Saturday Night Live has always been like this.

Posted by Maximum Fun on 25th April 2008


I’m tired of the discourse about Saturday Night Live. I’m sick of hearing that they’re “more like Saturday Night Dead.” I’m sick of hearing about their inconsistency. I’m sick of hearing about their moments of brilliant satire. Every story I read about the show in a mainstream publication makes me want to punch myself in the face.

Here are some things Saturday Night Live is and always has been:
* A lot of fun.
* Live.
* A remarkable achievement.
* A seminal program in the world of comedy.

Here are some things Saturday Night Live is not and has never been:
* Consistent.
* Pithy.
* Dead. (Possible exceptions: period after original cast, before Eddie Murphy and period after Eddie Murphy, before Phil Hartman et al)
* Satirical.

Saturday Night Live is a wonderful phenomenon. On a Tuesday, a team of spectacularly talented people get together with someone who’s famous but probably not funny. On Saturday, they put on a 90-minute variety-comedy show. That show showcases their talent, even when the sketches run on a bit long or are unfocused. It runs live on television, the only fictional program that does so in the United States. The stakes are high, and even when something falls flat, as it often does, it’s a great ride, buoyed by the best performers of their kind.

Jane Curtin was on “Wait… Wait… Don’t Tell Me” this past weekend, and she commented on watching the early seasons of the show for the first time on DVD. She said they were mind-numbingly boring. She’s right. Saturday Night Live has always been boring. Stripped of context (topicality, Live-ness, now-ness, sleepiness), SNL is a fair amount of boring stuff in between some great heights. We’re pulled along by the immediacy of the show and the skill of the cast and the knowledge that something awesome could happen at any second. When SNL makes Michael Jordan even a little funny, The next morning we remember the winners and forget the snoozers. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

And politics. How many times have you heard from the media about Saturday Night Live’s effect on the political world? Al Gore’s lockbox? Tina Fey’s odd Hillary rant? “Saturday Night Live is at its best when they target their satirical cannons on the oft-absurd world of politics.” Bullshit.

Here’s the facts: Saturday Night Live does not do satire. They sometimes do topicality. The closest they’ve ever come to satire was Chevy Chase’s bumbling Gerald Ford, but even that was more about Chase’s penchant for pratfalls and Ford’s actual, literal physical awkwardness than it was about Ford’s general incompetency. Satire is a representation of something that so convincingly takes the form of that thing that the absurdities of the thing are revealed, simply by the thing being in a different context. It’s certainly a powerful form of comedy, but it’s different from Norm MacDonald saying, “I’m Bob Dole” a lot. (Though that was fucking hilarious). Or Dana Carvey talking funny as George Bush. Or talking funny as Ross Perot. Or talking funny and eating french fries as Bill Clinton.

Here’s what SNL really is: it’s a playground for our most talented comic performers. It’s a place where they can walk a tightrope in front of a live audience with a day or two of rehearsal and an athlete or singer for a straightman, and we can watch and see if they fall. That’s a great thing! Think of the cast of the show right now! What a pleasure to see Fred Armisen’s strange, hilarious character turns. It’s great to see Bill Hader raise an eyebrow in consternation while Kristen Wiig makes some really, really hilarious and upsetting face. It’s super fun!

So, my message to the media (and to the guy at the office who always has an opinion about comedy) is this: let Saturday Night Live be what it is. There’s so much to enjoy.