Why do we pretend that “Saturday Night Live” matters anymore?
At least after the first 10 minutes, when any mild satirical bite or sense of surprise established by the show’s traditional “cold open” has dissipated and we’re back in the valley of the shadow of dreadful sketch premises?
I understand that complaining about “SNL” is a venerable tradition that stretches back to the show’s second season, when Chevy Chase was replaced by Bill Murray. (We know how wrong everyone was about that.) And I realize that, as a viewer who has been around for all 44 years of the show’s run — I was a perfect target-demo 18 when “SNL” premiered in 1975 — I am probably channeling Matt Damon channeling Brett Kavanaugh channeling “Gran Torino”-era Clint Eastwood and telling all the kids to get off my lawn.
Thing is, it’s a really big lawn, and I sense I share it with many people, maybe even the majority. Year after year, week after week, we tune in by reflex — almost as if the culture were hitting us on the knee with a little rubber hammer. And year after year, week after week, a pall of disappointment settles over the proceedings like a mildewy blanket. Where’s the anarchy? Where‘s the outrage? Where’s the comedy?
Saturday’s season premiere started promisingly. “SNL” majordomo Lorne Michaels and his writers always seem to put their apples and energy in the basket of that cold open. It’s where the surprise guests turn up and the most pointed political arrows find their mark. Damon was pitch perfect as the defiant, defensive Supreme Court nominee, using comic exaggeration — and not much of that, really — to play what a lot of people saw: an entitled man raging and obfuscating in a manner not fit for the high court.
The bit was good enough to make you wonder if future audiences won’t culturally blur Damon with Kavanaugh, the way you can’t think about Sarah Palin without seeing Tina Fey. At its rare political best — and for me, the 44-year highlight is still the withering October 2000 parody of the Gore/Bush debate (“Lock box”) — the show dramatizes (or comedicizes) what we’re all thinking as our leaders bloviate on and on and on. When “SNL” is awake and cooking, it functions as the national thought bubble.
Still, week after week and year after year, the algorithm holds: The cold open is followed by a guest host stumbling through a monologue that tries and fails to prove he or she is amusing, despite heavy lifting by the show’s cast. (Premiere host Adam Driver did not break the streak.) Then, with any luck, we get a clever fake ad and a series of sketches that beat a questionably funny premise to death within 60 seconds of their four-minute running times.
The “Fortnite Squad” skit, with a clueless dad (Driver) sending his video-game avatars into walls, had a bright idea and some idea of where to take it. The bit about the neo-Confederate group meeting was fairly toothless in its treatment of, um, white supremacists, but the Vermont premise was cute and, I’m sorry, the dig at Boston made me laugh, and while Driver’s not a comedian, he is an actor, which made his crazed Dickensian oil baron in the “School Career Day” sketch an unexpected treat. The rest? Feh.
I don’t care who he’s marrying, there were too many inside-baseball jokes about cast member Pete Davidson. And the show’s “Weekend Update” centerpiece has been a disaster since best bros Colin Jost and Michael Che took it over and started laughing smugly at their own jokes. The cast has some gifted gonzo talents, but even Kate McKinnon wore her Ruth Bader Ginsburg schtick into a quick rut.
The problem is the writing. Always has been. Under the presumably insane pressures of a weekly deadline, the show’s writers come up with underdeveloped ideas and hand them to the cast to vamp with, or the actors develop characters who talk funny or look funny or react funny but who rarely are funny unless the sketch has been structured to go somewhere.
Was the show ever what we wanted it to be, or is late-night nostalgia skewing the lens of memory? The truth is that “Saturday Night Live” began as a rebellious expression of an angry but emotionally spent counterculture. It broke all the rules, but when you got right down to it, it was just John Belushi in a samurai outfit and Chris Farley in a van by the river. Maybe all we really wanted from the show was a good, stoned laugh at 11:30 on a Saturday night.
Yet that doesn’t square with how thrilling it can feel when “Saturday Night Live” gets it right. Suddenly the show feels like it’s cutting through a wall of cultural noise and speaking truth to doubletalk. Fey cocking her shotgun as Palin. Darrell Hammond’s Bill Clinton, a fox in an endless henhouse. Dana Carvey’s George Bush, reduced to nattering phonemes, and Will Ferrell’s poleaxed George W. Bush. Amy Poehler’s power-hungry Hillary Clinton.
The Trump years have been a godsend to “SNL,” if no one else. Alec Baldwin has found new pop-culture purchase playing the orange-haired one, and Beck Bennett’s preening, shirtless Putin is beautifully offensive. What I miss is the anger, the comic disgust, that could sustain and extend the show’s political humor into a larger momentum, and a sense that satirists might actually care about more than an easy giggle before moving on to the next skit.
A new producer might make the show measurably worse, but it also might make it better. Michaels has been running the “SNL” ship for so long it’s his personal fiefdom, and, at 73, he doesn’t seem to want to mess with the formula or risk censure from his controversy-averse bosses at NBC. (The man holds a grudge, too: In the 41 years since Elvis Costello defied Michaels and played “Radio Radio” on the show, the clip has never been made available.)
Aside from the Damon/Kavanaugh skit, the most political moment on the “SNL” premiere didn’t make it on-air. That was musical guest Kanye West’s unscripted post-credits tirade about being bullied backstage for (I think) wearing a MAGA hat. Not that I find myself agreeing with Yeezy nowadays — and after watching him prance around dressed as a giant Perrier bottle, I’ve lost all hope for him musically — but if “SNL” had any nerve, they’d let that sort of raw weirdness back on the show, and then do something with it.
“Saturday Night Live” no longer stands as our appointed dispenser of satirical truths. It probably never did. But somewhere along the line, it turned into a weekly embalming. We no longer watch it with hope but from sheer inertia.