SNL at 40: The Boomers’ Last Guffaw

I downloaded the SNL app on the day after the Fortieth Anniversary Show aired last Sunday. If you’re a fan with a smartphone, the app won’t disappoint. They have done an amazing job archiving 40 seasons of sketches. I spent the better part of yesterday watching a lot of show I missed over that time, in particular the 1980 disaster season with Jean Doumanian. (Yes, it was pretty bad.)

The app allows you to browse through each season, and then tap on a cast member to show all the sketches that in which they appeared. It’s amazingly comprehensive, but NBC limits use of the app to your smartphone only. It doesn’t allow you send the video to your AppleTV (or equivalent) and no iPad version. So, this isn’t a communal experience, which ranks as the app’s biggest flaw. 

As I said, I found myself immediately searching out the gaps in my SNL experiences, beginning with that infamous season 6. I had already read much about it, and how it almost stopped the series dead in its tracks, at least until Eddie Murphy came along. The clips clearly illustrate this.

With all due respect to the late Charles Rocket, I could only endure one “Rocket Report”. That piece started off promisingly enough with Elliot Gould waking up in bed with the entire new cast a la “Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice,” but each cast member then introduced themselves with comparisons of themselves to the original cast members. In retrospect, hearing Rocket compare himself to the new Chevy Chase and Anne Risley describe herself as “a combination of Gilda and Larraine…” sounds almost blasphemous today. And you would never recognize Gilbert Gottfried if they didn’t identify him.

Thanks to the app and the recently aired special, I delved once again into both the history of the show and all the ongoing commentary. I waded through an awful lot of revisionist history. Yesterday, Howard Stern fatuously claimed that every show from the first few seasons was great. SNL has suffered from impulse comparisons of whatever cast currently in place to the Belushi, Akroyd, Radner, et. al., but these people haven’t sat through an entire show recently. Out of 40 years of show, maybe two years of greatness squeezes out. For all the accolades, Saturday Night Live was hit or miss at best, with whatever cast it had.

I think that SNL spawned more greatness than it ever really displayed in that studio. The cast members who went on to huge careers have largely done their finest work after they left. A good SNL episode had maybe two great sketches, but rarely did they evoke a real gut laugh. Which isn’t to say that I don’t appreciate its impact. For me, Phil Hartman could do no wrong, and of all the cast members to die too soon, I think I miss him the most — even more than Belushi.

On the other hand, Salon and Vanity Fair has churned out a near volume of prose parsing the show’s quality and impact, its ups and downs, and whether or not it has lost its edge. Of course, I think you could go back and see everyone write similar assessments at five-year intervals, that is whenever they have another anniversary event. Salon in particular posted this piece that took the show and its creator Lorne Michaels to task for his age and how that has affected the show’s edginess.

Maybe I was only 14 when the show premiered, but even then, I hardly thought the show as “edgy” — unless you define “edgy” as when a young kid laughs and his parents don’t. Let’s not forget: PBS stations had started to run the “Monty Python” series at the time, and even in 1975, SNL stood in its shadow. Chevy Chase’s Gerald Ford, while funny, had no more edge to it than Vaughn Meader’s JFK. Killer Bees? Funny as hell, but no more ground-breaking than a Hope and Crosby “Road” movie.

And lest we forget, Lorne Michaels is Canadian. Canadians are many things — funny, affable, and polite — but they are not edgy.

Given its 90 minute slot, we get 55 minutes of show. Taking out the musical acts slices another 10 minutes, leaving 45 minutes times 22 shows a season. In between which they take a four-month hiatus. Given what looks to me like a pretty light workload, you’d think the show would be wall-to-wall hilarious every week.

I truly enjoyed the special. Like the show itself, it had its bright spots and eye-rolling moments. Too much went too long. Kanye West proved once again that you can never go broke underestimating the taste of the American public.

And sadly, the McCartney performance was painful to hear as was Paul Simon’s. McCartney just had to pick the one song in his repertoire that he had absolutely no chance of doing well at his age. Okay, maybe “Oh Darlin’” is another. And, forgive me, but Simon looked and sounded like a tax attorney at a cruise ship karaoke bar.

On the upside, I loved Steve Martin. He has aged well. I wish we had three and a half hours of Steve. The Jeopardy sketch was hilarious. The Weekend Update, and Wayne’s World bits hit their marks. Even Adam Sandler managed to display some adult comedic talent.

Joe Piscopo still does a great Sinatra, but how ironic that he now shows the same wear and tear as the Sinatra he does so well. (On the other hand, it made me miss Phil Hartman even more). The clips were painfully short, but they no doubt sent people to download the app. They’re all there in their entirety.

As far as the media’s overwrought criticism of SNL, I’m still amazed how little has changed. Either the media press wants to stick a fork in it, saying it’s out of touch, lost its edge, not political enough, etc. Or conversely, hail it as the greatest thing ever to light up a TV screen, while lionizing Lorne Michaels for his revolutionary impact on American comedy. Really, even at its absolute best, SNL is simply just another comedy-variety show in the vain of Carol Burnett, albeit with presidential pot shots and potty humor.

It’s neither and it’s both. It’s merely live. Too bad that everyone wants to see something in the show that was never there.