November 30, 2009

What's Wrong With SNL?

The simple answer is that it just sucks. Terribly.

That in and of itself is nothing major. A lot of things suck. Particularly on network TV. In fact, it's not a stretch to say that most things suck when compared to good things. It's Sturgeon's Law, which paraphrased is that 90% of most creative media output is garbage. But the 10% that is good, is usually really good.

But Saturday Night Live has 35 years of mostly good history. There were clunker seasons, and clunker performers, and clunker guests, but overall, I'd give the 35+ years a solid cumulative B. The early years were genre-busting, dangerous, and brilliant at times. The middle twenty years were up and down, but generally reliable, and there were a few breakout performers and sketches that easily stand the test of time. The last couple of years, though, I'd consider sending a note home to the parents, indicating that items will be going into the permanent file. It's been painful to watch, at best.

And you'd think that it doesn't have to be this way. I honestly think that the last ten years has been a golden age of television comedy, specifically because of the quality of the writing. Curb Your Enthusiasm, Arrested Development, The Office (BBC & U.S.), It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Modern Family, 30 Rock, South Park, the Daily Show/Colbert Report, the Venture Brothers, Strangers With Candy, etc. And it's not just the limitations of the sketch show format -- Mr. Show, Upright Citizens Brigade, The State, The Ben Stiller Show, Human Giant, Chappelle's Show, have all done sketch comedy fairly recently, and they've done it well. That elimates format and availability of talent as viable excuses. In fact, there is obvious talent on this incarnation of SNL, particularly in gifted performers like Bill Hader.

Rather than just slam and scream in Internet-speak that the series should be cancelled and shitcanned into the scrap heap of history, I think that there might be a rehabilitation plan that works. My five step plan to save SNL:

1.) Better guest hosts. Obvious. Easy. But come on. I like Ryan Reynolds. He's charming, self-effacing, and charismatic. But he can't carry a show or lift up substandard material. Yet he's Laurence Olivier (look him up) compared to the likes of Taylor Swift or January Jones. Is that really the best you can come up with? I know the performers pick up the performance when a former cast-mate like Will Ferrell shows up, but generally it's slim pickings. Gerard Butler? Obviously out of his element. Megan Fox? Obvious demographics pick. In fact, most of the hosts in the last couple of seasons appear to be primarily "hot" demographic (17-29 year olds) picks over quality actors. Sure, most major actors won't want to take four days out of their schedule, but the next name on the list is January Jones or Joseph Gordon-Levitt? Really? That's the best you can find? Not one veteran with comedic background and timing?

2.) Enough with the recurring characters. It's a crutch. Yes, McGruber was funny the first couple of times. Then you ran it into the ground. Now Lorne Michaels is making a movie out of it. Shocker. Wonder if that flick will match or exceed the lowly Metacritic reviewer scores for "A Night at the Roxbury," "Stuart Saves His Family," "It's Pat," and the umpteen scores of crappy flicks derived from dated-upon-first-airing SNL characters. They were initially funny because they were original characters. Re-running them with variations on the same theme over and over again does not make them more original. It might present future marketing opportunities for wholly-owned intellectual property, but it's just lazy. Familiarity breeds contempt. In SNL's case, it also breeds bad movies. Stop yourself at three appearances of a character, then go cold turkey.

3.) Stop playing both sides of the ideological fence every other week. We get it, you're just showing that the whole system is worthy of ridicule. Obama is as worthy of parody as Sarah Palin. Leave it to masters of political satire like Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Trey Parker and Matt Stone (who also on occasion fumble the satirical ball). Because while they do take shots at both sides, it's still clear underneath as to how they themselves feel about a particular issue. They don't twist themselves into pretzels trying to keep both sides happy. That's the difference between pandering and satire. Joe Biden is jokeworthy. He's not the equivalent to Sarah Palin from a sketch perspective. That's fairly obvious. It's comedy, not mediation or group therapy.

4.) Stop stretching skits out to six and seven minutes. For the love of god, stop. Yes, you've got 90 minutes to fill. The monologue, musical numbers, and weekend update can only chew up so much. But the slow precipitous drop from slightly amusing to throw-the-remote-at-the-screen increases by an order of magnitude every 30 seconds into a bombing sketch. Dave Thomas, of SCTV fame, as head writer of that illustrious sketch show of the past, guaranteed that items would get into shows if they were three minutes or shorter. The writing HAS to be tighter, the concept has to sell itself on its own merits and should build into a decent payoff then fade-out, not inexorably limp into uncomfortableness and impatience. And speaking of something SCTV-related, why not consider more wrap-around concepts occasionally? 2 and 3 minute interstitially inserted sketches that all connect to a larger narrative affecting the show in general? It can be a weird and goofy wrap-around like Mr. Show pulled off, or it can deal with the guest or musical act. It at least ties the show together some how.

5.) I know it may be sacrilege, but dump the live format. It's outlived its usefulness and meant something years ago, but not now. It's clear that the best parts of the show now are pre-taped commercial parodies and digital video shorts. Items that can be edited, re-shot or shot from different angles, graphically packaged, and manipulated a hundred different ways in post-production. Why continue to go live? Well, there's tradition and it's part of the name. That's valid, based on 34 prior years of practice, but that doesn't mean the results are the same as they were 30 years ago. They're obviously not. And that's a by-product of the working processes in effect. According to interviews with former head writer Tina Fey, during a show week, between 9:00 p.m. Tuesday night and 7:00 a.m. Wednesday morning, anywhere from 40 to 50 scripts are written, most of which will not be broadcast. That's an insane pressure cooker, unless you are doing prodigious amounts of cocaine, methamphetamines and caffeine, you've given up or disintegrated a normal family life, and/or you know by heart and practice the same derivative shit that Lorne Michaels tends to like and you pump it out with slight variations like a Pez dispenser. After this process results in a voluminous batch of mediocrity (is anyone really proud of an effort done during an all-nighter? Myself, I did it just to get stuff done, and because I was a procrastinator, not because I excelled without REM sleep -- shout out to Jolt Cola), it then gets picked over, then reviewed and potentially selected via script committee, then re-written by a team, then re-reviewed, then blocked out, rehearsed, and performed. Committees are the greatest impediment to creativity since a bunch of French cavemen reworked and re-introduced variations on cave murals for the forgotten if influential gatherer demographic in Lascaux. Bureaucracy smothers innovation. Etc., etc., etc. The fact is that it's not the seventies anymore. Banging production interns in conference rooms while smoking pot to come down from big coke binges just isn't cool in the workplace. It just isn't. And "live" isn't dangerous anymore. Sure, someone may drop an "f" bomb occasionally, or rip up a picture of the Pope, but I have HBO. I'm not getting on the rotary phone to Mabel to ask if she just saw what I think I saw. Like most people, I didn't care about Janet Jackson's nipple, I only cared about the federal overreach and overreaction that developed as a result. Shock is a relative concept, and almost thirty years of full frontal pay cable has marginalized shock to the point of non-existence. The business model is outmoded, SNL. The advantages you had are no longer, the selling points that made you relevant have expired.

Tradition keeps most people watching Saturday Night Live. You remember the great performers, and entertaining characters and sketches, and the nostalgia provides a warm blanket of good will. But that good will can only last so long, and has probably extinguished for most people. Kill the golden goose if need be, and cancel the show, but I think there's enough remediation options to save the franchise, at least in a form slightly better than its awful existence as a brain-numbing promotional and marketing vehicle.


  1. That's a dead-on assessment, in my opinion. I definitely lean more towards the scorched-earth solution, though.

  2. SNL should hire you! Great analysis and way to call out Lorne. He needs to fire himself to save the show.