It’s the show mom and dad told me I couldn’t stay up to see until I was old enough; so of course I snuck downstairs to see it before it was allowed. It’s one of the few shows that remained appointment television when I got my first DVR. It’s a show that has remained firmly entrenched in the zeitgeist since its inception. Even when it was bad? It gave us Eddie Murphy. It’s spurned movie and TV careers for literally dozens of its long cast list. Live from New York… It’s Saturday Night Live.
For many, whatever season(s) they caught first tend to set the bar of future expectations of quality and hilarity. For me personally, I became a fan somewhere towards the end of the ’95 season. This meant I missed Dana Carvey by a year, but got to see the end of Mike Myers, Adam Sandler and Chris Farley’s tenure. The very next season we got a fresh-faced set funny people: Will Ferrell, Darrell Hammond, Cheri Oteri, and Molly Shannon (to name a few).
While most will agree that SNL itself ebbs and flows in quality — as casts learn to play off one another, writers get into a groove, and current events offer unique opportunities to capture the zeitgeist — the show by and large has become an institution unto itself. Not unlike the brainchild of Vince McMahon (the WWE), Lorne Michael’s not ready for primetime players has grown in stature and expectation such that it may live long after it’s impossibly driven creator should ever choose to retire. And make no bones about it. I personally believe Lorne and Vince will die while still maintaining duties in their respective kingdoms. But I digress.
If I were to be critical of the current crop on the air, I’d start first (as many a critic) with the stunt casting of Alec Baldwin as our President. Baldwin’s Trump started out a mercurial riff on the most polarizing commander in chief in the nation’s history. But over time, the writers couldn’t escape the same comedic hell every other writer’s room fell victim too: literally covering exactly what Trump did the week before and essentially throwing up their hands to declare “and there you have it.” When the cast has reached into the outer spheres of the cabinet and administration, there have been memorable turns that allowed the actual cast to shine; but as is often the case on SNL… whatever gets a pop on week one, will be driven into the ground by week 8 and you’ll never care about that portrayal again. Think to how Carvey’s Bush senior began an impression and by the end merely vomited out “nah ganna doah!” to descending levels of applause.
But this is as it should be, perhaps. Saturday Night Live once it’s in production, is a legendary grind. Sketches are pitched, tweaked, blocked, and performed in a single week. When something sticks — be it a ready-made sketch character, specific spoof, or a head-turning performance — the writers’ room is given a reprieve. Replicate for diminishing returns and save the gusto for the ten-to-one-spot.
There’s plenty still to like about the forever refreshing SNL. With a balanced cast that is slowly adding in equal slots to men and women, and working to add people of color… we’re slowly seeing the possibility of more than white-liberal comedy premises and beats. So much so in fact, in the last three years, the best sketches SNL has produced (Black Jeopardy, Welcome to Hell, and literally everything Donald Glover did…) literally could not have been pulled of with any casts prior. Cast stalwarts like Kenan Thompson and Cecily Strong have mastered the art of moving sketches along without feeling like they need specific times to shine. And rising stars like Kate McKinnon find ways to stand out, but never at the expense of the host.
In the coming weeks, we’ll get some new SNL’s to digest. With hosts like Woody Harrelson, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, and David Harbor, we can expect varied performances week-to-week. Kristin Stewart will return to convince me she’s not just a block of wood with no smile. And all of it culminates as Dick Ebersol’s only shining achievement at the helm of SNL, Eddie Murphy, hosts the show he was blacklisted from over hurt feelings back in 1990. Here’s hoping the writers and Eddie come up with something more inspired than an update to Buckwheat, James Brown, or Gumby.
Things kick off Saturday the 28th with Harrelson and Billie Eilish. All I personally care about is how they’ll make McKinnon play every democrat running for President in 2020.