Rough sketches: What’s up with ‘Saturday Night Live’?

snl-logoBy JIM SABATASO | STAFF

[A version of this review appears in the Oct. 2, 2014, edition of the Rutland Reader.]

The party is going strong. The beer is flowing. Games are playing. The din of rowdy high school chatter swells. Suddenly, a hush falls over the room as attention drifts toward the TV. Laughter soon draws more people in. It’s 11:30 p.m. on a Saturday in 2000, and the Saturday Night Live cold open is underway.

This was a time before DVRs and on demand, before YouTube, Hulu and social media sharing. Missing that sketch everyone would be talking about Monday meant waiting for a rerun or syndication. While that fear of missing out has since dissipated, so too has SNL’s immediacy.

As the venerable comedy institution enters its 40th season, most serious fans would agree it’s lost a step or two. That I sincerely called it a “venerable comedy institution” should be your first clue the show has become musty in middle age. On its debut in 1975, SNL was unlike anything audiences had ever seen on TV: chaotic, aggressively weird, riotously funny, and firmly antiestablishment.

Four decades hence, those edges have been mostly smoothed out. The show has evolved into a successful, well-oiled machine, and launch pad for some of comedy’s biggest names. And while the program still looms large, it has become decidedly less essential for both viewers and performers.

Of course, the ebb and flow of quality on the show is nothing new for SNL. The early 1980s were a famous low-point following the exodus of the original cast, as were the mid-1990s when the Sandler/Farley/Meyers cast departed en masse. Both times subsequently saw massive creative resurgences: the mid-80s ushered in the legendary Hartman/Carvey/Lovitz era, and the late-90s began a decade of highs with the Ferrell/Fey/Fallon run.

This potential for renewal is what makes SNL different from other TV institutions, like The Simpsons, which, at 25 years old, feels similarly long in the tooth. But SNL has always operated more like a professional sports team than a TV show. Performers and writers cycle through, new talent brings new energy, but it invariably takes a season or two for the show to find its feet after casting shakeups.

Last season was one such rebuilding year. Since 2012, some of the show’s strongest players have moved on. In rapid succession, four of the show’s comedic powerhouses — Andy Samberg, Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, and Will Forte — headed west to pursue successful careers in film and TV. Those left behind struggled to fill the creative vacuum with unfocused, meandering sketches and softball satire.

Then in February, head writer and Weekend Update anchor Seth Meyers took over for Jimmy Fallon at Late Night, leaving the typically strongest show segment to flounder for half a season. Add to this one of the largest crop of new cast members in some time, and 2013 was an understandably uneven season.

This current stagnation, however, feels different. Even at its low points, SNL still had something to say. Lately, that doesn’t seem to be the case. From an outside perspective, the current creative doldrums appear to have less to do with a lack of good ideas, than an unwillingness to take risks. Recent seasons have felt restrained, as if the show was trying not to offend the establishment it once set out to dismantle.

Celebrities are gently mocked so as to make sure they won’t be scared off from hosting. Weird, original oddball sketches are exiled to the 12:50 a.m. while broader ones pack the first half hour. Recurring sketches like “The Californians” are run into the ground.

Political sketches are toothless. Silly caricatures deliver lines absent the winking subtext that made the Clinton, Bush, and Palin parodies so vital. Compare the show’s milquetoast handling of the 2012 election cycle to the trenchant sketches produced in 2008. To be fair, Obama and Romney were far less interesting subjects than comedy manna that was Sarah Palin, but still.

Part of this reluctance to offend is likely because the show — namely, executive producer Lorne Michaels — is the establishment now. Broadway Video, Michaels’ production company, is a major player in late-night entertainment now with both The Tonight Show and Late Night in its stable. If SNL is too hard on Kanye or Miley, their appearances across several network programs (and the subsequent ratings) could be jeopardized. And even if Lorne is not be bothered by such risks, NBC’s execs surely are.

Another part of the show’s decline might be a result of its previous success. Back in the day, SNL was a trailblazer in comedy. It was a pipeline to stardom, a rite of passage for young comedians. Today, that’s not the case. In this current golden age of television, comedy has benefited as much as drama.

Standup, which for a generation or so had become a parody of itself, is having a moment again. The proliferation of podcasts and viral videos has allowed comedians to chart their own course. Sites like Funny or Die and College Humor can now bypass the SNL machine, letting performers take their unfiltered sensibilities to the masses. Just look at the career trajectory of someone like Bo Burnham, who shot from YouTuber to theater headliner in less than five years.

In addition, the state of sketch comedy on TV has become increasingly compartmentalized. Cable networks have allowed comedy to find niches and thrive free of FCC constraints and overbearing censorship. Chappelle’s Show and Key & Peele have dealt with racial humor in a way SNL only ever brushed up against. Inside Amy Schumer and Broad City tackles gender themes with delightful candor. Kroll Show skewers the vapidity of reality TV with comic precision. (And that’s just what’s on Comedy Central.)

But the most noticeable area where SNL has faltered is also the hardest to fix: political humor. Time was, the cold open and Weekend Update were where Americans turned to get their weekly dose of satire for that week’s big news story. “Oh boy, I can wait to see what SNL will have to say about that!” was something people used to say before Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and now John Oliver took up that mantle, and gave us that fix four nights a week.

Not being in the writers’ room, it’s hard to know exactly why SNL’s political output can’t compete. I would posit that more politically inclined writers are heading to those aforementioned shows while those who remain are either less interested, or feel they can’t add anything new to the conversation. Political sketches now feel half-hearted, as if the show feels obligated to produce them as a public service.

Maybe, this malaise is a reflection of the current state of American politics itself. Maybe, the show feels just as disenchanted with the system as we all are. Maybe, like us, at the end of the week all they can muster is a deflated sigh. Maybe, I’m being a little cynical.

However, all is not lost. Season 40 shows promise. The cast has been streamlined, with several of last year’s featured players being cut loose. Standup Pete Davidson is the only new addition to the cast.

At the Update desk, Michael Che (The Daily Show) will take over for Cecily Strong, who, by her own account, is pleased to be stepping aside. Che’s appointment marks the first time an African-American has anchored — though he is sharing duties with Colin Jost, whose performance since he took over for Meyers has been mediocre at best.

The brightest spot for season 40 looks to be Lorne’s decision to bring the entire Good Neighbor sketch group to 30 Rock. Current cast members Kyle Mooney, Beck Bennett, and segment director Dave McCary will now be reunited with Nick Rutherford, who will be taking a seat in the writers’ room. While the name may be unfamiliar, the Good Neighbor crew was responsible for several of the shorts that appeared on the show last year. Along with the Matt and Oz filmmaking duo, these groups were responsible for some of the season’s strongest work.

This strategy is nothing new. Andy Samberg brought in his Lonely Island pals Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone as writers. Together they created the SNL Digital Shorts series, unleashing viral videos like “Lazy Sunday” and “Dick in a Box,” and proving that SNL could still be relevant in the YouTube Age. Lorne is clearly trying to reproduce that energy here, and based on what Mooney and company have done so far, they seem to be up to the task.

Like that favorite sports team, even when Saturday Night Live lets me down, I still root for it. I curse at the TV. I swear it off each week only to return for more punishment. Why do I always come back for more? Because SNL is still a marvel to watch. It’s live television! It’s 90 minutes of original comedy produced inside the space of a week. And while they may not always bat a thousand, it’s thrilling to watch these pros play the game.

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