May 2011 23

by Matt Dunbar

SNL? You still watch that? SNL hasn’t been funny since Farley and Sandler left….Dude have you listened to the Verve yet?”

– My older brother, 1997.

SNL? You still watch that? Even you admit SNL hasn’t been funny since Ferrell left…..Dude, start watching LOST. I have no idea how they’re going to end this thing, but it’s going to be awesome.”

– My best friend from high school, 2004.

SNL? You still watch that? SNL hasn’t been funny since Fallon and Fey left….No, Matt, I’m not going to disconnect the Wii so we can play Mario Kart on Super Nintendo. You’re 26, not 80. What the hell is a Genesis?”

– My younger, ignorant sister, 2011.

As roughly 30,000 hours of DVD box sets and VH1 retrospectives can attest, Saturday Night Live occupies a truly unique space in the American comedic landscape. Since the show debuted in 1975 with John Belushi offering to boil wolverines, SNL has served as a generational touchstone with a comedic staying power unlike anything else of its kind.

Sure, popular sitcoms capture larger audiences and occasionally enter the national “shared experience” conversation with a classic episode or series finale. There’s a reason my dad can’t remember whether he left his keys in his jacket pocket or the refrigerator, but can recall with instant clarity where he watched the last episode of Cheers. But sitcoms don’t last for 35 years – unfortunately there’s an expiration date printed on every pilot. Writers, actors, plots, and jokes get stale, and more importantly the audience that began watching a show ages, along with their comedic sensibilities. Here’s hoping the milk doesn’t go sour on Community for at least a couple more paintball episodes.

Letterman and Conan have been around long enough to merit some mention as comedic institutions in their own right. For many of us, a field report from Biff or the Walker Texas Ranger lever was as essential a part of our pre-sleep routine as milk, cookies, and an unsafe dosage of Ambien. But aside from a Will Ferrell or Zach Galifiankis guest appearance, when was the last time you talked about Letterman or Conan with a friend, or watched a segment over and over again online because you couldn’t stop laughing? As innovative as they are, both shows have settled into a degree of comedic predictability and lack cross-generational relevance. (Note: if you’re watching Leno, which I doubt you are if you can read, please stop here and return to your MSN homepage. Also, burn all your According to Jim DVD’s immediately).

In an increasingly fragmented media market where comedy has become as nicheified as my “new wave Belgian World War I animated noir” Netflix recommendations, SNL stands alone as the last remaining television show capable of both reflecting national mood and capturing its Blackberry-addled attention. One need look no further than Tina Fey’s 2008 Palin impersonation, or the Samberg/Timberlake “Dick in a Box” digital short to make the case that despite 35 years of rust, SNL is still relevant.

Aside from that brief period in college when I discovered what gin was, I’ve devoted my Saturday 11:30-1 slot fairly consistently to SNL precisely for that reason. And over that period, I’ve realized the secret to the show’s continued success: the implicit bond cast members make with each generation that grows up watching it (or at least the members of that generation with nothing else to do on the weekend).

The Gen X crowd will always associate its youth with the Farley, Sandler, Myers and Carvey years, which by their account will always be considered SNL‘s peak (it’s tough to argue against this). The easiest way to guess the age of an American male is to ask him his favorite SNL skit. If he responds with this or this, you can rest assured that that next twenty minutes of your life will be spent talking about the Pixies.

My generation of Reagan babies will be wedded for eternity to Ferrell, who carried the show through some of its leaner times with sheer brilliance and fearlessness. Arguably no one has had a bigger impact on the sense of humor of anyone born in the ‘80s than Ferrell, for better (Anchorman) or worse (Semi-Pro). There will always be something about him, Tracy Morgan, Chris Parnell and Molly Shannon that will resonate with me, high school, and unhealthy amounts of Code Red Mountain Dew. To this day, every time a friend of mine tells me they have a fever, my involuntary response is to offer them more cowbell.

Once Ferrell left in 2002, it took me a little while to realize that my adolescent comedic tastes were also evolving and that my generation’s relationship with the show was nearing its expiration date. I fundamentally didn’t understand the appeal of Jimmy Fallon, and although I was ecstatic that the show was finally showcasing female talent in Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, the only skits I really looked forward to were the ones where Horatio Sanz played an annoyed straight man.

I kept watching because the writing was brilliant while Fey was running things, but it just wasn’t my show. It was at this point that my younger sister began watching, with Fallon comprising a third of her teenage crush triumvirate along with Jake Gyllenhall and Rivers Cuomo. I started viewing SNL as a lens through which I could discern the tastes of those younger than me, and for those occasional moments where the show distilled pop culture or politics into an absurdist art form.

Which brings us to the current show and its fascinating relationship with the millenials who watch it. In terms of raw comedic talent, the current cast at SNL rivals that of any Loren Michaels has assembled for the past three decades. Samberg and Bobby Moynihan possess the same sophomorically absurd qualities Sandler so successfully deconstructed in the early ‘90s (i.e. the funny guys you want to hang out with). Bill Hader and Jay Pharoah are two of the most gifted impersonators the show has ever seen, although Hader seems far more comfortable exploring his other comedic gifts (see his performance in Superbad). As anyone who has watched Portlandia knows, Fred Armisen is hilarious when he’s not forced to play Obama. Kristin Wiig may be the funniest female cast member ever, and the success of Bridesmaids only confirms her Ferrell-like versatility and appeal. Even Jason Sudekis and Keenan Thompson are very underrated actors.

With all that comedic firepower, you would expect this season of SNL to compare favorably to any in its past, even those featuring the likes of Hartman and Carvey and Ferrell.

But it hasn’t. This season of SNL has been one of the most mediocre in recent memory. The only reason I’m so confident of the cast’s talent is because many of them have been brilliant in other outlets: Armisen in Portlandia, Sudekis in Hall Pass, Hader in any of the Apatow movies. Wiig and Samberg’s hilarious moments on the show are almost entirely of their own creation: Wiig carrying a poorly conceived sketch with an other-worldly fidelity to her character (see “Target Lady” or “The Topper”), Samberg creating and directing his own digital shorts which are essentially divorced from the show’s sketch format.

So what gives? A recent show with Helen Mirren as guest host was symptomatic. A cold open with Armisen playing Obama devolved quickly into unfunny one-liners about politicians and celebrities. A recurring sketch called “Mort Feingold, Accountant to the Stars” is simply a vehicle for various celebrity impersonations, from James Franco to the Kardashian sisters to an unjustifiable Ricky Martin. A “Best of Both Worlds” sketch revolving around Samberg playing Hugh Jackman involves parodies of Gerard Butler and Ice Cube.

If you had to peg a recurring theme for this season, it would be making fun of dumb famous people. Yes, SNL writers have employed this crutch since the show’s inception, with occasionally memorable dividends (think “Celebrity Jeopardy”). But the truly enduring sketches – those that capture the prevailing zeitgeist and cement themselves in the hearts of the adolescents that watch them – are typically not of the “Kardashian sisters are slutty” variety. “Van Down by the River” and “Cowbell” aren’t about smirk, but satire.

The writers are an easy target, and certainly warrant some of the blame. The Seth Meyers era has had its moments, but the past season has relied too heavily on Snookies and Charlie Sheens rather than real ingenuity. I can’t help but think if Fey was still at the helm the show would be more daring and conceit-driven. But Meyers is undeniably funny and cares as much about the show’s quality as any head writer before him. Moreover, he is not exclusively responsible – a fleet of writers is accountable for the final production.

So who’s the real culprit? Fundamentally, it is very difficult to parody a parody. The celebrity targets that these sketches aim to mock are already caricatures unto themselves. Creatures of reality television and tabloid gossip with no depth or substance to them already, they are pre-manufactured to be mocked. Thus, the joy of tearing them down through an SNL sketch seems redundant at best and futile at worst.

In defense of Meyers and the writing staff, such walking caricatures are as ascendant a part of our culture (and youth culture in particular) as the Red State-Blue State divide and Shakeweight jokes. It took a tsunami, nuclear meltdown and the death of Osama bin Laden to displace Charlie Sheen from the headlines. Snooki has a New York Times bestseller. How could SNL resist?

What this means for the viewing generation tied to this cast, I’m not so sure. The bond between SNL fan and cast is forged by fantastic actors and sketches reflecting new comedic sensibilities. Obviously the actors are there. It’s just a shame all of that talent can’t go to better use. Ten years from now, when I ask someone my age his favorite SNL skit, it likely won’t include Hugh Jackman. Hopefully he’ll have a favorite.

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