The ‘SNL’ You Remember Isn’t Coming Back Anytime Soon

On this past weekend’s Saturday Night Live, hosted by Bill Burr, there were a grand total of three actually live sketches that weren’t the cold open, the monologue, or “Weekend Update.” And this has become more and more the norm. I went back to the early part of the 2010s, which had its own fair share of pre-recorded sketches, and the number of live sketches that weren’t the cold open, monologue or “Weekend Update” was around five. Now this may not seem like that big of a difference, but over the course of 21 shows a year, that’s a difference of roughly 40 live sketches that are now just gone.

If you are on social media at all while Saturday Night Live airs, a constant recent complaint is the actual cast of the show seems to have been diminished in favor of famous guest stars. This is a valid observation, because it’s absolutely true. And there’s no bigger sign of this than SNL hiring Jim Carrey, for some reason, to play Joe Biden. I’d maybe understand this a little more if Carrey’s Biden was just so out of this world that society would collapse if we were denied to see it, but in the end his whole impression seems to be that Biden wears aviator sunglasses and uses finger guns. Look, I’ve never run a hugely successful television show for 45 years, but I tend to think that other people could have pulled that off. If Biden wins — and right now the polls tell us, at the very least, there’s a better chance of that happening than not — does Carrey stay on like Alec Baldwin did? (To be fair, if Biden becomes president, I suspect the number of sketches featuring the president will decrease dramatically.)

But here’s the thing: This is the show now. Over the last couple years, Lorne Michaels made a decision to slowly, but somewhat drastically, change the concept of how Saturday Night Live works. The lore of SNL says it’s always been the same, but that’s not really the case. It’s changed before. It’s just been a while so this shift seems a little more dramatic. Look, this past weekend’s show was highly entertaining. It’s just a different kind of show. It’s now more of a true variety show (which is kind of ironic because Michaels, in the past, has shown disdain for that kind of format), with the cast there to kind of support the famous guest stars. I’m not here to say this is better or worse, just that this is the way it is and it’s time to get used to it.

It’s interesting to look back at how SNL handled presidential elections in the past versus now, because it’s a big signal of where the mindset of the show now rests.

Back in its inaugural season, Chevy Chase became a star playing a bumbling, accident-prone Gerald Ford. (It’s pretty hilarious that Chase’s whole Ford costume consisted of just Chase saying, “I’m Gerald Ford.”) But from that point on, the role of the president, if done well, was a star-making vehicle. And that role was always played by a cast member. And sometimes too well, like the problems SNL had with George W. Bush after Will Ferrell left the show in 2002. People forget that Ferrell left the show just over a year into Bush’s presidency. That left seven years of awkward tryouts. (Perhaps this sticks in Michaels’ head? That maybe it’s better to just bring in a ringer than go through that again.)

But by 2016, after another awkward tryout phase of Trump – you may remember when a huge announcement was made that Taran Killam won the role? Then Killam had to do his impression with the real Donald Trump, which immediately defanged the whole thing and he was replaced shortly after – Alec Baldwin was eventually put in the role for good and now we’ve had four years of that. (Remember when it used to be a treat when Baldwin showed up on SNL?) But at least in 2016 Kate McKinnon, an actual cast member, played Hillary Clinton. But then Larry David was hired to portray Bernie Sanders, which was such a hit and got so much attention that Michaels made the decision to make this a permanent feature.

Then came Robert De Niro as Robert Mueller. Then Ben Stiller as Michael Cohen. I can’t even say that I blame Michaels. It does get attention. And I’m sure Michaels, at this point in his life, is more concerned with the here and now of SNL than the long run. And, yes, having established famous people play the most prominent roles on SNL undercuts the long run, but it’s great for right now. It would be like if SNL had hired Nick Nolte to play Bush in 2000. I bet at the time that would have gotten a lot of attention. But now, maybe Ferrell doesn’t become quite the star he became without his signature role? And we look back asking, “Why did they hire Nick Nolte?”

In the 2009-2010 season of Saturday Night Live, there were eight repertory cast members and four featured players. This was still a format when the show could make a person a star because there was an actual chance with a cast that size to have an impact. (Though, yes, without a doubt, the diversity of those casts should have been better.) At that time, the longest-serving cast member was Seth Myers, who at that point had been on the show for nine seasons. Today, there are 15 (!!) repertory cast members and 5 featured players, for a grand total of 20 (!!!) cast members all fighting to be in those three live sketches I mentioned previously. The longest-serving cast member is Kenan Thompson, who has been on the show for 18 seasons. Thompson, Cecily Strong, Kate McKinnon, Aidy Bryant, Beck Bennett, and Kyle Mooney have all been on the show for eight seasons or longer. People don’t leave SNL like they used to. (Though, if not for the pandemic, I am under the impression McKinnon would have had her last show this past May.) A whole piece could be written just about that, but in this era movie studios don’t really make comedies anymore. People used to leave to take their chances on the big screen, to be the next big comedy star like Chevy, Eddie, Ferrell or Wiig. Those opportunities just aren’t there anymore. Even Kristin Wiig, probably the last SNL cast member to have huge success in films, has now transitioned to playing a superhero villain. And on top of all that, those 20 cast members have to fight for screentime against Alec Baldwin, Jim Carrey, Maya Rudolph, and Harry Styles and whoever is hosting that week. Imagine being Andrew Dismukes. (If you don’t know, after being a writer on the show, he’s now a cast member.) Imagine just joining the show, knowing you have a limited time to make any kind of impact, and competing against all that.

As I mentioned, SNL has changed before, but the changes used to come quickly. Have you actually ever watched the first episode? Hosted by George Carlin? It’s pretty weird. It opens up somewhat normally with the now-famous “Wolverines” sketch, but the rest of the show looks almost nothing like what we know as Saturday Night Live. Carlin appears in zero sketches. Andy Kaufman shows up to do some comedy. There are two musical guests, Billy Preston and Janis Ian. The Muppets show up for a segment. There’s a short film from Albert Brooks. Comedian Valerie Bloomfield shows up for some comedy. And somehow there was still time for “Weekend Update” and four other live sketches. It would take a few shows for Saturday Night Live to even remotely look like what it would eventually look like. Oh yeah, and most of the cast then was just used to run around with bee costumes on.

Obviously, the five seasons Lorne Michaels were gone were a completely different animal. (It’s weird, when you talk to people who have worked on the show since its inception, no one likes talking about these five years.) The 1980-1981 season was similar to the original five seasons, except that it was really bad. Though soon after Eddie Murphy would take over and it basically became his show, which is a sharp contrast from the ensemble of the first five years. The 1984-1985 season, Dick Ebersol’s last in charge, might be the closest to what we have now as Saturday Night Live. In an effort to replace Eddie Murphy, they went out and hired a bunch of established performers like Billy Crystal, Martin Short, Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer to create an all-star cast of sorts. The only difference between now and then, really, is SNL went ahead and put all of those already famous people in the opening credits.

With Michaels back, the 1985-1986 season shifted gears, replacing literally everyone from the year before. But what’s weird is, here too, Michaels hired established stars like Anthony Michael Hall, Robert Downey Jr., Joan Cusack, and Randy Quaid. (Quaid was already an Oscar nominee.) The big difference from the year before is that it wasn’t very funny. And by the next season – keeping Jon Lovitz, Nora Dunn, and Dennis Miller; adding Dana Carvey, Jan Hooks, Phil Hartman – the show started it’s pretty miraculous run of “new people” that pretty much — except for one more purge after the pretty terrible 94-95 season, which, again, added some established stars like Chris Elliott and Michael McKeon — takes us up to now. Again, all of those shifts happened quickly. The one now happened slowly, to where we all kind of notice it now and are asking, “What gives?”

In 2018, Taran Killam went on the podcast I Was There Too and said this about the 40th anniversary show and what happened after:

I also think the 40th really sort of affected Lorne in that I think it was exciting and I think it was flattering and I think he was really able to sort of relish in this incredible institution that he’s responsible for and all these amazing iconic careers and all of his famous friends. And it had to have been the most potent overwhelming boost of a “this is your life” experience ever. And then it all went away. And then it was back to this cast who’s all 40 years younger than you and aren’t as famous as Tina Fey, or whatever. And my experience was he became very impatient.

Now, it’s true Killam didn’t really have the ending to his time on SNL he probably envisioned, especially after how many years he was on the show. (It worked out okay for Adam Sandler so hopefully, someday, there’s a reconciliation.) So even adding in a little bit of, let’s say, edge to his description here, there’s also probably some truth here. Lorne Michaels is only ten years older than Dana Carvey. He was only four years older than Phil Hartman. Yeah, he probably does look at these kids and think, “Well, maybe it would be better if we brought in Jim Carrey.”

But it’s not just SNL that’s changed. The whole landscape has changed. Maybe even if SNL kept the same format from ten years ago it would be impossible to create comedy stars since there are so few of those anyway these days? In Michaels’ mind, the only way to break through now is with established comedy stars from 20 years ago. The thing is, he might even be right. But, again, I’m not even judging that here. But more just pointing out that SNL has made a fundamental shift and it’s not going back to the way it was anytime soon. The cast, which is still talented, will still have its moments, but not as many. With 20 cast members (honestly, that is just a crazy high number) and the numerous celebrity cameos, the odds of breaking through are stacked against the cast.

In the meantime, SNL will still flourish. Jim Carrey is a savvy enough performer to know that basically becoming a cast member at the age of 58 will help his career. But whatever this show looks like 10 years from now will be drastically different. It won’t be thought of historically as the star-making machine it used to be. Maybe it will be then known as a show comedy performers go for a rejuvenation. Right now, the star itself is Saturday Night Live. At least the cast doesn’t have to wear bee costumes.

You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.