Every season, a flurry of editorials and articles proclaim the season as the “end of Saturday Night Live,” and that the show has lost its edge. They say the current cast just isn’t “x cast from 19xx” and that the show’s ratings spell disaster and cancellation.
First, the success of Saturday Night Live is an anomaly in itself. No show has ever succeeded this long at 11:35 on Saturday nights. It’s main competitors? Sleep and da club. If people aren’t watching SNL, the odds are good they aren’t watching anything on television. Perhaps they are binge watching The West Wing, which is what I am doing as I write this. One must place the ratings in context as well. This past week, the show earned a 1.8 Nielsen rating. The Big Bang Theory, the only comedy among the top-ten shows, earned a 9.1. However, during its final season, Seinfeld earned an average rating of 21.7. The diversification of programming makes it difficult to even compare apples to apples.
Second, one of the biggest criticisms is that “SNL was funnier when so-and-so was on.” Let us consider a few points. Comedy is subjective. We live in a world where Louis C.K., Jeff Dunham, and Jim Gaffigan are all very popular, but very different, comedians. Fans of Gilda Radner are not necessarily going to be fans of Cecily Strong (although I am big fans of both ladies). That aside, and its an important point that I beg you not to ignore, every sketch is not a success. For example, last weeks episode (40.3 with Bill Hader) had a pretty lame cold open (Bobby Monihan as an injured Kim Jong Un), but also featured some very funny sketches with Hader reprising old characters and the “YA Trailer” digital short.
SNL also doesn’t have to be constantly funny. Upon the passing of both Jan Hooks in 2014 and Phil Hartman in 1998, the program showed a sketched called “Love is a Dream.” It’s certainly not funny, but it’s beautiful. “La Dolce Gilda” is another piece of social commentary that features Radner in a Fellini-like film. “Don’t Look Back in Anger” is a look at an aged Belushi (who would never reach such a state) thinking back on his friends’ lives. All are Tom Schiller sketches, but they point out the larger importance of the show. MadTV or In Living Color would never present sketches like that. SNL has the social capital to experiment and live to see another day. That’s why it’s not always funny. Repeat sketches are winners. The Bees, Wayne’s World, the Cheerleaders, and the host of Weekend Update “editorial commenters” will always bring a laugh. However, audiences don’t want repeats every week. We expect them to experiment, and when they get it wrong, correct it. Most recently, Leslie Jones was finally made a featured cast member after some very funny guest appearances. Producer Lorne Michaels seeks course correction.
The show is important to television and comedy on both a global and local level. Each season is a commentary on the goings-on in the world, perhaps a little time capsule. However, the show also illustrates the long-term impact of changing boundaries on television and in comedy. Without the training ground of SNL (which is the finishing school for sketch comics out of the Groundlings, Second City, and the UCB), we might not have Bill Murray (heaven forbid), Tina Fey, Kristen Wiig, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. It allows us to watch these performers and writers grow and evolve, and eventually, fly away from the nest.
Or, in a more concise way, next time someone tells you that SNL isn’t “funny anymore,” just roll your eyes and move on from their uninformed opinion.
– The Lady Americanist.