It’s difficult to critique longstanding institutions. Over time, aged bodies like the Catholic Church or Congress become so towering and entrenched that even the sharpest criticisms tend to bounce off them or are waved off by defenders who dismiss them as subjective, petty, facile or ignorant. They may not be perfect — they may be near broken — but, at this point, they’re not going away, so we might as well just learn to live with them.
“Saturday Night Live” is one such institution. After 44 seasons, no review of the venerated sketch comedy series is going to sway fans’ opinions. Still, as a fan of the show who’s always been willing to look at it objectively, I think it’s a worthwhile exercise to check in from time to time to ask if the series remains the relevant, trenchant and nimble font of political satire and screwball comedy it set out to be.
The short answer? Sort of.
Executive producer Lorne Michaels has said that people’s favorite era of SNL is whichever one coincided with their high school years. To a certain extent that’s true. For me, a teenager in the late 1990s/early 2000s, the exclamations “more cowbell!” or “simmer down now!” will never not make me laugh. That era, marked by cast members like Will Farrell, Jimmy Fallon, Maya Rudolph, and Ana Gasteyer, will always be a personal touchstone.
But, I also recognize the greatness of other eras, which I ravenously consumed in cable syndication in my younger years. I’ve watched in astonishment at the coked-up mania of the rest of the original cast. I’ve marveled at the firing-on-all-cylinders brilliance of the mid 1980s/early 1990s casts that included Phil Hartman, Jan Hooks, Dana Carvey and more. I’ve loved the strong post-Farrell years where players like Will Forte, Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig dominated.
To be sure, every era has its highs and lows. As cast members move on, some seasons inevitably become rebuilding years. It takes time for a new crop of “not ready for primetime players” to find their feet. The last couple seasons of SNL have been such a period of rebuilding. Despite having a game cast, including a few seasoned vets like Keenan Thompson, Cecily Strong, Kate McKinnon, and Aidy Bryant, the show has struggled to get into a consistent groove.
A given episode may have a standout sketch — recent years have given us hilarious examples like “Black Jeopardy,” “Meet Your Second Wife,” “Totino’s Pizza Rolls” and “Close Encounter” — but very few are capable of providing laughs start to finish these days. To be fair, an end-to-end standout episode is a high bar, that requires a precise kind of alchemy between the cast, writers and host.
One recent example is the March 2 episode hosted by standup comedian and former SNL writer John Mulaney. From the opening to the closing credits, this was the most consistently funny episode in recent years. Highlights include: “What’s That Name?” a game show that awkwardly challenges contestants to remember the names of acquaintances; and the absurdist and uniquely New York musical sketch “Bodega Bathroom.”
One factor in the decline of SNL’s recent output is the continued fragmentation of the comedy. The past sketch shows like “Kroll Show” and “Key & Peele” have proven SNL is hardly the only way for comedians to breakthrough. In addition, YouTube and podcasts have allowed comedians to build a following and advance their careers without gatekeepers like Michaels.
It’s also harder for a weekly comedy show that draws inspiration from the headlines to be funny these days. For non-comedians, the Trump circus may seem like comic gold, but it’s difficult to write comedy when the reality is stranger than fiction. While late-night hosts like Stephen Colbert and Seth Meyers can simply respond to the insanity with jokes, a sketch show needs to create something fresh and original.
That hasn’t discouraged the show from going all in on lampooning the Trump administration. The near-weekly Trump-related cold-open sketches have become the main draw for viewers, who spend the week guessing how the show will tackle the most recent Trump scandal. The sketches have also become a venue for stunt casting with non-cast members like Alec Baldwin, Ben Stiller, Robert De Niro taking all the marquee roles. It’s an unfortunate practice that, while good for ratings, denies the cast the opportunity to develop their own takes on these recurring roles.
Speaking of satire, “Weekend Update,” long the show’s primary forum for political humor, continues to be a huge letdown under the regime of co-anchors Colin Jost and Michael Che. WU segments are lazy, snarky and nihilistic. Jost and Che’s brand of satire is shallow and unserious, full of hot takes that lack any meaningful or clever thesis. It all pales in comparison to recent-past anchors like Meyers, Amy Poehler and Tina Fey, all of whom had something to say and cared about what they were saying.
From a production standpoint, this season has been tighter than the last couple, which were marred by numerous technical mistakes, including numerous flubbed lines, blown marks, missed cues and sloppy camera direction. Yes, it’s a live show and there’s a lot of room for error, but the frequency of mistakes was becoming excessive. Fortunately, whatever breakdown was occurring behind the scenes appears to have been, for the most part, addressed. That said, the sound mixing for musical performances remains one of the show’s most consistent flaws.
But I’m not here to deliver a eulogy for “Saturday Night Live.” In its old age, it has certainly lost a step or two. Comfortable in its position as the Olympus of sketch comedy, it’s no longer an essential, relevant source of humor. That’s not to say it’s no longer capable of delivering laughs or, on occasion, still delivering trenchant satire. But those looking for fresh, cutting-edge comedy, should really be looking elsewhere.