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Saturday Night Live’s Alumni Problem

Dear TV,

WE’RE TALKING SNL this week, and I’m … excited. Which isn’t a feeling I’ve gotten from SNL in quite awhile. I wasn’t even aware of how much my enthusiasm for the show had waned until I legitimately guffawed at Noël Wells’s Hannah Horvath and Kate McKinnon’s Jessa in the Girls sketch during Tina Fey’s week hosting, an experience recently topped by Beck Bennett’s incredible sketch of the financial wizard in the body of a baby. That was some of the best physical comedy I’ve seen since David Hyde Pierce’s “A Valentine for Niles” and Maria Bamford’s entire oeuvre. So… what gives? Is SNL good again?

A lot of ink has been spent bemoaning SNL’s awfulness over the years, and I’m not particularly interested in investigating the merits of that critique, which I’ve been hearing for as long as I’ve been aware of TV criticism. What does interest me is the persistence of that narrative. If Anne Helen Petersen walked us through how stars use SNL to “thicken” their celebrity persona, I want to think about how the show is dealing with its own image problem: namely, that it’s routinely perceived as being, at best, mediocre TV.

The fact is, the comedy we have available to us on tap these days outperforms SNL on the regular. The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are consistently sharper and funnier than Saturday Night Live. Now, those shows use a different format, they’re scripted, they’re not live, and they don’t require that there be laughs every second, but the point is that if I want a topical laugh, Saturday Night Live isn’t where I go for clips. In its own sketch comedy genre, Mad TV was already making SNL look a little passé back in the late nineties, but — to return for a second to AHP’s post on how distribution changes everything — now that we can stream old favorites like A Bit of Fry and Laurie and Kids in the Hall and newer sketch shows like That Mitchell and Webb Look, get all of Louis CK’s standup for $5, and see Bamford’s entire show on Youtube for free, SNL suffers by comparison. This is strange to say of a live format, but it’s just too polished relative to the gritty low-production-value comedy that’s since come to define the experimental, spontaneous and new. Garfunkel and Oates, anyone?) It’s become the slightly square authority where it was once the rebel, and it’s low-octane comedy these days, comedy that’s a little too glitzed up to be much good, and it’s even competing against itself: you can stream the old (and always “better”) Saturday Night Live on Netflix!

SNL’s position as the Jay Leno of comedy isn’t helped by the fact that its alumni have done as well as they have and have aged publicly. It’s hard for people of our students’ generation, for instance, to believe that the Chevy Chase of Community was ever comedically innovative, or young, or game. When asked whether he learned anything from “established” comedians like Chevy Chase, Donald Glover:

Chevy’s like hilarious cuz he will do, um … none of it ever makes it, but he’ll be like, let me show you something really good, and it’s always like an old dude kinda joke, and I’m like oh, and it really helps me with my comedy science, like why doesn’t that work anymore? … It’s kinda like you learn more from a bad movie than you do from a good movie.

Now, Chevy Chase is the SNL alum extraordinaire: his infamous (second) Comedy Central Roast (which Comedy Central buried because it was so vicious, but you can see parts of it here) amounted to a revolt of younger comedians against everything they perceived Chase to represent — namely, the self-serious egomaniacal sellout who made a huge number of crappy movies for the dollars and not the laughs but still considered himself a comedy genius. But Chase is only the oldest and most embittered of a whole slough of aging SNLers who have in one form or another addressed their time on the show and — perhaps accidentally — degraded its image. Let’s face it: comedy fans these days are purists and they’re weirdly idealistic. We believe in the truth-telling power of comedy in ways we don’t believe in much else, and while that isn’t new — it’s a tradition that dates back to long before Shakespeare’s various Fools — it has intensified recently. Louis CK has disciples.

SNL hasn’t typically honored that priestly tradition, and former cast members have a habit of taking self-referential roles that further erode the sacred character of what we’d like comedy to be. Adam Sandler’s later-in-life turn toward serious acting culminated in the appalling Funny People, which explicitly framed his old comedy (much of which was based on SNL characters) as a hollow ploy for bucks without any regard for quality work. Jimmy Fallon’s turn to late-night hosting only confirmed what we always suspected when he broke in every sketch: he likes chatting up celebs and wearing suits. Rob Schneider. ‘Nuff said. Then of course there’s 30 Rock. I genuinely believe my estimation of SNL subconsciously suffered thanks to Liz Lemon’s world-weary cynicism regarding 30 Rock’s TGS, which is clearly an SNL knockoff and never represented as being anything other than pure crap. 30 Rock’s Achilles heel, in my opinion, is that Jack so often turned out to be right: there is no meaning to Liz’s work.

What I’m getting at is that there’s a certain artistic bankruptcy built into the brand of comedy SNL puts out. It’s always billed as a bit of a hack compromise, albeit with very talented hacks (this quality comes through in both Tina Fey and Rachel Dratch’s autobiographies). It’s live, it’s what we could write in a week, it’s what the host could stomach. In the end, of course, the Famous Person is the weak link. Structurally, the host is a built-in generator of comedic mediocrity: he or she is a contaminant virtually guaranteed to dilute the funnies unless she miraculously possesses or develops comedy chops.

And that was all fine until recently: in a way, it was a version of Celebrity Jeopardy! (one of SNL’s most successful ongoing skits). You get to watch the famous people do something different and burnish their celebrity profile, and you’ll laugh! But this side of the equation, the See the Famous Person side, has collapsed too: we have way more access to famous people than we ever had before thanks to Twitter, fashion sites, gossip sites, deleted scenes, interviews, reality TV and paparazzi. We aren’t starved for the phenomenon of a celebrity unfiltered — LIVE! — the way we once were.

But what — I hear you ask — about SNL statesman Bill Murray? He’s the exception that prove my theory that there are just too many SNL alumni running around degrading the brand. One reason we keep hearing how much better SNL used to be is because most of the old cast members have obligingly faded from view, and Murray has in the interim demonstrated a kind of lifelong comedic integrity: a dedication to comedy as an art form that has taken them into serious spaces without ever abandoning the funny or condescending to the audience. This has retroactively branded their time on SNL as purer and more brilliant (I’m talking about the PR narrative here) and so has death: Andy Kaufman, Chris Farley, and Jon Belushi are comedy saints.

But these guys only got quiet and intense with their funny as they got older, and that’s important. SNL comedy has a certain profile that fits it best, and however muted and prophetic its elder statesmen have since grown, that profile wasn’t subtle or understated or melancholy or wise, it was loud and brash. I’m talking Rachel Dratch and Will Ferrell’s wonderful The Lovahs and Carvey’s Church Lady and Ferrell and Gasteyer’s singing duo and Molly Shannon’s armpit-sniffing and Maya Rudolph’s Donatella Versace and Cheri Oteri’s Get Off My Lawn bits. What these all have in common is that they’re buffoonish and, again, loud. But SNL was tapping into another comedic vein in the ironic 2000s. Let’s call its practitioners the Clever Clan. This is the Seth Meyers/Tina Fey/Amy Poehler/Bill Hader/Jimmy Fallon style. It’s smirky. I like these comedians individually (except for Meyers, who I find likable but totally unfunny and Fallon, an incredible performer but an average comedian) but — to return to where I started, which was wondering when my enthusiasm for SNL had waned — they’re a winky, good-looking bunch, and the ensemble effect was more wry than hilarious. I think this hurt the show. Wry is not a mood Saturday Night Live does well. There are, as we’ve seen, simply too many other people doing it better.

Now, no one says SNL has to be great comedy. It isn’t and doesn’t; as I’ve said, the show’s constraints make greatness almost impossible. But it should be good comedy: you should be laughing a few times a night.

Here’s the sketch that made me realize how quietly bored I’d become by SNL — or at least, how far I’d drifted from an actual laugh into Mildly-Amused-But-Sort-Of-Waiting-For-It-To-End-Land:

This made me laugh my head off. The physicality is SO DISTURBINGLY RIGHT. It’s not a clever meta-joke, it’s an in-your-face belly-joke. For Beck Bennett, who’s new to the show, it’s an instant classic and total triumph. What seems to me really wonderful about a few recent SNL offerings is that the cast is willing to go broad with gusto (and without winking). The turkey sketch Annie mentions is one example; so is the possum sketch with Edward Norton. Aidy Bryant is a delight, Cecily Strong is great (though I wish they’d kill that Girlfriends Talk Show sketch), and Bobby Moynihan’s face is a national treasure. (I want Vanessa Bayer and Taran Killam to do a sketch called The Killer Smiles where they play a couple, the Smiles, whose creepy grins have convinced everyone in the neighborhood — wrongly — that they’re serial killers.) It feels, this season, like there’s less eye-rolling and more energy in the room.

Embrace your inner hack,

Lili

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