Saturday Night Not-So-Live

My favorite show on TV these days is 30 years old. Every Saturday night at midnight, after the fresh run of "Saturday Night Live," NBC is showing episodes from the show's original seasons back in the mid-1970s. I don't know if it's always the funniest show to watch, but it's fascinating as heck. The current version of SNL is a sometimes-funny-mostly-not 90 minutes of one comedic sketch after another, interspersed with a segment from whichever musician is rising quickest up the pop charts these days.The old SNL was something different, more like a variety show, and certainly more experimental. There were still the sketches, sure - and, I'll be honest, it turns out that Chevy Chase wasn't ever funny, just smug. But there were also short films, like the one where the director took a camera out into New York piano bars and created a film collage of singers across the city all playing "Misty" in their distinctive styles. And the old SNL valued comedy in more than just its sketch forms -- it gave standup comics space to be standup comics instead of putting them in a wig and making them imitate the vacuous celebrity du jour.SNL has always been identified with New York, but in the old shows the link somehow seems stronger. Or maybe SNL has gotten like New York itself, just a bigger, more electrified version of homogenized America. Times Square, after all, is now home to Red Lobster and Applebee's. What's New York about that?Some of my favorite stuff about the old episodes, however, is the musical guests. Two weeks ago it was a pompadoured Billy Preston, grooving away on the keyboards. Last week, it was The Lockers, a group of breakdancers before breakdancing was really widely known outside of New York.Those young dancers, of course, are old now.Give me another couple of months with the show, though, and I might be willing to give "Fortress of Solitude" a second chance.So I admit that on Saturday nights, I try to be home by midnight. I don't have to laugh so much to enjoy the old "Saturday Night Live." I just have to remember that it used to exist.


devil_fingers 17 years, 5 months ago

Geez, Joel, you'd think that you would have heard my "theory" about SNL enough years ago that you would already understand what you -- not SNL -- are experiencing.

For whatever reason, I haven't really watched SNL this season, and I'll admit that some seasons are worse that others. However, it seems to me that one can't really evaluate an SNL season or "period" until years later. And I'm still not sure how they stack up. But let me just say that "SNL used to be funny, but sucks now" is something I've heard ever since I was about 14. That was... a long time ago.

People only remember the "best" skits from the "old days" because those are the ones that are re-run in "best of" episodes and other compilations. In addition, bad comedy is boring and, thus, forgettable.

This became clear to me back in college. I remember one older person who, during the Phil Hartman era, often about how SNL "sucks now." A couple years later, right after Phil left, that same person could be heard talking about "how SNL is lame now, what ever happened to good skits like 'Officer Miller'." Officer Miller, for those who don't remember, starred, you guessed it, Phil Hartman, along with another of SNL's funny-but-overrated Fat Boys (Chris Farley). Nostalgia as a way of life.

Yeah, I have my favorites, as does everyone. Hartman's at the top of the list (and his talk-show apperances were incredible as well), his son is Ferrel (sp?) (goofier, but without quite the same level of nihilist sneer, which I loved), Chris Parnell, Lovitz, Norm "greatest (meanest) TV anchor ever" McDonald, pre-TV achor Colin Quinn, Molly Shannon, Cheri Oteri, and so on. Kevin "Whatever happened to me?" Nealon was underrated And (some) of my least favorites: Chevy Chase (of course), Dana "How Did I Ever Become A Star?" Carvey, Jimmy "Burn in Hell" Fallon and so on. Tina Fey used to be cute and funny, but her Carol Gilligan pretentiousness is quickly taking her down an ugly road to Camerine (sp?)Mannheim territory.

These are short lists, of course. Even the "sucks" made it into some good skits. Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake's (!) "Barry Gibbs Talk Show" is one of the sublime moments of the last 10 years, perhaps because Fallon decided that, since it was his own starring role, he didn't have to ruin the whole thing by laughing.

So don't fool yourself about the "Good Old Days," which is just another inverted Myth of Progress. And let's not even start on "homogenized America" -- college towns (revisited), anyone?

Melissa Lynch 17 years, 5 months ago

i agree with jilla, i LOVE it when they cant keep a straight face. you never get to see things like that on, say, CSI or Law and Order.

Melissa Lynch 17 years, 5 months ago

i hate to talk about how the show sucks now, so im just going to say this:

the continental

Joel 17 years, 5 months ago

pk: You know I adore your raven-haired beauteousness -- tho I've never seen you -- but I'm going to waaaaay disagree with you on the Oteri thing. She's bad. Not funny. Bad.

The cheerleaders were funny two times: the first time, and when Jim Carrey was guest host.

Michael Austin 17 years, 5 months ago

I liked the cheerleaders too, but I wonder if Will wasn't there if it would have been any good. I loved Phil Hartman, he was a great loss to SNL and the Simpsons.

Sorry Joel, have to side with PK on that one ;)

I just think the show needs a lot more cowbell!!

Melissa Lynch 17 years, 5 months ago

oh, and now i cant STAND that song. all i hear is cowbell!

the cheerleader bit is really the only funny thing the poor spaz, i mean woman, has done. and when jim carey was on it was brilliant. but it can wear on you.

Nick Spacek 17 years, 5 months ago

"Fish blender"?

That's the Bass-O-Matic, sweetheart.

"Mmm! That's good bass!"

Michael Austin 17 years, 5 months ago

I actually had to do research and find the video clip of the cowbell because I heard about it so much!

Everything in moderation ;)

Yea, I can't remember much else she had done, that was it.

Michael Austin 17 years, 5 months ago

I just can't watch much anymore. There are funnier things on. I like to see the guest stars and all, but sometimes it just isn't worth it. What is with that damn downer lady? I hate her!! Some of those skits are the worst I have seen!! Long, drawn out and boring!

Ahh, back in the day ;)

You know you are old when....

Michael Austin 17 years, 5 months ago

Those are funny. I can't say I adore Ben Affleck, and you know I hate Debbie Downer, but the epsidoe where they all couldn't keep a straight face and Downer kept laughing every time she said one of her morose lines, now that was funny.

Is it me, or does Horatio Sanz always lose it?

Joel 17 years, 5 months ago

It's interesting you bring up Debbie Downer.

I remember back in the mid-80s, reading a Rolling Stone article where John Lovitz said the key to comedy is a catchphrase. Like "That's the ticket," or Dana Carvey's "Could it be Satan?"

Some of those things those guys did was funny. But it signals the dreariness of the modern SNL -- the belief that comedy can somehow be stuffed into a can, that if you repeat the formula over and over again you'll always get laughs. That's why the Will Ferrell-Cheri Oteri cheerleaders kept going far too long, as did Hanz and Franz, as did Mary Katherine Gallagher and as did every character that ever appeared in more than three skits, tops.

Then again, it's not as awful as "Mad TV."

And, by the way, I refuse to believe that I've written about this topic and Quinno hasn't shown up yet.

Michael Austin 17 years, 5 months ago

You are correct. A lot of the skits that are a little funny become tedious and horrible when tried over and over again. It is almost like SNL has become formulatic, like everything else. Mad TV is about the same. You could take a year of both shows and make an hour of funny TV. Is it because they don't like to take chances anymore? Are they held back? Or is it just bad writers/comedians?

Bad_Brad 17 years, 5 months ago

I think toreador hit it on the head. Are they held back? Yes. Very much so. Back in the day, SNL was much more raw and unleashed. Today, like everything else, it has to adhere to the PC code - don't offend anyone too badly or you will be tarred and feathered by the media, or, worse yet, sued. I have a Best of Eddie Murphy SNL DVD. A lot of the stuff that he did back then, SNL would never get away with today.

Terry Bush 17 years, 5 months ago

Actually, I think if you watch the old stuff it appears pretty tame compared to what we often see on TV today. We have just gotten so used to being bombarded with bad language, racist epithets or slurs, blatant sexual content (no innuendoes needed), etc. that such things don't shock or register much any more. It's hard to believe that it used to be taboo to even SHOW a man and wife sharing a bed (on TV). Now we think nothing of them sharing the bed and much more! LOL. So I don't think the PC police have gotten stricter. I think audiences have in general had their minds numbed to the point that it takes a real jolt to get them going. What society finds funny evolves and changes. A lot of it depends upon the time and the persons involved. All humor is situational - and what people find funny depends on the situation and their frame of mind. There are actually college classes on the Psychology of Humor.

Michael Austin 17 years, 5 months ago

I don't know LL, I still find the older stuff with Murphy and Belushi more racey than now days. They pushed things more, now it seems they hold back from making fun of a lot of things or even tone it down. I am not saying that the rest of TV is like you say, esepcially when you get onto cable channels. Ren & Stimpy used to seem so over the top and gross. But, I watched the DVDs of the first season a couple of weeks ago, and it was so tame compared to a lot of cartoons now. I can see a lot of influences in modern cartoons to that show, but they carry things a lot furthur now. I would almost have to say that a lot of TV has been cleaned up by being political correct, so they push the boundries in other places, where they can. No, it will never be like the complete fantasy land of early TV again. Most shows are dictated by what people want to watch, which causes shows to push the boundries. Shows like SNL just seem to keep dragging on kept alive by nostalgia when any other show would have died.

On the subject of history being funny. I watch SNL spradically. I don't watch best of shows. I watch some reruns and the "classics". There are periods I find, and did find much funnier than other times. Right now is just not one of the funny times.

quinn 17 years, 5 months ago

No time, no time... sigh.

I agree w/ those posters who have observed that SNL has had ups and downs, and judging by my vy limited exposure to the current incarnation, now isn't one of the up times, but that doesn't mean there won't be ups again.

I think that the original cast and first three or four seasons of the show represent a comedy pinnacle that will never again be hit in quite that fashion. Some of it, as other posters have observed, was a function of the unregulated nature of late-night television in the 1970s, but I think a lot more was show-biz serendipity. Great live performances in any medium are akin to lightning in a bottle, and the demands of weekly sketch comedy are just murderous (as demonstrated by the less-impressive results of most SNL knockoffs). To assemble a cast and crew capable of hitting high notes week in and week out just doesn't happen vy often, and the cast and crew of the orginal SNL were near-miraculous. Sometimes first is best: I'm not sure that any subsequent sitcom has significantly improved on I LOVE LUCY, and I'm certain that no comedy troupe has ever approached the heights of Monty Python. And as toreador observes, it's tough to be ground-breaking when the whole world is lifting yr mojo as fast as it hits the airwaves; a whole bunch of today's "run of the mill" comedy is a product of those early SNL shows.

I think the closest thing to the magic of the original show was IN LIVING COLOR, which routinely made me laugh my ass off. I've never understood why Lorne Michaels didn't sweep up the whole cast for an improved SNL. I approved of his affection for KIDS IN THE HALL, but KITH lacked SNL's magic frenetic pace, whereas ILC matched it perfectly.

And I think the show took a valid hit over the Simpson lip-synching; one of its trademarks was live music, and i think it was an error to abandon that.

edie_ 17 years, 5 months ago

I haven't watched current SNL in almost a decade, but thanks for confirming what I always suspected. It, like everything else, has slibbered itself into a king-sized hole of entertainment after-bile.

But ya'll! Who are we forgetting here when we list the legends of old SNL? GILDA RADNER! She was a character acting comedic queen! I used to have a pictures of Roseanna Roseannadanna stuck all over my sixth grade notebook. I'm going to hold steadfast to my belief that she and Jane Curtain were doing each other, even if they weren't, although I also thought it was so awesome that she was married to Gene Wilder. Because they were both completely nuts and incredible performers! What an unbeatable pair of geniuses. When Gilda died of cancer there was a tribute to her on SNL and I cried my eyes into a swollen pulp. HERE's TO GILDA! I want to see every one of your glasses in the air.

Michael Austin 17 years, 5 months ago

I was trying to think of all the characters I actually like on the show now, and what skits they do. I had a very hard time coming up with much. I kept remembering skits from the yesteryears. The only one that comes to mind almost every time I think of SNL is Debbie Downer, and that is only because I hate her so!

Fowler 17 years, 5 months ago

I like staying up late to watch the old SNLs too. Of course Joel, The 1st season of SNL was different from the 2nd season as well. That's an important distinction that may have been alluded to but not articulated in your original blog entry.

Another way to understand the impact of SNL during its first four years was to compare it to what else was on TV at the same time. If you watch a rerun of Carol Burnett or Sonny and Cher from the same year, SNL will seem edgy indeed. For me, SNL (from 1976 to 1979) was like having National Lampoon magazine on television.

I noticed during the lockers bit from last week that they featured a young Toni Basil and a kid later known as Rerun from "What's Happening". Portions of the group appeared in a subsequent broadcast where they combined break dancing and ballet.

Terry Bush 17 years, 5 months ago

Here here. She was one of THE funniest people (and characters) that ever graced the planet! Nevermind......

Joel 17 years, 5 months ago

Devil_Fingers: I don't remember EVERY Wen's One conversation. Let me acknowledge that you're generally correct, that Saturday Night Live always used to be funnier than it is now.

My point was less about the level of funny than about how different -- and thus interesting -- the show used to be. I don't see standup comics on SNL anymore, and the last short film (such as the ones Albert Brooks used to make) I can remember involved Phil Hartman playing an elderly doorman. SNL has settled into its formula, from which it varies little.

Quinno, DRyan, you're both right, however, in the idea that groundbreaking TV only comes along once in awhile, and that we shouldn't hold the early brilliance of SNL against the current version - rather, we should judge it on its own merits. And the merits are this: I won't make any effort to stay home and watch the show these days, no matter whose hosting -- but I do make an effort to be home by midnight to watch the old shows.

FlakeyT: Agree on Dratch, but every character Rudolph plays is a various on either Donatella or a pop singer. I've never found her that funny. Armisen, I think, gets an incomplete.

And coming round back the bend: Devil_Fingers. Cheri Oteri was never funny. And it wasn't until she left the show that I even realized that Will Ferrell could be funny. She was holding him back, bigtime. Perhaps the unfunniest person, outside of the Weekend Update anchors, ever to be a cast member on the show.

Jill Ensley 17 years, 5 months ago

eh, I stopped reading about midway down, just to throw my two cents on the pile....Weekend Update is awesome, and when they crack up and "ruin" the skits, those are the best parts. Dammit.

Melissa Lynch 17 years, 5 months ago

thank you jester, i knew i was getting it wrong, but i could not think of the name... duh. i love dan akroyd, too. shame on me.

joel, i LIKE cheri oteri. i LIKED the cheerleaders. but youre right, will ferrell totally "blossomed" after she left. i havent watched snl in years, either. i think the last time i watched on purpose was back when phil hartman and chris farley were still alive.

Melissa Lynch 17 years, 5 months ago

you left out the commercials. i think they still do them, but you just cant beat the ones they did in the old days. that fish blender, the boulder breakfast cereal, even the (more) recent Chameleon or the LS420 for Crazy People. Do they still make commercial parodies?

David Ryan 17 years, 5 months ago

Joel -- I had the luck to be in high school during the first seasons of SNL, and from my perspective the show since then has never quite deserved the same respect or had the same effects.

Perhaps I was spolied, but, Chevy Chase, Belushi, Lorraine Newman, Bill Murray, just to start?

My friends and I would plan on being at someone's house just so we could watch.

It might be the length of time talking, but the first few years of SNL seemed as odd and spot on and had the same kind of feel as the first few episodes of Twin Peaks: you just couldn't believe they were putting that on TV.

Sometimes I wish SNL had had the same kind of career arc as the Beatles, or Monty Python -- short, amazingly brilliant, in and out, changing the world.

But then again, a world without Will Farrell would be truly unlivable.

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