Saturday Night Live – or SNL – meant the world to me before I’d even seen it. It never screened on New Zealand TV when I was growing up, in fact it’s only been the last few years. And these are lean years in the history of the show. Though I still – and always – give it a chance. I reckon there’s gold in them there hills…I also enjoy seeing the failures, the dead spots, the sketches that fall flat, the jokes without punchlines…I like to imagine what the writers (and sometimes performers) might have been thinking. Was it ever funny? On paper did it work? Did it fall over when they tried to make it stand up or was it born still?
But outside of the car-crash rubber-neckin’ I love SNL. I love it for its legacy – as a breeding ground, a training station for many of America’s great stand-ups and TV/film comedians. You can’t argue with the line-ups: Bill Murray, Steve Martin, John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, Jane Curtin, Chevy Chase…and that’s just from the first couple of seasons. In the mid-80s it gave us – or made bigger – the careers of Martin Short, Eddie Murphy, Christopher Guest, Billy Crystal, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Phil Hartman – and that’s just a very short list.
Then in the 1990s and early 2000s the show unearthed Mike Myers, Dana Carvey, Chris Farley and David Spade, Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell, Jimmy Fallon, and then a wave of great female comic talent including Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Cheri Oteri and Kristin Wiig.
Again – a very short list. So many more names if I had the time…
You hear people talk down Saturday Night Live, thinking only of the failure, forgetting that it’s been home to so much great comic talent (in both writing and performing) and that, more than that, it’s been a place to have pop-culture of the day reflected, to see instant reactions to politics, to showcase the best of contemporary music.
You could point to dull sketches, to silliness and awkwardness, or you could remember endearing characters, the spin-offs like Wayne’s World, the time Sinead O’Connor tore up a picture of the pope on air, or when Elvis Costello stopped his own song a few bars in and played anything else – he didn’t want to be the shill performing the single of the day. It’s those moments you look for and live for. And, yep, you might have to sit through some dullness to get them, but the SNL world has brought much joy and strangeness.
I like, too, the quote from the show’s creator, mogul, impresario – Lorne Michaels. He said, “the show doesn’t go on because it’s ready… It goes on because it’s 11.30”. I love that commitment. It’s publish and be damned. The weekly turnaround to produce skits, parodies, videos – it’s taken for granted. Of course there’ll be dead spots and dumb ideas. There has to be.
I wondered, too, if New Zealand chooses to see the worst in Saturday Night Live – as we so often do with things. The political references are sometimes lost on us, the show was first broadcast here hopelessly out of date too – that sure didn’t help. But go to the online archive, go to the DVDs, find the magic – the highlights. It’s there.
Avoid that typical glass-half-empty idea of looking for only the worst moments. The show, a rarity in lasting 40 years, and such an audacious project – then, and even now – continues to serve up some incredible performances. The best work from Poehler and Wiig, Rudolph and Oteri shows stunning conviction of character. The current cast has a few potential stars in the making. And often it’s the people that are hiding in the cast, never likely to be the breakout stars, offering the finest performances. Someone like Bobby Moynihan – a real talent that guy. Going back a few years I thought Abby Elliott was a real highlight of the show. A gifted impressionist, well – she’s the daughter of the great Chris Elliott. (He did his time on SNL and with Letterman and across TV and movies, he’s one of the best American comic minds if you ask me). But Abby Elliott was gone before long – fired. And that’s another fascinating aspect to SNL – the people that didn’t last long. Fired for fucking up – Damon Wayans, fired within a season for improvising live on air, more recently Jenny Slate was canned (she said ‘fuck’ on a live broadcast, her first time on the show). She’s just offered the performance of a lifetime in the movie Obvious Child, she intrigues as co-creator of Marcel The Shell With Shoes On.
SNL is one of the great wormholes to disappear down – you read the sharp work of Al Franken, find out he was a main writer for the show three separate times. You wonder why Fallon is still goofing off with musical parodies and impersonations on his own show – you realise that was his true gift to comedy when he was a cast member of Saturday Night. He could barely keep a straight face in any of the other skits but he was so good with his voices and musical skills. And there was something endearing about his goofiness.
The impact of SNL is huge – and I’ve always been fascinated by it. By the fact that it could even get off the ground. By the fact that it’s still going. It’s also ‘just’ mainstream entertainment remember. Mainstream entertainment that lurks at the fringes, that – at its best – is willfully subversive, dark, sometimes purposefully destructive. It’s not something that you can judge on a handful of episodes, I like the idea of this as being something you’re in for the long haul.
TV Shows That Meant The World To Me started life as a weekly series on the Phantom Billstickers Facebook page