in an article about SNL, illustration of Michael Che and Colin Jost doing weekend update with a downward arrow superimposed
Illustration by Sarah Shin, George Washington University

‘SNL’ Can’t Stop Bleeding and There Is No Apparent Cure

Sketch comedy’s most popular television program is faltering and its network doesn’t know what to do.

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in an article about SNL, illustration of Michael Che and Colin Jost doing weekend update with a downward arrow superimposed
Illustration by Sarah Shin, George Washington University

Sketch comedy’s most popular television program is faltering and its network doesn’t know what to do.

Show business is first and foremost about brand recognition. The world of entertainment is crowded and any person or product that wants to gain traction needs a memorable identity. Like corporate brands, sometimes it helps to have a tagline, and there is perhaps none more widely known in entertainment than the one uttered with perpetual enthusiasm on television each Saturday night. The impassioned cries of “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night” that spring forth from the screens of NBC viewers everywhere shortly after 11:30 Eastern Time aren’t just part of a recurring joke; they’re a signal that the following 90 minutes will be filled with gut-busting comedy.

Saturday Night Live” has been a mainstay of the sketch comedy landscape for the last 47 years, launching the careers of some of comedy’s most famous performers and hosting some of the most frequently quoted and memorable scenes in television. As with almost any long-running show, it has had its ups and its downs, golden eras bracketed by overlooked seasons. Recently, the show has entered one of its less successful periods, and this time it may be harder to get back to the height of its popularity.

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“Saturday Night Live” was created in 1975 under the stewardship of Lorne Michaels, who pitched the show as an energetic sketch comedy program to draw in a younger demographic for NBC’s network. The first season aired with a cast that included Chevy Chase, Gilda Radner and Dan Aykroyd, and within several years it became one of the most popular comedy shows on television. The early years are remembered fondly not only for their star-studded casts but also for their inventive skits, including the “Killer Bees” sketch, where humanoid bees rob Chevy Chase’s home, and “The Olympia Restaurant,” where an agitated restauranteur portrayed by John Belushi squabbles with customers over the establishment’s notoriously one-dimensional menu.

The show remained relatively popular throughout the 1980s and 1990s, though during this period the original cast departed, and the show became less focused. In the early 2000s, “SNL” entered another golden era, featuring the likes of Will Ferrell, Tina Fey and Jimmy Fallon. Popular skits from this era include “Celebrity Jeopardy,” where a bizarre assortment of fictionalized celebrities offer ridiculous answers to “Jeopardy” prompts, and the infamous “More Cowbell” skit, where a music producer portrayed by Christopher Walken compels a hippie Will Ferrell to engage in increasingly more outrageous cowbell performances.

Considering the show’s perpetually growing fanbase, there was no reason that it couldn’t remain popular in the 2010s, yet several key errors have indefinitely derailed the program’s good fortune.

One of the more pervasive issues that began to crop up as the show entered its more recent seasons stems from the show’s casting decisions. The early seasons became immensely popular because they combined intelligent, restrained performances with writing that strayed just far enough into absurd territory to generate a funny premise. Dan Aykroyd and Chevy Chase, for example, did engage in some light slapstick, but the concepts of their skits were often more sophisticated. The early casts were carefully selected and organized to create ensemble humor that worked seamlessly.

The casting directors for recent seasons of “SNL” have not been as tactful in their judgment, throwing together lineups that contain equal parts dry humor, physical comedy and method acting performance, leaving the writers the unenviable job of stitching together scenes that blend these disparate styles. Some individual performances are cartoonishly exaggerated, while others simply feature stylistic mismatches that fail to deliver the expected portrayal of a character. When multiple subpar performances are onscreen simultaneously, the casting errors are severely amplified, making some skits downright unwatchable.

The recent casts often pose additional challenges that go beyond the stylistic clashes of talent, most notably the entrepreneurial spirits of certain members who pursue individual creative projects during the show’s run. “SNL” cast members have always entertained side projects during their time on the show, yet the growth of digital media has created a never-ending list of gigs that members can work on.

Pete Davidson, one of the more widely known cast members from the recent past, spent much of his tenure attempting to launch his own standup comedy career and starring in Hollywood films such as “The King of Staten Island.” In 2015, Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon spent several months filming the “Ghostbusters” reboot. Beyond film, “SNL” cast members often put on individual comedy shows or collaborate with others in the entertainment sphere on various products that take their attention away from the show. Some of these members are the show’s heavyweight writers, and their absence in particular is felt most heavily in the quality of the episodes.

Career distractions aside, the content that “SNL” has chosen to focus on has considerably narrowed in scope in recent years, with much of an episode’s run time centered on recurring political jokes. Donald Trump’s presidency was the most intense period of political commentary for the show, with Trump and various other high-profile Republican political figures caught in the crosshairs of mocking skits and ceaseless parody.

The show’s ratings dipped during this time not only because the program alienated many Republicans, but because all viewers, regardless of political leaning, got tired of the overused material. Not every political sketch was unpopular, as Alec Baldwin’s Emmy win demonstrates, yet the single-issue focus failed to diminish skepticism that the show’s creativity had been all but cast aside.

The several compounding issues that “SNL” faces have begun to create cracks in NBC’s armor, most evident in the form of significant show turnover. At the end of the show’s most recent season, Pete Davidson, Aidy Bryant and Kate McKinnon all left the program. Michael Che, a nine-year veteran of the show and well-known entertainer in his own right, is often one of the show’s most outspoken stars and has spoken extensively about NBC’s internal struggles.

In a recent interview, Che admitted that continued turnover is likely. “This show is built for younger voices,” Che stated, “and, at some point, there’ll be something more exciting to watch at the halfway mark of the show than me and dumb Jost.” The segment that Che referred to is the “Weekend Update” segment that he hosts with fellow writer Colin Jost, and despite his disparaging remark, it is one of the only consistently well-received components of the show. Che is not the sole mind responsible for righting the ship this coming season, but his lack of awareness about the show’s few remaining positive attributes is cause for concern.

The coming season of “SNL” is slated to start later this fall, with a cast that will likely look uncharacteristically cobbled together. Following on the heels of the planned departures following the 47th season, three additional cast members quietly exited the program. Several departures are normal yet losing six cast members over the course of one summer is abnormal in the show’s history.

These changes could be spontaneous, though they are more likely a response to the astoundingly terrible reception of the last season. The first episode of the show’s 47th season saw the lowest ratings for an inaugural episode in series history. The ratings didn’t improve much over the following episodes, and it would seem that NBC has been willing to pursue a partial overhaul on the show’s identity in order to save it. Whether the fruits of this labor are ripe or spoiled remains to be seen, but unless more changes to the show’s focus are made, the cheers of “Live from New York, it’s Saturday night” may soon fall silent.

Writer Profile

Niall Calvert

Wesleyan University
Government

Niall Calvert is a resident of Maine and prospective government major at Wesleyan University, where he is a leader of the Outing Club and a middle school tutor. His interests include cycling and jazz.

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