How to understand Saturday Night Live

Saturday Night Live is a changing thing. It’s not new like it was in the seventies, it’s not a powerhouse like it was in the nineties, it may not be the training camp for NBC sitcoms anymore. Despite that, its still a big dog in the worlds of comedy and pop culture. Every time I hear or read “SNL was better when…”, I cringe a little. As far as I can tell, this isn’t true.

Everyone’s got their favorite cast. Ferrell/Shannon/Sanz/Oteri, Fey/Poehler/Rudolph, Hartman/Carvey/Myers. It seems largely to depend on whenever you started watching SNL or when you were a teenager or in college. So when someone says “SNL isn’t relevant any more”, I mentally substitute “I liked SNL better with the cast I watched first.”

Manhattan Skyline

Over the years of watching and reading about SNL, I’ve come to understand that the show is very much about the people on camera, but Lorne Michaels is the show. The only time the show has been in consistent decline was when Michaels wasn’t around in the early eighties. For the past thirty years, claiming SNL was on the down seems to be more of a sport than a rational argument.

Since Michaels' return, the show is subject to fractal cycles. Each night, some skits kill and some skits bomb. Generally, the front of the show is better than the back; if you stay tuned after “Weekend Update”, you should count yourself a long-time fan, willing to see some weird and/or flat skits, or asleep on the couch.

If you zoom out to look at how a season flows, you’ll again find shows that are really great and some that aren’t. My theory is that this entirely depends on the quality of the host. A mediocre host seems to bring middling material out of the writers and performers. A good or high-profile host seems to bring good-but-not-great material and pretty good performances. One of the darling hosts, like Alec Baldwin and the more recent Jon Hamm, brings the A-game material from the writers and performers play up to the occasion.

Interestingly, musical guests can bring a certain electricity too. Paul Rudd is a capable host, but pairing him with Paul McCartney led to a show that was pretty electric. I defy you to watch that episode and tell me SNL just isn’t as good as it used to be.

Zooming out to look at successive seasons, you see the same sort of up-and-down. Will Ferrell’s first season was good, but not great. He definitely left at his sketch comedy peak, and the show was briefly weaker for it. But right on his heels came the Fey/Poehler/Rudolph powerhouse. There’s an ebb and flow as casts come together, hammer out a few good seasons, and then move on to other stages.

That’s how I understand SNL. Perhaps I’m seeing cognitive biases towards the show through my own cognitive biases. I think it’s still a relevant benchmark of American pop culture.

Adam Keys @therealadam