Is Saturday Night Live Past Its Prime?
It’s all part of a cycle that started before most of us were even born. Members of Saturday Night Live leave, viewers get upset and they become convinced that no one could ever replace the old core group. Then, when the new cast is busy getting their bearings, people switch off, angry that their expectations of Chevy-Chase-falling-down-stairs levels of hilarity aren’t being instantly met.
SNL is in such a transition right now and is fast losing viewership, ratings and fan approval. Andy Samberg left for bigger and brighter things (watch Brooklyn Nine-Nine, it’s hilarious). Kristen Wiig has become a movie star with hits such as “Bridesmaids.” SNL no longer has the Lonely Island writing all of its digital shorts, nor does it have Target Lady, recurring staples that could be relied upon for at least solid laughs by the writers and viewers.
After watching last week’s Anna Kendrick show, I’ll admit that I shared a similar feeling. Most of the skits just weren’t that funny and I missed the genuinely funny staples I had remembered seeing. Where was a song that balanced cleverness and shock value as perfectly as “I’m On a Boat”? (“Dongs Around the World” really wasn’t covering it.) The cold open featured the chairman of GM in an awkward Senate hearing and was just biding time until they could scream “it’s Saturday night!” I began playing 2048 during one of the worst recurring sketches, “Principle Fry,” because there are only so many times I can hear that annoyingly-voiced “attention teachers and students!”
The show wasn’t all bad though. The funniest moments for me came from the always reliable “Fox and Friends” sketch, which mocked the ridiculous slant the Fox News network has been putting on ObamaCare’s trial period. Kyle Mooney’s sketch about flirting with his neighbor was actually pretty funny. And it finally seems like this cast’s “Weekend Update” is slowly coming into its own. While Colin Jost isn’t particularly funny on camera yet (and he curls his lip after literally every joke), he’s handling things pretty well and Cecily Strong is absolutely hilarious.
Yet, looking back at that list, I realize something: they’re all recurring segments. That might not sound so weird at first. Why wouldn’t we, as viewers of the show, most enjoy the parts of the show that the cast and writers put the most effort into developing and producing rather than the one-off sketches randomly sprinkled in? But this trend actually speaks to the larger issue of why SNL faces these transitional problems every time it loses a good cast member and. With him or her goes a bunch of trademark sketches that the audience has grown to know and love.
The fact is that people love consistency in comedy. Not that people want to hear the same joke all the time but given the choice between seeing the same comedian that you died laughing at last time or a brand new one you’ve never heard of, odds are you’ll pick the old comedian. I watch re-runs of Seinfeld all the time because I know they’re guaranteed to make laugh, even though they’re twenty years old. Viewers came to trust that Dan Ackroyd and Chevy Chase and Bill Murray knew what they were doing and that they could be relatively funny. Then suddenly, they were gone and SNL had a fundamentally different character.
Yet, what viewers often forget is that not all of the sketches that old cast members produced were actually funny. I’ve seen the old SNL episodes and, while there are a few that are side-splittingly hilarious, most of them are outdated to say the least and plain boring to be blunt. While we might come to rely on routine for our entertainment, we risk getting too wrapped up in nostalgia and not changing or adapting to the future.
I’ll be the first to admit that I miss the cast I grew up with. I miss Kristin Wiig, Bill Hader, Andy Samburg and all the others that left since I started watching in high school. But there are only so many awkward situations that the Lonely Island can rap about (they hit 100 digital shorts) and so many times Penelope could try to one-up someone else in a ridiculous fashion. It takes time for new people to get adapted to the demands that SNL places on them, and it’s hard to be funny consistently every week. So hard, in fact, that it’s never been done. Instead of concluding immediately that recurring sketches and old cast members are the funniest and that we can switch off anything we aren’t familiar with, we should start giving SNL a chance again.