While SNL’s past few seasons don’t hold a candle to the quality we’ve come to expect, to say that SNL’s golden years were perfect is as unfair as it is untrue.
The cliché goes if you want to make a lazy critique of television you either say, ‘it isn’t as good as the earlier seasons’ or ‘“Saturday Night Live” isn’t funny anymore.’
There is no denying that the slew of departures starting with Kristen Wiig and ending with Seth Meyers certainly left a void of talent that still needs to be filled. Colin Jost has attempted to replace Meyers as both head writer and “Weekend Update” anchor, and as the evidence mounts it’s becoming clear that Jost is in over his head. The sketches seem to go on for hours despite the punchline being delivered in fifteen seconds, with a few bombing so hard that the audience is left to wonder if it was some bizarre attempt at “The Office”-type awkward humor.
The nature of a 40-year institution like SNL is that they will undoubtedly have some lean years and these last few have certainly been that.
However, the assertion that this season has been some massive crater compared to 39 previous years of non-stop laughter is flawed logic.
It’s easy to compare current episodes to classic SNL and point out all the warts of the current incarnation. But “Saturday Night Live” has never produced a pristine, 90-minute episode; it’s just not the way sketch comedy – or TV in general for that matter – works. Even in its best years, there were sketches and episodes that floundered. But the reason those are so easily forgotten is because you won’t find those sketches that drew crickets on any of the countless “Best-Of” DVDs.
It’s natural to romanticize the past and long for the glory days. People still love and remember Cowbell, Celebrity Jeopardy and Two wild and crazy guys because they are legendary, genre defining pieces of comedy; not an indication of the consistent quality of the show.
John Mulaney, one of the most visible and successful working standup comedians, is a shining example of this. Along with being a long time writer for SNL, his crowning achievement is creating the Stefon character with Bill Hader. Stefon became arguably the most famous “Weekend Update” character ever and raised the profile of both Mulaney and Hader to legitimate comedy stars.
Before Stefon, Mulaney had pitched his own sitcom all over the place, and interest was lukewarm at best. NBC took a shot with it but pulled the plug after poor testing. After Stefon, FOX was more than ready to give the show a shot. “Mulaney” premiered last Sunday on FOX, but the reviews were… unkind. The format didn’t fit John Mulaney’s style well at all, and every bit of comedy was so forced and unfunny that the series is probably not long for this world.
The point here is that time will be kind to John Mulaney.
Long after the ill-advised sitcom has vanished from existence, people will still remember Stefon because comedy is usually forgiving in that way. The nature of the genre is that it requires a lot of metaphorical shit to be thrown at the wall while only a fraction sticks. If a comedy veteran like John Mulaney can fail so easily, it makes all the sense in the world that younger, less accomplished writers and performers face similar adversity on SNL.
And that’s the fun of “Saturday Night Live.” To me, being able to watch young comics start to find their voice is more rewarding as a fan than to just watch seasoned performers crack jokes – that kind of comedy can be found all over the place.
SNL is the most visible place in the world where the audience can feel like they’re getting in on the ground floor of something, where they can see the next superstar before they’re a superstar. We watched a shaggy haired kid named Andy Samberg rap about the “Chronicles of Narnia” in the now legendary “Lazy Sunday.” At the time, Samberg was a bit player just trying to be funny and he created something that has become part of the fabric of comedy.
True, it’s hard to deny that comparatively, SNL has not been very good for the past season and a half. There are still a lot of young performers trying to find their place, some failing in pretty spectacular fashion while trying to do so. But “Saturday Night Live” has never claimed to be a perfectly assembled comedic masterpiece. Regardless of temporary struggles, SNL is still completely unrivaled as the place where funny things and people are created, and that isn’t going to change any time soon.
(Featured photo courtesy of Starpulse and NBC/Universal)