On the eve of its 40th anniversary special (though the anniversary itself isn't until October), what is left to say about “Saturday Night Live”? There have been multiple books written about the show, several documentaries, countless essays – riding the never-ending roller-coaster between “Saturday Night Dead” and “Saturday Night Lives Again!” – best-ofs, worst-ofs, and every other kind of list you can think of.
I don't know that anything I write over the next few pages will provide new insight into one of the most influential comedy shows ever made, but I wondered if you could tell the story of the show – through good times and bad, through revolutions and evolutions and retrenchments – by looking at its sketches. I wound up picking 21 in all: some among the show's most famous, some obscure but important. These aren't meant as a definitive breakdown of the best “SNL” ever had to offer, but as a way to chronicle the life of the series as it approaches this 40th birthday celebration.
Wolverines (October 11, 1975):
This is where it all started. “SNL” would take a handful of episodes to turn into a recognizable version of the show still being made today (and was actually called “NBC's Saturday Night” at this point, because a competing ABC show with Howard Cosell – featuring Bill Murray in its cast, no less – was using “Saturday Night Live”), but the series' opening sketch – a foreign language lesson from writer Michael O'Donoghue to John Belushi – immediately marked it as something new and strange and exciting. NBC wanted something cute and safe and traditional to expand their late night presence into the weekends; what they got was an avant-garde punk rock comedy show that killed off the first two characters the audience would ever see. And though little of the first episode's format would survive a month, let alone four decades, this sketch does close with Chevy Chase saying the famous intro, “Live, from New York, it's Saturday Night!”
Rob Reiner hates the bees (October 25, 1975):
Would “Saturday Night Live” even have recurring characters if Lorne Michaels hadn't been feeling rebellious? Probably – TV sketch comedy had a long history of bringing back popular characters, from Progress Hornsby on “Your Show of Shows” all the way to the Gumbys on “Monty Python's Flying Circus” – but it's still funny to think of the origin story of the first “SNL” recurring gag. As Michaels explained in Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller's “Live From New York” oral history, “The only note we got from the network on the first show was 'Cut the bees.' And so I made sure I put them in the next show.”
That appearance in the second episode is, in fact, the only time castmembers other than Chevy Chase got to show their faces on camera that week, but the bees, the show, and the Not Ready for Prime-Time Players began evolving into something else with the third episode, where the insects distract Rob Reiner in the middle of a sketch, leading to an angry meta argument between the host and John Belushi. Within that one sketch, Belushi makes his presence felt, establishes the cast as a group the audience should pay attention to, and also makes clear that “SNL” is a show that will be commenting on itself early and often, laying the groundwork for classic ideas like Michaels offering The Beatles $3000 to reunite in Studio 8H.
And while the bees themselves would fall out of favor after the first season, they paved the way for all the recurring characters that followed. The original cast alone would give us the Coneheads, the Blues Brothers, the Wild and Crazy Guys, Emily Litella, Roseanne Roseannadanna, the Samurai, Nick the lounge singer, Chico Escuela, E. Buzz Miller and so many others.
Word association (December 13, 1975):
This one has in some ways cast an unfair shadow over the entire franchise. When people speak of the vintage, Not Ready for Prime-Time Players-era “SNL” as an outlaw comedy show, this sketch more than any other is what they have in mind: a job interview between Chevy Chase and Richard Pryor turns ugly in a hurry once racial terms are introduced into a game of word association, which doesn't stop until Chase has said the N-word and Pryor has responded with “dead honky.”
This is arguably the edgiest the show would ever intentionally get (as opposed to something like Sinead O'Connor surprising everyone by ripping up a picture of the Pope). The series would skirt various boundaries of language and sexuality in later years – a late '80s sketch where the word “penis” was said or sung over 40 times, or the '00s sketch revealing that the name “Colonel Angus” sounds like a sex act when recited (over and over) with a Southern drawl – but rarely in a fashion intended to provoke and shock to this degree. A cynic might suggest that it's been all downhill for “SNL” since its seventh episode ever, but the fact is, the broadcast networks were somehow more permissive 40 years ago than they are today. This sketch would never be allowed to air as a new piece on NBC this year, and it felt shocking that it aired unedited in a rerun earlier this season, grandfathered in from an earlier, bolder era. But nor would characters like Archie Bunker or Maude be allowed to front network sitcoms in 2015. The '70s were a strange and glorious time, and while there were certainly “SNL” writers back then pushing the boundaries of good taste – see also the first season's “Claudine Longet Invitational,” where Chase and Jane Curtin made great light of a celebrity murder defense, or frequent host Buck Henry's recurring child molester character Uncle Roy – there was also an environment where much more was allowed.
Samurai delicatessen (January 17, 1976):
Buck Henry hosted so often in the early days, in fact, that he had multiple recurring characters, most memorably as Mr. Dantley, the genial foil to John Belushi's samurai in various business settings. The samurai – a take on legendary Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune – was a character Belushi auditioned with, and he's perhaps the defining creation of the most singular talent of the original cast. You can see descendants of all the other Not Ready For Prime-Time Players in later casts – Phil Hartman and Bill Hader both fit the Swiss Army knife position created by Belushi's pal Dan Aykroyd, for instance – but there's never quite been another John Belushi, though Chris Farley and John's younger brother Jim both tried during their times on the show.
What made Belushi so special was the combination of fearless physicality (the part that Farley did successfully ape at times) with a keen mind full of esoteric interests. His two best-known “SNL” characters were inspired by a Japanese actor and old-time blues singers, and though he lived for the spotlight, he also had no trouble providing a subdued background performance in someone else's sketch. He could be hard to work with, particularly as both his fame and drug habit grew, but the energy he brought to that stage, coupled with the sharp intelligence that made him so much more than just a gross-out comedian, hasn't really been seen since, no matter how many other great comics have followed him in the cast.
(Always interesting viewing: this 1978 Tom Schiller “SNL” short film with Belushi in old man makeup, visiting the graves of his fellow castmembers – all of whom would wind up outliving him in the real world.)
Gerald Ford and Ron Nessen (April 17, 1976):
Chase's actual impression of President Ford is like nothing that followed it on “SNL.” He doesn't attempt to look or sound anything like Ford – this is Chase's ironic detachment at its most blatant, because wearing a bald cap or doing an accent would suggest he was actually trying – and simply latches onto the idea that POTUS is an idiot who falls down a lot. In the waning days of the Ford administration, it turns out that's all that was needed, and Chase's Ford would become the first “SNL” impression to become bigger than the show – so big, in fact, that late in the first season, Ford's press secretary Ron Nessen would feel compelled to host the show to suggest his boss was in on the joke.
American TV comedy had become part of the political process before – this sketch even acknowledges that Richard Nixon's “Laugh-In” cameo helped boost his campaign in '68 – but it set up a precedent for “SNL” as a place that would help define our opinion of national leaders almost as much as their own words and deeds could. It didn't happen with every president during the show's run – the cast turned over so much in the '80s that there's no one iconic “SNL” Reagan (though “Mastermind,” with Phil Hartman as a deceptively brilliant Dutch, is on the short list of best “SNL” political sketches ever) – but happened often enough that it becomes impossible to separate certain presidents from their “SNL” imitators. Try to imagine the elder President Bush saying anything, for instance; are you hearing his actual voice, or are you hearing Dana Carvey?
The Nessen episode is also interesting because “SNL” was still in its angry young man phase, and therefore went out of its way to make Nessen (and, by extension, Ford) look bad, not in the actual Gerald Ford sketch – which they deliberately made innocuous by the standards of that season so Nessen wouldn't object – but with the rest of the episode, which was loaded with gross and/or questionable material (Dan Aykroyd pitching the Super Bass-o-Matic 76, or Jane Curtin and friends pitching jams with disgusting names like Dog Vomit and Painful Rectal itch) that Nessen would have to distance himself from in the days after.
The Nerds and the fridge (October 7, 1978):
One of the most entertaining passages of Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad's “Saturday Night: A Backstage History of 'Saturday Night Live'” book involves the season 4 premiere, hosted by the Rolling Stones. This was the biggest, baddest rock band in the world on the same stage with the biggest, baddest comedy show of the era, with each group determined to outdo the other. Viewers couldn't see all the backstage tension, but they could certainly detect a surge in energy from the cast, most notably in this bit bringing back Gilda Radner and Bill Murray as nerds Lisa Loopner and Todd DiLaMuca, here taking great pleasure at the plumber butt on display by Dan Aykroyd's refrigerator repairman. On the comedy spectrum, butt crack jokes aren't particularly sophisticated, but the studio audience couldn't get enough of this one, particularly with the infectious enthusiasm of Radner and Murray as they made jokes about seeing the full moon in the daytime. Between that sketch and a “Tomorrow Show” encounter where Aykroyd's Tom Snyder bulldozed a confused Mick Jagger for several minutes, “SNL” made clear the folly of trying to beat the home team on their own turf.
Point/Counterpoint (March 17, 1979):
The one aspect of the show that's remained constant no matter the cast, producer or era has been Weekend Update (though even it went through a few name changes in the early '80s). It was there in the first few shows, even when the rest of the format and cast were largely absent, and it's remained a reliable vehicle for the show to address both current events that otherwise wouldn't fit comfortably into a sketch, and to satirize the excesses of the news media, which have only grown bigger and stranger over the show's run.
There have been a few “SNL” castmembers who worked perfectly as solo Update anchor, like Chevy Chase in the first season or Dennis Miller in the late '80s resurgence. Mostly, though, the segment benefits from having two people behind the desk at the same time, whether with these combative debate segments between Curtin and Aykroyd, or the sibling chemistry of Tina Fey and Jimmy Fallon, or the anchors interacting with the various recurring characters (from Emily Litella to Stefon) who made Update their home. Even sarcastic solo artist Miller tended to be at his best on those occasions when Dana Carvey (or, one time, Carvey and Tom Hanks) showed up to do an impression of him.
Raheem Abdul Muhammed's radio (December 6, 1980):
You can look at the sixth season of “SNL” – the first made without any of the original actors, and without Lorne Michaels himself – in one of two ways: as a complete calamity that led to the firing of producer Jean Doumanian and all but two castmembers not long after actor Charles Rocket dropped an F-bomb at the end of an elaborate “Who Shot J.R.?” parody, or as the season that discovered the biggest star the series would ever produce: Eddie Murphy.
Either interpretation is valid, and in some ways they complement one another. Doumanian gets credit for hiring Murphy – then a skinny 19-year-old stand-up without much on-camera experience – but she also had to be talked into it (in “Live From New York,” talent coordinator Neil Levy recalls that Doumanian wanted to hire Robert Townsend as “'the black guy' on the show”) and somehow thought Rocket and others were more capable of carrying “SNL” into its post-Murray/Radner era. Murphy had to essentially overwhelm the audience into getting more burn, as he does in this early Weekend Update appearance as the first of his many recurring characters, Raheem Abdul Muhammed. Listen to how dead the studio audience is as Rocket and Joe Piscopo speak, and then to how they go absolutely nuts for Murphy as Raheem. That is the sound of people who have been waiting months for the new “SNL” to finally remind them of the old “SNL,” and who recognize this kid as the first newbie worthy of the tradition.
When Doumanian and most of her actors (save Murphy and Piscopo) were bounced, veteran NBC executive Dick Ebersol took over, and he was savvy enough to recognize what he had in Murphy, who was allowed to take over the show to such a degree that, when his “48 Hours” co-star Nick Nolte backed out of an appearance at the last minute, Murphy became the first (and still only) active castmember to double as that week's host. As the first “SNL” star of color (Garrett Morris was always an afterthought in the original cast, save for when he had to dress in drag), Murphy opened the show up to new arenas of parody (his James Brown was so good, he almost won an Oscar for playing the role seriously in “Dreamgirls”) and social satire (“Mr. Robinson's Neighborhood” re-imagined kids' educational TV for the ghetto) and brought such energy to the show that his co-stars – including some very talented comics in their own right like Tim Kazurinsky, Mary Gross and Julia Louis-Drefyus – became irrelevant. During that hosting gig, Murphy angered his co-stars by announcing, “Live, from New York, it's the Eddie Murphy show!,” but he had as solid a claim for the show as a solo vehicle as anyone before or since. (Though I suspect Piscopo would argue this point forever and a day.)
White Like Me (December 15, 1984):
To placate his increasingly popular and busy star, Ebersol let Murphy pre-tape large swaths of episodes in advance, sometimes in traditional sketch form, other times with short films like this one. Ebersol didn't introduce pre-produced material to “SNL” – Albert Brooks was a regular contributor to the show's first season, at one point making a “short” film so long, NBC had to put a commercial break in the middle of it – but he was the first producer to let the show lean heavily on it, particularly in his last season as producer, with an all-star cast including Billy Crystal, Martin Short, Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer. In negotiations with NBC for an 11th season, Ebersol reportedly pushed to tape the majority of each episode in advance, which would have led to more polished material – like the men's synchronized swimming sketch that in hindsight plays like a warm-up for Guest's “Waiting for Guffman” – but at the expense of the immediacy and possibility of danger that came with doing the bulk of the show live.
NBC instead brought back Lorne Michaels, and while he didn't do away with pre-produced material entirely – commercial parodies remained a staple, for instance – he did significantly cut back on them, and it would be another 20 years before the show's most memorable material would be completed well before Saturday night at 11:30.
Iron Man and Farmer Ted review a book (sometime in 1986):
With a few exceptions over the years like Eddie Murphy and Andy Samberg, “SNL” has asked its actors to bend to the traditions and formula of the show, and not the other way around. For the most part, the formula has tended to make stars out of the most talented people in each cast. Every now and then, though, someone will spend a year or two in Studio 8H and never quite fit in, despite going on to do great things elsewhere.
Nowhere is that challenge illustrated better than in Lorne Michaels' first cast in his return to the franchise he created. In part in response to Ebersol's cast of ringers, in part in a failed attempt to recapture the youthful energy of the original ensemble, Michaels went largely young and very eclectic with this group, including John Hughes movie vet Anthony Michael Hall (only 17 at the time, still the youngest actor to ever join the show), Robert Downey Jr. (only 20), Joan Cusack (23), former Oscar nominee Randy Quaid, the show's first openly-gay castmember (Terry Sweeney), its first regular black female castmember (Danitra Vance), plus other young and hungry performers like Jon Lovitz, Nora Dunn, Dennis Miller and Damon Wayans.
On paper, this is one of the more impressive casts the show would ever have. In practice, it was such a mess that Michaels had to fire almost everyone – only Lovitz, Dunn and Miller survived – and plead with NBC to give him one more shot before cancelling the show. There was a ton of talent here, but many of the actors had little to no experience performing sketch comedy, and the writers didn't always know how to use them (like asking Hall and Downey Jr. to make fart noises for several awkward minutes). Wayans, who would become a big sketch star a few years later on “In Living Color,” got so frustrated with how little he was being given to do that he changed his performance in a live sketch, playing what was supposed to be an unremarkable cop as an effeminate gay caricature; it got laughs on the air, but Michaels canned him for the stunt.
Other “SNL” square pegs over the years include Larry David (who got one sketch on the air during his year as a writer under Ebersol, though he would later incorporate a lot of the experience into George Costanza story ideas), Chris Rock (who in hindsight would have made a better Weekend Update anchor than Kevin Nealon), Ben Stiller (who quit after a few weeks because he wanted to focus on the kind of comedy film shorts Michaels had little interest in), Sarah Silverman (who came and went without making an impression), and Janeane Garofalo (miserable for half a season as part of Michaels' mid-'90s attempt to copy Ebersol's group of all-stars, when he paired Sandler, Farley and other mainstays with comedy veterans like her, Michael McKean and Chris Elliott).
“SNL” is a strange beast when it comes to its cast. Sometimes, the people who become stars outside it are exactly whom you'd expect (Belushi, Murray, Murphy). Sometimes, the show's biggest stars struggle away from its machinery (Radner, Dana Carvey), while obscure former castmembers eclipse them. Sometimes, veteran actors like Crystal or Short fit in seamlessly; at others, familiar faces like Quaid or Garofalo or McKean spend a year looking confused about why they signed on for this.
Wayne's World meets Aerosmith (February 17, 1990):
Michaels likes to say that everyone's favorite cast is the one from when they were in high school. For me, that would be the group that followed the Anthony Michael Hall mess, fronted at various points by stars Dana Carvey, Lovitz and Mike Myers, and supported by perhaps the series' two best glue guys ever in Phil Hartman and Jan Hooks. On paper, I know exactly how and why the original cast is better, and that convincing arguments can be made that, say, the cast with Will Ferrell, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph was deeper and more versatile, but this late '80s/early '90s group will always have a special place in my heart. And they're one of the most important casts the show ever had after the original group. NBC wanted to keep the show going after Michaels left because the brand had value, and then Murphy became such a big star that the show seemed viable beyond Michaels, Radner, et al. But Michaels couldn't make his first new cast work and had to plead with NBC not to cancel the show; if the Carvey-led bunch had also failed, the show wasn't enough of an institution at that point that the network would have kept it on the air for the sake of tradition. If it hadn't been for the Church Lady, pathological liar Tommy Flanagan, the Sweeney Sisters and, eventually, Wayne's World, “SNL” could have simply gone away after 12 or 13 seasons.
This particular Wayne's World sketch is far from the funniest featuring either these two characters (the Bruce Willis one from earlier in this season is arguably the peak for Wayne and Garth in their small-screen incarnation) or this cast. But the bloat of it – it runs over nine very leisurely minutes – and the complete deference that Wayne and Garth show to the members of Aerosmith (a 180 from the skepticism of celebrity the show displayed a decade earlier) captures the sense of middle-aged comfort that had come to define the show by now. “SNL” wasn't the cocky young rebel anymore; it was the guy who didn't care that he'd gone a little soft in the middle, because he could still get the job done.
Wayne's World is also notable for bringing the franchise back into the movie-making business for the first time since “The Blues Brothers” – this time usually with much closer involvement from Michaels and the show itself. From 1992 through 2000, nine different films were made based on “SNL” characters, from icons like Wayne and Garth or the Coneheads to the less expected likes of Stuart Smalley (“Stuart Saves His Family”) or Mary Katherine Gallagher (“Superstar”). The two “Wayne's World” films were the only ones to make a significant amount of money, which is probably why the only “SNL” character to get his own film in this century has been MacGruber. The show remains a willing farm system to the movie business (just look at the new “Ghostbusters” cast), but eventually everyone acknowledged that we like seeing the same people on the big screen, just not necessarily playing the same characters.
Five-Timer's Club (December 8, 1990):
Another sign of middle age came with “SNL” embracing its own history. The previous season had opened with a star-studded 15th anniversary special, while this Hanks sketch – which would be referred to or repeated several times over the years as other frequent hosts passed the five-timer milestone – put him in a room with “SNL” icons Steve Martin, Paul Simon and Elliott Gould (plus Ralph Nader, who had, indeed, hosted the show before; just not five times). Once, “SNL” was cool because it was new and exciting; by this point, its power started to come from its age and reputation. You weren't just watching Myers, or Adam Sandler, or Will Ferrell; you were watching the ghosts of John Belushi and Gilda Radner, hearing the echoes of Jake and Elwood Blues, thinking about where Hans and Franz fit on the continuum of “SNL” duos like the Festrunk brothers, the Nerds, or Willie and Frankie (“Don't ya hate it when…”).
Bill Clinton at McDonald's (December 5, 1992):
You can probably tell the story of “SNL” without Phil Hartman. I just wouldn't want to.
When Grantland did a March Madness-style tournament of the best “SNL” castmembers, Hartman finished second to Will Ferrell, which seems about right. Ferrell, after all, could do everything Hartman could do – be the most ridiculous person in a sketch or its straight man, do dead-on impersonations and whatever else was necessary to get a sketch over – only he managed to do so while also creating vivid characters the show could re-use over and over again. Hartman wasn't without his recurring bits, whether impressions (Frank Sinatra, James Stockdale) or original creations (the Anal-Retentive Chef, Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer), but he was always overshadowed by the likes of Carvey, Myers, and later Chris Farley.
Still, when Hartman got the right material, he was as good as anyone the show has ever had. He stuck around long enough to play both Ronald Reagan (in the aforementioned “Mastermind” sketch) and Bill Clinton, in a sketch that makes me wish Hartman's “SNL” stint had overlapped more with Clinton's presidency. Given a few years to present his take on the many appetites of our 42nd president, Hartman could have been a huge star in his own era, rather an actor whose genius on the show wasn't truly appreciated until after his passing. As it was, he did everything the show ever asked of him, about as well as anyone on that stage ever has.
Matt Foley cracks everyone up (May 8, 1993):
The early-mid '90s of “SNL” would come to be dominated by the frat house quartet of Chris Farley, Adam Sandler, David Spade and Rob Schneider. Before, “SNL” had largely been dominated by actors with sketch comedy backgrounds, but other than Farley (who trained at Second City), these guys were stand-up comedians who got by on attitude and a default persona (Sandler the mush-mouthed man-child, Farley the angry fat guy, Spade the smug wise-ass, Schneider the game weirdo) that they could apply to almost any character in any sketch. It was a different kind of comedy than the show had done before, and while the Sandler quartet was beloved in some corners, the “Saturday Night Dead”-style media hysteria (typified by this New York cover story) was as loud in this era as it's ever been for the show, save for maybe the Jean Doumanian year.
Still, you watch Farley screaming at the top of his lungs as his defining character, motivational speaker Matt Foley, and it's not hard to understand the group's visceral appeal. This one's also notable for the reactions of Spade and host Christina Applegate, who couldn't contain their laughter at Farley's full, loud commitment to the bit. Once upon a time, Michaels had despised the idea of actors breaking character, since “SNL” debuted during the era of “The Carol Burnett Show,” where half the point was watching Harvey Korman and Tim Conway crack each other up. By this point, Michaels had begun to mellow on the idea, and later actors like Jimmy Fallon and Horatio Sanz would break frequently without consequence, to the point where Rachel Dratch's Debbie Downer turned into a recurring character entirely because no one could keep a straight face during her initial appearance.
More Cowbell (April 8, 2000:
This is not only the definitive Will Ferrell sketch (and another important sketch where co-stars break), but in some ways the quintessential “SNL” sketch.
If you wanted me to explain why Word Association, the Samurai, Gumby, Fernando or Bush vs. Dukakis was funny, I could write you a few hundred words on each, easy. With this “Behind the Music” spoof, the only thing I can do is to tell you to watch the damn thing, because everything that is funny about it comes from Ferrell's complete commitment to the physicality of the idea, and to the usual weird affectations of inner circle Hall of Fame host Christopher Walken as producer Bruce Dickinson. The two of them are making something out of virtually nothing, and you get the sense that by this stage of Ferrell's tenure, the writers knew they could hand him almost anything and he could spin gold out of it.
When the show lacks a dominant star like Ferrell, the writing has to be spot-on for the sketches to work, which isn't always easy given the punishing schedule on which each episode is produced. When you have a Ferrell, a Murray, a Radner or any of the show's other peak performers, sometimes the smartest thing the writers can do is to step back and let them play.
Mom Jeans (May 10, 2003):
“SNL” had not lacked for female talent in earlier eras – Gilda Radner and Jan Hooks were every bit as good and versatile as their equivalent male co-stars, Jane Curtin is one of the best Weekend Update anchors to ever wear the blazer, Julia Louis-Dreyfus has won a few hundred Emmys since leaving “SNL” – but it rarely provided its actresses the same opportunity and friendly environment that its male stars got.
That all started to change in the mid-'90s, when the Will Ferrell-led cast was filled with some of the show's most vivid and vocal actresses in Cheri Oteri, Molly Shannon and Ana Gasteyer (the latter two did perhaps the best job of keeping a straight face in franchise history as the NPR hosts discussing Pete Schweddy's balls), and took another huge leap forward when Tina Fey became the show's first female head writer at the same time Maya Rudolph and Rachel Dratch joined the ensemble. Suddenly, actresses were no longer describing their experience on the show as making the best of a bad situation, sketches could be built around a large group of funny women interacting only with each other, and the show now had plenty of room for a comic sensibility that once upon a time had to be stealthily inserted when some of the more sexist keepers of the franchise weren't paying attention. In 2000, Fey became Weekend Update co-anchor, and a few years later she and Amy Poehler became the first pair of women to do the segment without a male co-anchor.
This jeans ad, written by Fey, has one of the most devastating punchlines of any “SNL” commercial ever: “Give her something that says, 'I'm not a woman any more. I'm a Mom.'”
Lazy Sunday (December 17, 2005):
When Andy Samberg came to “SNL,” the show was 30 years old and had long since abandoned any pretense of being on the cutting edge of comedy. That changed thanks to Samberg and his Lonely Island collaborators Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer, whose pre-produced Digital Shorts – often parody music videos like this one, “Dick in a Box,” “I'm On a Boat” and “Jack Sparrow” – helped usher in the age of YouTube (which got a ton of early exposure thanks to the popularity of “Lazy Sunday”) and the viral video. For the first time in a very long time, “SNL” was ahead of the curve, and if it didn't lead to an Ebersol-style abundance of pre-taped sketches, it led to an era where the show's most talked-about material wasn't performed live.
A decade later, everyone is trying to make their own viral comedy shorts, from rival sketch shows to industry outsiders with huge YouTube followings. “SNL” didn't abandon the form when Samberg and his partners left, but the show wisely didn't try to keep producing shorts in their style without them, instead pivoting its film pieces into stranger, more wistful directions, like Bruno Mars as a sad man in a mouse costume in Times Square, or James Franco as a monster who has plastic surgery to look human.
Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton hold a press conference (September 13, 2008):
This was arguably the most political influence “SNL” would ever yield, thanks to the serendipity of the candidate for Vice-President of the United States having a passing resemblance to alum Tina Fey, who returned several times that fall with a Sarah Palin impression so dead-on and unyielding, many voters came to believe that it was Palin, and not Fey, who originally said, “I can see Russia from my house!”
The Rock Obama (March 7, 2009):
People think of “SNL” as a political satire, but it's never really been that. It has fun with politicians, but rarely with politics itself, and almost never with actual policies. It does what it's done going back to Chevy Chase as Gerald Ford: pick one or two notable characteristics of the Commander-in-Chief and exaggerate that until you have a character the audience can laugh at regardless of party affiliation. Chase's Ford was clumsy, Dan Aykroyd's Jimmy Carter was too smart for the room, Dana Carvey's George H.W. Bush spoke in an endless, repetitive stream of meaningless catchphrases, Darrell Hammond's Bill Clinton (and Hartman's before him) was an unapologetic horndog, while Will Ferrell's George W. Bush wasn't very bright.
Barack Obama was elected president at a time when our political divisions are starker and nastier than ever, and some conservatives accused the show of going easy on him with Fred Armisen's toothless impression. The reality was, Obama hasn't lent himself as easily to caricature as so many of his predecessors, particularly when the show didn't have the right actor in the cast to play him. Armisen tried to generate laughs from Obama's frequent pauses and other verbal tics, but it never quite worked; when Jay Pharoah took over the role with a more convincing impression, things only improved marginally, because the “SNL” writers still couldn't get their hands around whatever might be inherently funny about the man.
This sketch with Dwayne Johnson subbing in for Armisen is notable in that it actually has a clear comic point of view on Obama – though it, like Key & Peele's duo of Obama and his anger translator Luther, generates its laughs from having another actor channel a version of the president that's never actually on public display. Mostly, though, recent political comedy on “SNL” has felt obligatory, as if it's something expected of the show rather than something any of the current writers or performers are particularly interested in.
Kristen Wiig's farewell (May 19, 2012):
Wiig wasn't the first “SNL” castmember to get an on-screen farewell – check out this incredibly poignant in retrospect goodbye moment from Phil Hartman as he embraces Chris Farley, neither of them long for this world – but hers was perhaps the most elaborate and loving, as befits a performer who dominated the show as much as anyone had since Eddie Murphy.
Wiig didn't lack for gifted co-stars – much of her tenure overlapped with Samberg, Armisen, Bill Hader and Will Forte, among others – but it was her the show clung to like a security blanket. Her various recurring characters – the distracted Target Lady, attention-seeking Penelope, trouble-making Gilly, tragically-deformed singer Dooneese, and more – tended to get prime positions, either in the cold open or in the first sketch after the monologue, and they kept coming back well past the point of diminishing returns. (The sketch where she played Sue, a woman who loved surprise parties a little too much, was a one-off delight. Then Sue appeared three more times.) It's an addictive personality the show has never quite been able to shake no matter the era, and it has the unfortunate side effect of making the audience prematurely tired of certain performers. On pure talent, Wiig's one of the best castmembers “SNL” has ever had, but the show used her up much too soon, and then kept her around for a few more years because it had become too easy to rely on her.
Moet & Chandon (March 9, 2013):
“SNL” is at another transition point now, still searching for a coherent identity for its cast, and/or a clear breakout star. Taran Killam and Kate McKinnon each seem to check the boxes required for the position, but neither seems interested in dominating the show, for good and for ill.
As a result, the current incarnation of the series feels like less than the sum of its talented parts, doing interesting and at times very funny things, but rarely coalescing into something that feels essential in the way the show does at its best. At times, the best work gets done in the margins, like this recurring sketch involving former porn stars taping commercials for products they hope to get free samples of; the concept is simultaneously so sad and so sexually frank that they only run after 12:30 a.m., well after much of the audience has gone to bed, even though they're usually the best sketch of that week.
The larger issue has nothing to do with McKinnon, Killam, Cecily Strong or anyone else in the current cast. It's one the franchise has faced many times before, but maybe not to this degree: it's no longer the only game in town. Every component part of the show has been broken down and duplicated elsewhere, often in improved fashion. “The Daily Show” and its successors all make Weekend Update feel very thin and old-hat by the time Saturday rolls around. “Key & Peele” has a better Obama, does sharper pop culture parodies (their take on Richard Sherman and Marshawn Lynch before the Super Bowl badly outclassed what “SNL” did) and has more interesting and funny things to say about race and class. FunnyOrDie alone is flooding the market with viral videos (often superior to what “SNL” is doing on a given subject, like their respective “Serial” spoofs), making the short films feel less vital. And on and on.
Again, “SNL” has faced down competitors before. In the early, '80s ABC tried its own sketch show with “Fridays” (featuring a young Larry David and Michael Richards, not to mention former “SNL” contributor Andy Kaufman). In the early '90s, “In Living Color” stole much of the franchise's thunder (and hired Chris Rock when he left 30 Rock, though he didn't fit in there any better), and there's even parts of a generation that grew up with “Mad TV” as their preferred Saturday night sketch show. “SNL” has also had to search for an identity before. It has the brand name and institutional memory on its side, and it's too valuable to NBC to go away anytime soon.
I do wonder what the future holds, though, as the TV business evolves rapidly, and as Lorne Michaels gets older. It may now be a job he never wants to leave, and if that's the case, I don't expect many significant structural changes to the show while he's there. But if he were to step down and be replaced by someone willing to step back and consider a soup-to-nuts reinvention of the show, would there be a point to any of it? If you were starting a sketch comedy show in 2015, there's no way on earth you would make it 90 minutes, predominantly live, featuring at least two musical performances, or several other crucial components. And there are definitely times when Michaels' explanation that various things are simply how they've always done it seems weirdly reactionary coming from a man who reinvented both comedy on both TV and (through the projects his actors would take upon leaving the show) in film.
But given how many people are out there doing different pieces of what “SNL” does, often better, if you try to rebuild the show from the ground up, is it still “SNL,” or is it just another comedy newcomer fighting over the same scraps?
Michaels never had his “Hope I die before I get old” moment where he scoffed at the idea of the show continuing to such a ripe old age. But it's that old age that's by far the biggest advantage “SNL” has at the moment. It's not as bold as it was once upon a time, too much of what it does has been duplicated and improved upon elsewhere, and the current cast is a work in progress. But it's “Saturday Night” freaking “Live,” and that name still carries weight, still makes what happens on the show matter, after all these years, all these ups and downs, and all these sketches I've highlighted and so many, many more.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org