Why Has ‘Saturday Night Live’ Been So Bad At Sports Parody In Recent Years?

It’s difficult to remember the last time that an upcoming season of Saturday Night Live was facing as much offseason scrutiny and negative buzz from fans and critics as this 40th season. In the months leading up to Chris Pratt’s first hosting gig, there were stories of unrest, finger-pointing and eventually cast members being released as everyone tried to answer the long-looming question – What the hell is wrong with this show? With the departures of beloved cast members like Kristen Wiig, Fred Armisen, Jason Sudeikis and Bill Hader, each episode of the 39th season seemed to be lost and generally void of big laughs, and that’s obviously a problem for a show that is supposed to be the height of television comedy. So for the 40th season, changes were made, lineups were shuffled and one new cast member was brought on board to replace the departed comics whose names we can barely even remember.

The result was yet another uneven and mostly boring episode of Saturday Night Live that failed to capitalize on the talents of the cast and the incredible charm of host Chris Pratt, while offering very few memorable moments. However, some TV critics were a lot kinder in their own reviews of the 40th season’s first episode, like my colleague Josh Kurp, who enjoyed more of the show than he disliked, while still being left with the same “Who farted?” face that I had after that terrible animal hospital sketch. Deadline’s Mike Fleming called the episode a “hot mess,” while the Boston Herald offered that it “served up the expected,” Slate labeled it “the best episode in a while,” The Hollywood Reporter dropped its standards to call it “almost very good,” and Newsday wrote that it was “sporadically very good.” Compared to most other seasons, I’d say these reviews are both generous and somewhat optimistic.

However, as I watched the episode early Sunday morning, I never mentally escaped the cold open. The rest of the show could have featured brilliant and hilarious sketches that made “More Cowbell” look like Gilly, but I would have never noticed because I couldn’t believe how terrible SNL’s NFL mockery was. I know this has become a broken record cliché for SNL complaints but – and say it with me – how could the writers not come up with something better with all of the time they had? After all, the NFL spent the summer (and beyond) as a parody of itself, basically handing material to Saturday Night Live on a silver platter.

Did NBC, as the home of Sunday Night Football, hand down some sort of warning to Lorne Michaels and Colin Jost to back off and not skewer/destroy/annihilate the network’s best source of ratings that isn’t The Voice or The Biggest Loser? Or was the preparation for Season 40 just so lazy and corny that the writers honestly thought that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell bumbling his way through a press conference, accidentally saying “We fight women” instead of “We fight 4 women,” and bookended by Kenan Thompson and Jay Pharoah delivering vague impressions of analysts, the edgiest take they could come up with? Let’s compare this cold open with some other recent NFL parody/coverage and then rank them on delivery and execution.

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Now, here’s Jon Stewart’s takedown of the NFL ‘s handling of the Ray Rice domestic violence situation on The Daily Show from September 10:

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The Daily Show
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Of course, that was followed by The Colbert Report’s often more ridiculous take, this time on Adrian Peterson’s child abuse accusations, and more specifically, one media outlet’s coverage of the story:

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The Colbert Report
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Finally, South Park decided to go for everyone’s throats in the ongoing Washington Redskins controversy (I’ve only included the YouTube preview clip here, as to spare you Hulu’s autoplay ads, so watch the entire “Go Fund Yourself” episode here):

Final rankings: 1) South Park, 2) The Daily Show, 3) The Colbert Report, 4) Saturday Night Live. And I think No. 4 is being generous there, because I probably could have broken South Park into 20 clips and counted them all individually. (Especially the Jerry Jones stripper joke that must be included because it was basically one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen.)

Obviously, I don’t have any proof that NBC ever told any of its shows that it couldn’t scorch the NFL’s Earth over this rash of scandals, and I wouldn’t necessarily believe it if someone tried to sell me on that theory. After all, here’s an actual clip from last night’s Law & Order: SVU that mashed up some of the real NFL headlines to make one big toxic puddle of “fiction” for people to “enjoy.”

Just that clip had me laughing harder than the SNL cold open, and that’s obviously bad news for a show that’s supposed to be an intense drama. But Saturday Night Live wasn’t done with the NFL in the season premiere, as they went back for seconds with the player intros sketch later in the episode. It was a significantly better idea than the cold open, so why was this buried in the second half of the episode when it could have made such a better and far less dull opening?

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As Josh and plenty of commenters pointed out, this instantly reminded us all of the Key & Peele East/West Bowl sketches that simply cannot be outdone. In fact, as decent as this sketch was, I don’t know how it made it past the pitch session, as someone should have immediately said, “You know, this sounds a lot like that Key & Peele sketch that everyone loves, and if we try this, there’s a good chance that we’re going to get roasted for ripping them off.” The material simply should have been better prepared and more creative.

It’s not like Saturday Night Live has a history of being terrible at writing sports humor. After all, the show airs occasional “Sports Spectacular” specials on NBC, and has featured some of the biggest superstar athletes as hosts, including Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, LeBron James, Tom Brady, The Rock and Peyton Manning, among others. Some of those stars have had hilarious and memorable comedy moments, while others were complete duds. (For the record, Brady’s 2005 episode of SNL was historically bad. Like, among the worst of all-time, in general.)

I have been a fan of this show since childhood, when I’d sneak into the living room after my parents went to sleep so I could watch as much of the show as I could before I’d wake someone up from laughter. Any time people start arguing about SNL or criticizing one season compared to another, my memory flashes like Martin Tupper from Dream On, and I have this amazing ability to recollect just about any sketch from any season, dating all the way back to the years before I was even born (shout out to Comedy Central for airing all of the old episodes when I was in college). That said, there are sports sketches that have stuck with me as examples of the show’s greatness, and those that have lingered as representatives of wild mistakes and poor writing and/or execution.

Any discussion about SNL’s ability to write outstanding and brilliant sports parody should begin with the Synchronized Swimming sketch from the first episode of Season 10. For some ungodly reason, I can’t find this masterpiece of a sketch anywhere on the Internet – at least in working video form, for those of you who would try to push that Mediaite link on me – so if you’re unfamiliar, here’s a context-free clip from YouTube that features some Beavis laughing over it.

The sketch stars Harry Shearer and Martin Short as aspiring synchronized swimmers Gerald and Lawrence, respectively, and it’s brilliant for several reasons, chief among them that there was no such thing as men’s synchronized swimming and Gerald didn’t know how to swim. Again, I have no clue why this isn’t online, especially now that Yahoo! is carrying “the best” of SNL. Instead, let’s go to this other classic clip from the golden age, as John Belushi introduces us to his own breakfast of champions.

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That sketch is so incredibly simple, yet it still makes me laugh today, 37 seasons later. It’s funny because you don’t have to know anything about track and field, and most people realize that a fat guy won’t win a decathlon if he’s chain smoking and eating bowls of donuts for breakfast. But then, the best jokes often don’t require us to think so hard. Another sketch that didn’t require any thought, other than to know that steroid use was rampant in Olympic sports in the 1980s, was the “All-Drug Olympics” from this Dennis Miller Weekend Update bit, and let’s all just watch it and miss Phil Hartman in unison.

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The 90s era of SNL bred so many of the comedy stars that we’ve grown to love (and sometimes hate) over the last 20 years, and one of the most iconic sketches that is still invoked in sports fandom today is the “Superfans” bit that parodied hardcore Chicago sports fans in the platinum era of Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls, and also the tail end of Mike Ditka worship. Mostly, each sketch was one long fat joke that focused on the city of Chicago’s love of meat, as well as that wonderful accent, but its legacy hasn’t just given Bears fans “Daaaaaa Bears” and “Ditka is God” jokes. It also reminds us that no group of people is easier to make fun of than sports fans.

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Maybe there was something to Chicago that made sports humor easier and funnier for everyone, since Michael Jordan’s hosting gig delivered an epic sketch with this Harlem Globetrotters routine that showed us what it might have looked like when the Harlem Globetrotters hired their first black player.

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Everything about that sketch is wonderful, which is why it’s irritating that a better quality version isn’t available on a site that now boasts a wide catalog of old SNL sketches, but that’s still aside from the point. The jokes were edgy enough to sting but not offend and even the sports references, like Mike Myers calling his new team the Washington Generals, didn’t fly over everyone’s heads. That’s not to say that Jordan was the best of the show’s athlete hosts, because I’m still partial to Charles Barkley’s episode when he was joined by Muggsy Bogues for this beautiful, heartfelt moment with Stuart Smalley.

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Another sketch that isn’t available online is the Chris Farley figure skating routine from the episode that Nancy Kerrigan hosted, and that one also had a great monologue with Dave Attell, Norm MacDonald, Jay Mohr and Sarah Silverman asking the famous Olympic figure skater questions while dancing around the Tonya Harding scandal. I’m pretty bummed that the Farley sketch is MIA, so here’s a GIF to help jog your memories.

Speaking of Kerrigan, SNL has often left the biggest sports stories for Weekend Update bits, because sometimes it’s just too difficult to deliver a sketch that involves one female figure skater having someone crack her rival’s kneecap with a lead pipe. That’s why Norm MacDonald was always the best at adding humor to those situations, even if his wit was so dry that the jokes constantly evaporated and floated over every head in the studio audience.

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One of my favorite bits that I think of almost any time that I’m underwhelmed by a Weekend Update “guest” is the time that Chris Farley dressed as John Kruk during the 1993 World Series. It started out like it was going to be Farley doing a lousy impression, but the twist they added to it right off the bat (pun intended, I guess) made it such a perfectly succinct routine that didn’t need anything more or less.

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Not all of the gold, silver and even lead (94-95, which is always my pick for the worst) eras’ sports material was brilliant and perfect, though. For example, in 1987, the show mocked the NFLPA’s one-month strike that forced the league to use replacement players, and Kevin Nealon’s strongest joke was that Brent Musberger had a tendency to say CBS a lot. Unfortunately, general sports personality impressions have always been sort of a weak spot for the show. Jay Mohr’s Dick Vitale impression was pretty solid in a sense that he wore a bald cap and shouted like Dickie V has been known to do (although, I believe he’s naturally bald), and while the idea of Dickie V bringing his classic loud enthusiasm to the Oscar picks was great, it just fell flat.

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The thing that has always set sports impressions apart from each other on SNL is the way that the actor has delivered them. Straight-forward and by the book almost always means certain doom, which is why Jay Pharoah’s Stephen A. Smith, while spot on and hilarious, was met with general indifference from people who are lucky enough to not know what First Take is. Even worse, the show’s many attempts to parody the ABC and NBC commentators have been increasingly stale and often uncomfortable, from Jimmy Fallon’s overly-excited Dennis Miller to Bill Hader’s robotic Cris Collinsworth. Simply put, commentators and analysts aren’t nearly as fun to make fun of as the actual sports and/or athletes. Give me Synchronized Swimming or, for another exterior example, the Kids in the Hall Shirling sketch over lousy caricatures any day.

On the other hand, Will Ferrell took a cartoonish impression of legendary Chicago Cubs announcer Harry Caray and turned it into something far more ridiculous.

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Your friends still quote Ferrell’s Caray when someone mentions a hot dog, and MLB’s Fan Cave would make an entire online series out of Derek Holland’s impression of Ferrell’s impression if the Rangers pitcher didn’t, you know, have to spend most of his year actually playing baseball. The difference between Ferrell’s Caray and Pharoah’s SAS or Mohr’s Vitale is that it transcended sports, because people didn’t necessarily need to know who Caray was to mindlessly laugh at Ferrell’s latest zany character. Maybe if Pharoah’s Stephen A. Smith was more ridiculous like a character from 30 Rock’s Sports Shouting, or if Mohr’s Vitale hadn’t looked like a coked-up used car salesman, they’d have had more luck as enduring characters.

What has been most perplexing about recent years is the hit or miss nature of the show’s sports sketches. How can so many terrible sketches surround one brilliant idea and execution? Obviously, when you ask anyone what the best sports sketch – or probably even any sketch in general – of the last 10 years was, they’re going to say the Peyton Manning United Way sketch.

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It’s always funny. They should play it before all Denver Broncos games, or in place of everything that Frank Caliendo does on ESPN’s NFL coverage. And it’s amazing for two reasons: 1) Manning seems so bland and cheese pizza (Papa John’s only) that seeing him do anything outside of playing football or pitching products is a modern miracle; and 2) Manning was genuinely funny, which, up to that point, seemed like it was impossible. Since that sketch aired, Manning has routinely proven (in product advertisements, naturally) that he’s good for providing a laugh or two, but it always goes back to the United Way sketch. If anything, SNL’s brass should have considered putting an end to athletes as hosts after Manning, and just brought the superstars in for occasional pre-recorded sketches. You know, since Brady’s hosting gig two years earlier didn’t cause them to completely give up.

Going back to the idea of using ridiculousness and the absurd to sell a sports-related sketch, another good idea that people may or may not have loved as much as I did was the “ESPN Classic: Ladies’ Darts” sketch. Yes, it’s really just one long douche joke, but ladies’ darts combined with Jason Sudeikis and Will Forte doing their ridiculous shticks, while mocking lowest-grade sports commentary, is really a great mash-up of stupidity that pays off very well in the second half of an SNL episode that is already bottoming out.

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Stupid? Yes. Really stupid? Oh, absolutely. Like, so stupid that it isn’t even funny, and actually borderline offensive? No way. But unlike most of last season’s SNL sketches in general, and including most of the sketches from the first episode of this season, it has a beginning, middle and ending, regardless of how dumb it might seem. Consider the He-Man and animal hospital sketches from last Saturday. They were basically, “Here’s a premise, followed by three or four repetitive jokes, and now we’re just going to wrap it up and walk off the set.” The same goes for the “Men’s Heterosexual Figure Skating Championships” from Season 39, as it gives us a solid, timely premise (mocking Russia’s anti-gay laws at the time of the Sochi Winter Games), some funny jokes, and then…

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… nothing. The awkwardness of the cut from Bobby Moynihan’s routine to the audience’s applause makes it seem even worse. But there’s just no real punchline to the bit other than the joke itself, which emphasizes the poor writing that is weighing SNL down and keeping it from executing memorable sketches, specifically when it comes to sports. Pharoah’s impressions are definitely one of the show’s greatest strengths, but they’re not enough to carry the sketches and make them stand out for edginess and biting satire, especially when other shows have already lapped SNL to the punch.

Saturday Night Live has the ability and intelligence to come up with something about the NFL and its unnerving connection to violence, considering it previously gave us this perfect sketch:

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Maybe the solution for today’s cast and writers of SNL is to simply ignore sports in general, because what the writers delivered in the Season 40 premiere was so soft and harmless that it felt like it was the answer to the question: “What would the NFL’s own satire of its domestic violence issues look like?” Otherwise, with the incredible, ever-increasing problems facing all of America’s sports leagues, as well as the world’s most corrupt athletic organizations, easy material and low-hanging fruit have never been more ample.

It’s inexplicable that someone on Saturday Night Live doesn’t have the guts to just say, “F*ck it” and tee off on every last story, from the NFL to FIFA and all of the NCAA bullsh*t in between, to the actors’, writers’ and show’s benefit, but most of all for our sake.