Quality SNL? You’re SOL.

Filed Under Sketch Comedy

The second article from Sunday’s NY Times was on everyone’s favorite comedy punching bag, Saturday Night Live and it’s recent fascination with celeb-focused sketches. I don’t say “punching bag” because they don’t deserve being slammed. They do. But reading this article reminded me how good a producer Lorne Michaels is. A producer keeps his show on the air, period. It chills me to think of teen stars doing sketch comedy, but Michaels knows that they’ll get an audience. Particularly when he’s got the fractured network audience he describes (“a big tent show”). For a producer, he’s got his priorities in order. Ratings before funny.

The NY Times story laments the lack of quality political material on the show. It’s rather strange, because if anyone understand politics (at least of the office variety) it’s an SNL writer. The immense pressure to get on air is so big, it’s no wonder SNL writers begin to act like network executives… as soon as sketches about X start working, they’ll make as many sketches of X as possible. I caught an episode of “Dinner for Five” when David Cross asked Molly Shannon how she could stand working in such a poltical place. He argued that anything political between co-workers simply just gets in the way of creating funny stuff and he’s right.

Even more disheartening was to hear was the self-censoring writers did themselves… cutting poltical sketches because they feared the backlash from 9/11 patriotism. To hear SNL really run away from any sort of satirical bent means it’s become the establishment show it was meant to buck 30 years ago. It’s “Carol Burnett” with better fart jokes.

When I first read E! had gotten the rerun rights for SNL instead of Comedy Central a few years ago, I questioned the change. It didn’t make sense. Now it does. SNL is just part of the tabloid spectacle… a “funny” version of “Celebrities Uncensored.”

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Posted by Rob Bates on 01/12  at  01:07 PM

As a writer and sometimes cast member for (here comes the plug) Saturday Night Rewritten, a weekly live sketch show where we rewrite the prior night’s Saturday Night Live, I now have to watch SNL every week, and I can tell you this article is way off-base. Not that the show is weak; that’s undeniable. But the problem isn’t that it’s too celebrity focussed. For better or worse, so is the whole culture. Granted, the last thing the world needs is more Anna Nicole show, but the “Train Wreck Awards” sketch (which was repeated last week)  was one of the best things they’ve done all year. It was funny, timely, and—contrary to what the article says—even had a short little political blast at President Bush.

No, the real problem with SNL is too much reliance on uninspired recurring characters, and too many skits that go nowhere and seem to have no point. I can’t tell you how many times I watch something on that show and say, “What was that about?” “What were they thinking there?” and “How did that get on?” They used to keep those sketches to the last half hour of the show. Now they start about five minutes into it, and never really stop. Which is a shame, because there are undoubtedly some very talented people working on the show, but it really doesn’t show up on screen much.

The only things on that show worth watching today are the opening political sketches (which HAVE gotten less biting; apparently Jim Downey, who writes most of them, is pretty conservative) and “Weekend Update,” which has received some new energy with the two female anchors. The rest is a mess. Contrary to what the New York Times says, SNL doesn’t need less topical material (whether about celebrities or anything else.) It needs more.

Check out our blog of original writings; http://saturdaynightrewritten.com/isthmus/isthmus.html

Posted by Michael Gerber on 01/21  at  12:14 AM

Todd, in a truly heroic act of procrastination, I wanted to respond to this ancient post. I think you’re being entirely too easy on Lorne Michaels. Go back and read Hill and Weingrad’s “Saturday Night.” Lorne’s whole shtick at the beginning was how freakin’ revolutionary SNL was; he made TREMENDOUS hay out of that. I know it was 30 years ago, but I claim my right as a comedy snob to hold him to the standard he claimed for himself. One could argue that the only job of a CEO is to maximize profits—but just because the benefit of providing a high-quality product is difficult to monetize, that doesn’t mean it’s not crucial when judging an executive. Like somebody putting a little more gristle in the hamburger, Lorne’s doing whatever he can to keep that paycheck going. Surviving’s a skill, sure, but is it praiseworthy? Not if the hamburgers are lousy, and I think we agree that they generally are, and have been for a long time.

If there was a profusion of well-observed, nicely acted, sharply written sketch comedy on the air, I wouldn’t give a darn about whether SNL was living up to Lorne’s original ambitions or not. But since there isn’t—since the quality of sketch on TV strikes me as uniformly LOWER, simply from a craft standpoint, than the sketch I see here in Chicago—the fact that the largest showcase for the form concerns itself with trifles is worth getting angry about. And SNL doesn’t only concern itself with trifles, it sucks up writers and performers and ad dollars and airtime that could be used for something more innovative, fresher, freer, and not least, funnier. The existence of SNL is a break on innovation, and that’s a fact—SNL came out of network desperation; so did The Simpsons. As long as SNL can shuffle along like a zombie…

The purpose isn’t just to get comedy on television any way you can; that it seems to have devolved into that for Lorne Michaels is a tragedy, a creative suicide. It’s okay to mellow with age, everybody does; it’s understandable if artistic compromises are occasionally necessary when dealing with the Big Machines; but I think it’s important to call SNL what it is: bad—by which I mean primarily cynical—popular art. “Decadent” is the word that comes to mind, and I think it’s clear that the show drags its staff (Lorne included) down to a level lower than their talent and dedication deserves. I remain ever hopeful, but at this point God knows why.

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