The Internet, including myself, has given Saturday Night Live anchors Colin Jost and Michael Che a rough time in their stead as “Weekend Update” anchors. Jost has been on the job for a season and a half, while Che has one season under his belt, and it’s been rocky for both of them as they have tried to find their footing. It’s been made doubly challenging by the hyper-sensitive Internet and critics (like us) who grade them on a weekly basis, deconstruct their jokes, critique their facial expressions, and generally backseat drive the anchor desk from our couches at home.
SNL has always been a victim of critics, who are perpetually bemoaning the fact that it’s no longer funny. However, with Colin Jost and Michael Che, those voices have been particularly loud, especially because “Weekend Update” under Seth Meyers, Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, and Jimmy Fallon had always been the one reliable segment we could depend upon to save an episode. “Update” hasn’t been this critically derided since the Colin Quinn and Kevin Nealon years.
But what most of us — critics and audiences alike — don’t consider is just how hard “Weekend Update” is to pull off. Michael Che was on Pete Holmes’ You Made It Weird podcast recently, and he enumerated the many challenges of being an Update anchor. By the end of the podcast, I came away with a lot more respect for what both he and Jost attempt to do on a weekly basis.
The biggest challenge, really, is that what “Weekend Update” was created 40 years ago to parody no longer exists. We don’t watch the evening news anymore. Most people can’t even name the anchors of the network nightly news shows. “Update” has had to evolve. “People watch Jon Stewart for news. People weren’t watching Chevy Chase for news,” Che notes. “Update” essentially parodies something that isn’t there anymore, so, to make “Weekend Update” work at this point, it’s almost like you’re “parodying ‘Weekend Update'” because, as Michael Che says, “That’s the only form we see. That’s the tricky part of doing it now instead of then, with Dennis Miller or Norm Macdonald.”
The other tricky part is that, 20 or 30 years ago, “Weekend Update” was the only fake news game in town. Now there’s dozens of iterations of it, led by The Daily Show. By the time SNL gets around to covering a topic, the material has already been exhausted. Now they have to write jokes that Jon Stewart or Twitter hasn’t already mined. “So, what am I going to say about Rachel Dolezal on Saturday if that story broke Monday?” Che says. “There’s nothing. It’s all hack now.”
In that way, “Update” has had to pivot. It now how to rely on a lot of weird-and-wacky news of the Florida or Ohio variety, because that’s where the form works the best. It’s more difficult to infuse social commentary into “Weekend Update” because they’re reduced to making jokes about, for instance, a local Indiana man who stubbed his penis, because that’s the only news that hasn’t been covered to death by Saturday.
It’s not about the format anymore on “Update.” It’s about the anchors. It’s about getting to know the anchors, their personalities, and “understanding who they are and what kind of jokes they will be telling. It may take a season or two to get a beat on the anchors so that we can find our rhythm with them.
Then there’s also the technical challenge. “Weekend Update” is still written on cue cards, so there’s a different kind of rhythm than a teleprompter — and there’s a possibility that something can go wrong (if the cue card guy, for instance, accidentally has his hand over the punchline, which is something that’s happened to Che).
However, the biggest challenge is one that faced every anchor since the beginning. Norm Macdonald sums it up best: “‘Update’s different [from any other comedy gig] because it’s the one job where you can prove you’re not funny.” In other words, says Che, it’s the one job in comedy where you can convince the world that you’re not funny, even if you are funny.
What he means by that is that, unlike stage comedy, if a joke doesn’t work, you can’t get out of it. Conan tells bad jokes all the time, and the marvel of Conan is that he’s best when he’s rescuing himself from a bad joke. You can’t do that on “Weekend Update.”
“On ‘Update,'” Che contends, “once the cue card is gone and the camera switches, that’s it. You just told a bad joke. When a joke dies on stage, you can resurrect it.” On “Update,” you’re stuck with it. The show goes on, and you’re left sitting with a bad punchline.
Then, there’s that other wildcard that not only applies to “Update,” but to the show as a whole: You have to appeal to both the viewers at home and the audience in the studio. Andy Samberg also spoke about this recently on The Nerdist. You want the people in the audience to laugh because that laughter resonates for the audience at home. Very often, however, the studio audiences are not sophisticated about comedy. The studio audience, which is often comprised of out-of-town tourists or One Direction fans, doesn’t understand some of the references that might work with home viewers, but if the home viewers don’t hear laughter from the studio audience, they might sense that it’s a bad joke.
The Daily Show doesn’t have to contend with this. It’s pre-taped, so there’s more room for error. Jon Stewart is working solo, so he has the ability to resurrect a joke instead of passing it on to another anchor. He has an audience that’s friendly to his politics and he has the ability to be more timely.
“Weekend Update” doesn’t have any of those advantages. So, while Michael Che and Colin Jost haven’t exactly lit the world on fire yet, it’s probably unfair of us to judge them so harshly given the limitations and constraints of the format. We’ve seen, in both anchors, flickers of brilliance. With a full season under the belts together, maybe they can better navigate those challenges and make “Update” what it once was — the most redeeming part of even the worst episodes of SNL.