What’s Happened to SNL?

Saturday Night Live (SNL) has been a staple of late-night television comedy since 1975.

Structured around an ensemble cast, and featuring weekly hosts and musical guests, it has become a presence in most of our lives for decades.

That ensemble cast has changed numerous times over the years, starting with the immortals of the first season (Dan Ackroyd, John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris, Laraine Newman, and Gilda Radner); most have forgotten, but Bill Murray didn’t join the show until the 1977 season.

And I know, for many younger viewers those names will sound as familiar as Millard Fillmore.

They, and the many others who followed them to Studio 8H, found SNL became a springboard to even more successful entertainment careers, and fame and fortune – and in a few instances, tragic endings that came much too soon.

Everyone, or so it seemed, wanted to host SNL; the same was true for musical guests.

The irreverent humor was often directed at politicians – US presidents in particular, but the show had witty takes on consumer culture, social trends, and family situations.

Over the decades, many memes were launched from sketches: “It’s always something”; “We are two wild and crazy guys”; “Well, isn’t that special?”; “We meet again, Trebek”; “I live in a van down by the river”; and “Gotta have more cowbell” – those are only a few that come to mind of the many, many that spread like wildfire after being uttered by a character in an SNL sketch.

Not every sketch worked. The show has been notorious over the years for having sketches in the last 30 minutes that are lame; one assumes the writers just ran out of clever concepts and dialogue as the production of a weekly show was a draining grind.

And not every season was stellar. There were periods where the show seemed flat and lacking in memorable characters and sketches (and numbers of breakout cast).

But the show always seemed to bounce back with new faces and more energy.

Unfortunately, over the last number of seasons, it seems as if SNL has gotten very long in the tooth and has become boring – with many sketches lacking any humor – at least to these old ears.

The early roots of this trend seemed to have begun at the outset of the Trump presidency.

Donald Trump was born for parody – he’s basically a real-life parody of himself.

Given his lack of either intellectual discipline or political philosophy, his often insensitive behavior and comments, his nepotism with family members appointed to senior positions, along with an administration that was overtly on the make,  it was apparent he and his cronies would become targets for SNL sketches and mockery.

But the 2016 election that led to his election was accompanied by claims of “Russian interference” that became the overwrought narrative on several network news channels through the Trump term; and to be fair, there was an equally overwrought defense of anything and everything Trump on the other network (you know who’s who in the above).

The partisan politics that followed his election became much more bitter and rancorous – no one it seems, wanted to cut anyone slack on any issue. And worse, it seemed as if everyone was being required to pick sides.

So the sketches on Trump were more relentless than they could or maybe should have been.

Good parody should go right at the essence of the individual or the situation, but it should let the audience decide for itself how to react – even if the effort includes taking the audience a bit farther than their comfort zone.

The attacks on Trump seemed intended to reflect the attitudes of the cast and most SNL viewers – there was no effort to create any questions.  There was only one approved response, so it seemed.

That had never, at least as far as I can remember, been the way of SNL. Even very early parodies of Richard Nixon (Dan Ackroyd) portrayed him as more pathetic and sad than sinister, allowing the audience to think for itself about the man most hated in real life.

I had no problems with Baldwin’s impersonation at the time as I thought Donald Trump was a self-aggrandizing imbecile who didn’t put any effort into being president. But looking back, I’m not sure what else came from all those sketches than to further feed and inflame the partisan divide.

Compare Baldwin’s treatment of Trump to the impersonations done by James Austin Johnson (of the current SNL cast).  He captures the essence of Trump’s stream of consciousness way of speaking and thinking that’s funny, but reflects the lack of focus and discipline in the man.  No one watching Johnson’s impersonations will have any doubt that Trump never should have been, or should ever be again, President of the United States).

As the Trump presidency was closing, the COVID pandemic exploded – which seemed to put most humor on pause. The SNL cast tried with at-home videos and other efforts, but it seemed they were marking time.

The 2020 campaign produced the first set of parodies of Joe Biden (Jason Sudeikis) and Kamala Harris (Maya Rudolph) – I don’t recall anything particularly humorous;  it felt as if they were just going through the motions.

The whole election spectacle itself was featured in some sketches, but it seemed to me neither the writers or the cast could make it fun – if even in total mockery for all involved.

Since the election of 2020, neither Biden nor Harris have featured in any sketch I can recall.

Too bad,  as both are more than deserving for impersonation and parody. Harris with her inappropriate giggling and obvious lack of gravitas and Biden with his geriatric confusion and ongoing gaffes…comedians and sketch writers typically live for these gifts that keep on giving.

Most of the sketches, particularly this season, have been boring and humorless (albeit with an infrequent well-crafted line), but there has been little you can assume anyone will remember after the next commercial.

SNL used to have brilliant short-videos that were either musicals or parodies of television commercials.

But now, most are as dull as the sketches, which increasingly involve some manner of song and dance.  SNL becoming a musical variety show is clear-sign this show is on the way out.

Except for the still often funny Weekend Update with Michael Che and Colin Jost, the rest of the show appears focused on being risk averse.

And maybe that’s the key to its failings.

Whether its woke politics of the cast and writers; NBC worried about advertising revenues; or just Lorne Michaels (who’s run the show for all but four of its 47 seasons), losing his feel for what’s funny – something new is needed.

Unfortunately, I don’t see even a new showrunner being able come in and reinvigorate the show, given the current cultural and political environment.

So, the show may linger on – at least until abandoned by advertisers, but it sure feels as if its  best days have faded into the past.

And that’s too bad as it’ll be another thing people will be unable to share – irrespective of their political and cultural views.

Well, isn’t that special.

Author: Tom

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