Times), 1981 (Buffalo Evening News), 1994 (New York Times), 1995 (Newsday) and 2006 (Chicago Tribune.) Of course, there are hundreds more, but you only have so much time in your day to read Substacks.
Given the near half-century of critics complaining about the show and predicting its demise (even Lorne Michaels thought the show should die during his time away from the show in the early 1980s), one might expect a bit of humility from current writers who argue SNL deserves the ax.
But this is the internet age, when half-considered opinions are judged not by their veracity, but by how confidently they are uttered. Enter The Spectator World’s Ben Domenech, who, likely believing he was making an original pronouncement, recently penned a piece titled, “This season should be Saturday Night Live’s last,” arguing “The comedy show should be put out of its misery.”
Writing a piece about how SNL is as bad as it has ever been should require some knowledge of the history of the show or, at least, the long history of the people complaining about how the show is as bad as it has ever been. Domenech displays neither, instead complaining the show is too biased towards Democrats.
“As much as the SNL model has proven relevant over the years, its greatness seems long past. As it fades away from the cultural zeitgeist, it should be put out of its misery before it becomes even more of an embarrassment.”
Set aside the fact that the show has always been political, and has always skewed towards progressives - even in whatever years Domenech thinks the show was at its peak.
This is the standard complaint of someone who complains the show has gotten too political, but only watches the political sketches. They catch the cold opens the next day on YouTube, theatrically declare themselves unimpressed, and demand the show be canceled, as if simply not watching were not an option. (The public can not be forced to watch this thing I don’t like!)
Granted, the political material hasn’t been great for a number of years. (In 2015, I penned a long essay for National Review Online expressing hope the show was moving rightward. It didn’t.)
But now most of the cold opens simply try to excite the audience with stunt casting A-list celebrities as fleeting minor political celebrities (Matt Damon as Brett Kavanaugh, Robert DeNiro as Robert Mueller, Maya Rudolph as Kamala Harris, etc.) Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump, which seemed only to amuse Alec Baldwin, was simply a weekly rehash of absurd things Trump had actually said. The laughs were supposed to come by virtue of the fact the writers had actually written Trump’s ramblings down.
And Domenech does have a point when he points to the execrable bit in which cast member Kate McKinnon sang the song “Hallelujah” dressed as Hillary Clinton. (Domenech thinks the song is by Jeff Beck, but it was originally written and performed by Leonard Cohen and covered by John Cale before Buckley got to it.)
Equally as dreadful was a bit in which cast members Cecily Strong and Sasheer Zamata sang a song to a projected photo of President Barack Obama as he left office:
But there is, you know, a whole show other than the political cold opens. And in the past few years, some of them have been quite good. (And like in most seasons, some of them have been quite bad.)
Of course the show could be better. It always could. For the past few years, it seemed like SNL was little more than a Pete Davidson employment program. Of the host of cast members that were recently jettisoned, only Kate McKinnon will really be missed, and she has had one foot out the door for years.
But the show isn’t close to being as unwatchable as it has been during past eras. The first season after Michaels and the original cast left (instead helmed by Jean Doumanian) was a comedy crime scene. At one point in the early 1980s, NBC executives approached David Letterman and asked him if he wanted to extend his new Late Night show by one extra night and do a show on Saturday. Had he agreed, SNL would have been over. (Letterman didn’t want the extra work, so he declined.)
Other seasons flailed almost as wildly. In season 11, Michaels’ first year back, he hired teenagers Anthony Michael Hall and Robert Downey, Jr. to join the cast, as well as more veteran actors Joan Cusack and Randy Quaid. The season was a disaster. So was the last season of the Chris Farley/Adam Sandler era, chronicled in a devastating New York Magazine piece in 1995.
After that season, Farley and Sandler were fired, and once again the calls were out for the show to be mothballed. Michaels has said that season was the closest he had ever come to being fired himself.
But then, the very next season, a new cast member showed up, and SNL was SNL again. The new cast member’s name was Will Ferrell.
Let’s say those calling for the end of SNL in 1995 had their way. Would we ever have heard of Ferrell? Or Tina Fey? Or Amy Poehler? Or Jimmy Fallon? Or Fred Armisen? Or Bill Hader? Or Jason Sudeikis? Or Andy Samberg? Or Kristen Wiig? You get the idea.
In fact, all these names conjure another phenomenon endemic to the history of the show - it is almost impossible to tell how good the show is as it is happening.
Take season 31, which aired during 2005 and 2006. Nobody thought the show was particularly steeped in hilarity or talent during that era (see Chicago Tribune blurb above.) But the cast included:
Fred Armisen, Rachel Dratch, Tina Fey, Will Forte, Darrell Hammond, Seth Meyers, Finesse Mitchell, Chris Parnell, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Horatio Sanz, Kenan Thompson, Bill Hader, Andy Samberg, Jason Sudeikis, and Kristen Wiig.
In the words of Kendall Roy, “All bangers, all the time.” (I’ll even spot you Finesse Mitchell.)
Represented just within that one cast is probably half of the good comedy content still being put out in 2022, 17 years later. America might be a disease-ravaged wasteland if we all hadn’t stayed home to watch Ted Lasso during the pandemic.
It’s the oldest argument in the book - which was the best SNL season or cast? The answer is impossible to pin down. Because the show was never as good as people remember and it never has been truly awful, save for a couple major missteps. People tend to judge casts based on vague memories of a few standout skits.
The only thing more predictable than people urging SNL’s demise is the ability of the show to regenerate. And the people who boldly declare their ignorance of this fact are as funny as the show itself.
America’s New Pandemic
If you live on the internet, and thus think Twitter is “America,” you will notice a new malady sweeping the nation. And a cure is far from being found. (Damn you, Fauci!)
I speak, of course, about “impostor syndrome,” the belief (predominantly among famous white people) that somehow they don’t deserve the position they have reached, or the acclaim they have garnered.
Of course, everyone has self-doubt. But it’s absurd to declare yourself the victim of a “syndrome” because you have either achieved high status or you believe people are overpraising you. In order to suffer from impostor syndrome, you actually have to be…successful.
You know who doesn’t suffer from impostor syndrome? Garbagemen. They don’t walk around worried that they have achieved a status in their life that exceeds their capabilities. Similarly, when they’re cleaning someone’s bedpan, nurses aren’t like, “geez, am I uncomfortable with how effusively the public values the way I do my job.”
In fact, it wouldn’t be a bad thing if more people rightfully questioned whether they rightfully deserve the attention they get. Sadly, impostor syndrome tends to escape those who need it the most. (Cough…Marjorie Taylor Greene…cough.)
In sum, I am thankful nobody ever praises me for anything I ever do, as it has helped me escape the crippling feeling that somehow I am way more successful than I should be.
For anyone who actually enjoys reading this thing, I apologize for my long hiatus in writing it. Big life changes have been afoot. I have a new job and I am also now a salmon.
I guess I should add the disclaimer that anything I write here is not the position of my new employer. In fact, I won’t even mention who my new employer is, so that you can mistakenly ascribe my nonsense to them.
One of my very favorite bands has a new album out. Here’s “Lottery Noises” from Canadians Alvvays (pronounced “Always,” but more easily Google-able.)