The first time I ever excused myself from an event to recap SNL was on September 15, 2012. It was the season 38 premiere, with host Seth MacFarlane and musical guest Frank Ocean (with special guest Psy… 2012 seems like forever ago). My wife and I had traveled to Connecticut for a wedding, and while I didn’t miss the actual marriage ceremony, but I had to depart the boozy after-party before it got too late (and before I got too drunk) because there was writing to be done. I’m sure the bride understood.
Since then, I haven’t missed an episode, which isn’t a brag, unless Blake Shelton or Donald Trump was hosting, then it’s a cry for help. (I was obviously watching SNL long before 2012, but usually the morning after, when I could skip through the commercials and musical performances from Chris Gaines.) It’s become a running joke among my friends: if I had a business card, it would read, “I’m sorry I have to leave [social gathering goes here], but I have to watch SNL.” (I didn’t say it was a good running joke.) My excuse was a blessing for getting out of a bad dinner party where everyone picked up cheap sushi at the gas station on the drive over, but it was also a curse when I was having a good time. And yet, I never minded disappearing early.
I knew I had Weekend Update waiting for me.
Remember when I said 2012 seems like forever ago? That’s especially true for television. The only original series on Netflix was Lilyhammer; 30 Rock, Community, The Office, and Parks and Recreation were still on NBC; and Homeland won the Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series over Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and Game of Thrones. There are now nearly 450 scripted shows, many on channels people have never heard of or even get. (A few days ago, AT&T Audience Network announced that Ron Livingston will star in Peter Farrelly’s new comedy, which begs the question: what’s the AT&T Audience Network?) It’s damn near impossible to keep up with every show you’re Supposed To Watch — as soon as you’ve cleared the DVR of network and cable series, you remember that Luke Cage premiered on Netflix and, oops, there goes your weekend. Just about the only consistencies in a world where NBC Thursday nights aren’t dedicated to comedy are The Simpsons on Sunday nights at 8 p.m. and SNL on Saturday nights at 11:30 p.m.
There’s something reassuring about that. SNL is like putting hot sauce on your comfort food: it’s nostalgic and dependable, but it has the ability to surprise. I don’t expect greatness, but when there’s an instant classic sketch, like “Josie,” “Farewell Mr. Bunting,” or “Mafia Meeting” (which really should have been called “Space Pants”), I’ll keep coming back to it, and remember where I was when I first saw it. (The answer is almost always “on my couch.”) That’s why I’ve never quite understood the “SNL isn’t as good as it used to be” argument. It’s faulty nostalgic logic. Episodes tend to rate somewhere between “okay” and “pretty good,” with one, maybe two, breakout sketches. That’s how it was in season one, and that’s how it’s going to be in season 42.
But consistency isn’t a bad thing! When a show tries to surprise and shock you week in and week out, it quickly grows tiresome. (House of Cards and Scandal, both of which are running on fumes, are two recent examples.) SNL has a formula, and considering the show’s been around for over four decades (!), it’s one that works: cold open, credits, monologue, fake ad, sketches, first musical performance, Weekend Update, more sketches, second musical performance, 10-to-1, host and cast waves goodbye. Repeat 21 times.
SNL is one of the few shows I still watch live — I rarely even get to The Simpsons, my favorite show of all-time, before Tuesday anymore. I could only watch the sketches the internet tells me to check out the next morning, but I could also check out a different bar than the one I always go to. I don’t want to, though. I like my bar. It’s familiar. It’s comfortable. That’s SNL. The faces change; the blueprint doesn’t. While everything else about TV is in flux, with streaming options, flexible scheduling, and new series premiering by the dozen, here’s SNL, on at the same time as it was 40-plus years ago. (The only real difference is more filmed sketches and fewer Muppets, but old SNL had “Don’t Look Back In Anger,” and new SNL has an occasional appearance from Kermit and Gonzo.) There’s no reason it can’t go on for another 40 years, either, or until Lorne Michaels dies, whichever comes first. (If anyone can “beat” death out of spite, it will be Lorne Michaels.) By that point, there will be 7,000 channels, and the Hypnotoad will be on all of them. Except for Saturday nights on NBC, when the blogger of the future rushes home from a party to watch Tina Fey’s daughters introduce musical guest Saint West.
The times they are a-changin’, except in Studio 8H.