Bring Me Lorne’s Head! I Shall Drink Wine From It! (better?)

Filed Under Sketch Comedy

Reader Mike Gerber commented that I was far too charitable with Lorne Michaels in a previous post on Saturday Night Live. At the time, I was imagining I was damming with faint praise, but I can see how describing someone as a “good producer” in the most mercenary sense isn’t really damming enough.

Mike’s right. Just keeping something running isn’t enough. How much brain surgery does it take to pick guests that excite tweens? I’m surprised this week’s host, Paris Hilton, wasn’t made sooner. (Naturally it got bloggers talking look at suggestions for sketches here and here from Gawker.) The important thing is, when you make these concessions to keep something running, if you must make concessions at all, what can you do to keep it funny. To make it something of quality.

I’ve mentioned how cast and writer bloat and the ultra competitive nature of getting something, anything on air hurt the show. But reader Rob Bates (who knows a little of how SNL goes wrong considering he’s a writer/performer in the excellent SNL Rewritten show. Go see it.) pointed out how so few of the sketches even seem to have points to them anymore. During last week’s sketch featuring the Bush daughters in their rooms talking about the inauguration, I realized that SNL has completely dropped premise-based sketch comedy all together. They’ve simply replaced it with character sketches which are all middle, nothing to grab onto but a performer’s ticks, catchphrases and vocal mimicry.

Weekend Update remains the best part of the show, simply because it’s the only part of the show which seems to have comedic targets (though it misses all the time, at least it’s aiming). But the rest of the show has left behind any sort of notions of take-no-prisoners comedy, because how can you expect to kill anything if you’re not even hunting. The best thing the writers can do is simply pick something that they hate and then write a sketch that destroys it without consideration for characters at all. It’s Comedy 101, but they need the remedial education. Desperately.

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Posted by Michael Gerber on 01/29  at  01:42 PM

Todd, you’ve put your finger on the “problem.” But SNL’s owners (NBC, remember, not Lorne) don’t think it’s a problem—they think they’ve reached Nirvana. Over 30 years of tinkering, SNL’s become the perfect vehicle for advertiser-supported comedy. It’s free, unthreatening, embedded in celebrity and hype, always different but always the same, seemingly impudent but actually deeply deferential. Comedy with a shelf-life and without a target—SNL is a “funny-seeming object.” It has the appearance of sketch comedy, its structure and its mannerisms, but none of the dark, personal, quirky, angry stuff that makes comedy hard to sell or create—or worth watching. For this achievement Lorne should be celebrated, just not by comedy fans! There’s nothing wrong with SNL; it’s exactly as funny as it needs to be to satisfy the people who pay the bills.

Comedy’s skeptical nature makes it the natural enemy of advertising, so it’s not an easy fit in an advertising-supported medium. Whenever it is made to fit, the needs of the advertisers will trump the needs of the funny ten times out of ten. This is why Fey and Dratch and McCay and Sands can be genuine legends at Improv Olympic/Second City and weirdly muted at SNL—when the job is to please an audience, they do it splendidly. When the job is to please their bosses by pleasing fickle advertisers by pleasing the tween audience just enough in a non-threatening way…You can see how it’s nearly impossible to succeed. I just wish there was a place where all these brilliant people could just be FUNNY.

For the past 25 years, SNL’s been selecting writers and performers based on their ability to create a very specific type of material. You need to be smart but not too smart; funny but not angry at anything; identifiable but not TOO unique. The environment is inherently thwarting to people whose funniness is rooted in self-expression. In this way, SNL’s aesthetic is the exact opposite of Second City’s; the only people who seem to thrive at SNL are cartoons and mimics, people with no “there” there.

Having said all that, SNL’s only sin is that it takes the place of genuine comedy. Those tweeners grow up with no idea what comedy has been or could be or can do. Still, I’m glad that SNL encourages people to learn improv and comedy writing. In that way it helps in spite of itself. But if you look at where American comedy was in 1975, and where it is now, it’s hard not to see SNL as a net loss.

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