Folks, it’s all bad news: The economy is terrible. Unemployment is high. The political landscape is fractured into the most extreme factions in generations. Peace in the Middle East is fizzling. The Yankees are winning. And the long bitter spiral into obscurity that is the end of the once great, cutting edge funny show Saturday Night Live has finally been reached.
Yes, the funny is … dead?
For years, fans of ‘SNL’ have bemoaned the latest new season. “Unfunny!” go the cries. “Lame!” say the naysayers. And years go by, season after season. Fans of the Belushi golden age taunt the Mike Myers era. Fans of the Church Lady mock the ‘Digital Shorts’ era that has brought us the likes of ‘D*$* in a Box’ and ‘Jizz in My Pants’ (is Justin Timberlake really funny or is it just ironic to see him in a funny setting?).
But, now… no. The generational rivalry over which SNL delivered more laughs, was more cutting edge, more culturally relevant, has settled into a sad realization. The SNL of today really is no longer funny.
Are the current cast members sparkling with hidden talents that barely make the screen? Obviously. Kenan Thompson can sing, act, dress like a girl hilariously, and belongs in a forum where his talents would be well used. Kristin Wiig has developed some of the most humorously strange characters in the history of the show (who can forget Target Lady or the all-knowing, omnipresent Penelope, who, she knows, is better than you). Overall, though, the cast is forgettable from a sketch comedy standpoint. Where are the catchphrases (who could have taken them? … could it be… Satan?)? Where are the truly memorable characters and icons (where are you Land Shark; do you know the way to Wayne’s World)?
Does the show still attract great music acts? Of course! If you like the latest pop stars, the show does a fine job of showcasing the talents of Katy Perry and Kanye West and even some of the more cutting edge acts like MGMT and TV On The Radio. But, hey, why isn’t there a whole show of this? If the Brits can get Jools Holland, why can’t we get someone, say, Jimmy Fallon to do a whole show of nothing but musical guests?
But these are simple quibbles. It would be easy to simply list the real problems, with the show, both small and large, but no. That solves nothing. So, not only will the problems be elucidated (in no particular order) but solutions will indeed be posited. Read on…
1) Let’s start with the opening ‘Live From New York…’ line. It used to be that the opening sketch was always a clever, topical lead in to the stock show intro, always culminating with the famous words ‘Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night Live!’ What made this work was the timing. It came as a non sequitur and the surprise of this made it hilarious. You never knew when the sketch was going to end. In recent times, however, these words are simply tacked onto the bitter end of an overly long sketch that strains for relevance. The line may as well be ‘Oh, and by the way…’ which erases the effectiveness of having an opening sketch at all. Solution: cut the time of the opening sketch in half and put the opening line back as a non-sequitur. Surprise us. Save the longer sketches for later. (caveat: see #8)
2) Seth Myers. Dude is not funny. He grins through the ‘Weekend Update’ with no sense of irony. His smugness is not cute and with stiff competition from the likes of John Stewart and Steven Colbert in the news parody arena, the only saving grace to the SNL ‘fake news’ (he doesn’t call it that anymore sadly) are the special guest appearances from the other actual cast members (Seth’s lack of talent is apparent in his absence from any other part of the presentation). Solution: call up Norm McDonald (“note to self”) and pay him twice as much to come back or, better yet, see where Dennis Miller is hiding these days and pull him back. Adding a veteran back to the show would be welcome. Seth may be able to write some funny stuff from time to time, but he is not an actor and without a foil, like Amy Poehler, he just falls flat.
3) The opening monologue. It is apparent that every guest host is instructed to start and end their show in exactly the same manner. They open with the words, “It’s great to be hosting Saturday Night Live.” They end with the words, “We have a great show, [insert name of musical guest] is here, so stick around we’ll be right back.” With little variation, if any. Solution: either cut the opening monologue altogether or mix it up somehow (hint: this is a chance to be creative).
4) Too many beginnings. Does the show really need an opening sketch announcing “Live from New York…” followed by a pre-recorded cast list opening, followed by a opening monologue? Seems like overkill. Solution: Drop the cast list montage. Do we really need to know the cast? It’s a yearly revolving door anyway. The ones that rise to the top become comedy legends anyway. Plus, with the rise of the internet, fans of the show can just look it up if they want to know.
5) Loss of focus. Is it a political parody show? Is it a entertainment variety show? Is it a live sketch show? It is zany? Sardonic? Ironic? Cutesy? There is a evidently a lot of creative energy behind every show, but the use of the ‘Digital Shorts’ in recent years have diminished the live sketch comedy. The politically relevant sketches are on a whole different level than the more zany sketches which overshadow the simply ironic sketches that rarely make air. Solution: Start another show of Digital Shorts. Stick with the sketches for Saturday Night – it’s ‘Live’ remember?
6) Producer Lorne Michaels. The tastes of one person should not be the basis of the material on SNL. There are too many talented people to have one person decide. Lorne Michael may be a comic genius, but not everything he does turns to gold. Solution: let the cast decide which sketches air and which get cut. Michaels intervenes only when there’s a dispute.
7) Introduction of the band. Precious moments are wasted with another pointless intro. Do the guest hosts really care to introduce the musical guest? Do the viewers really have that short of a memory that they aren’t aware of who is playing that night? Solution: Keep the still with the picture of the musical guest and add their name after the commercial. Drop the live intro.
8 ) Long sketches. No sketch is funny for very long and the longer it goes the more unfunny it becomes. Most sketches I’ve seen could be tightened up significantly, making more room for a better variety of sketches. Recycle historical sketches if you have to. Bring back the Church Lady. Bring back Buckwheat. Do something. Solution: limit sketches to 8 minutes. That’s still probably one minute too long.
9) Garish musical numbers. Opening monologues simply waste valuable air time with guest hosts auditioning to be Oscar hosts. Billy Crystal did it best. Let it die with his legacy. A comedy sketch show should not be attempting full fledged musical numbers, period. In Living Color had the Fly Girls and that was wrong as well (though easy on the eyes). But, it’s the wrong format. See #5, above. Solution: Stick with comedy. If you want to interject music, make it funny, not merely ironic.
10) Alec Baldwin. God love ’em. But no. There are a lot of talented people out there who deserve attention. Sadly, he is not one of them. Solution: Ban, ban, ban. Or… we demand Steve Martin back for ten more appearances… in a row!
Will these ten reasonable suggestions save SNL? Hard to say. We are in the age of the internet, TiVo, Netflicks, and iTunes. Does a live sketch comedy show have any relevance beyond local theater? My magic 8 ball says, “very doubtful’. That’s too bad. I hate to see the last gasp of funny.