I saw Edward Norton on All In talking about the 40 year anniversary of Saturday Night Live. I should be clear about my position on this: I could not possibly care less. There are mosiqutos being swatted in the swamps of Louisiana that I care about more. I certainly did watch it in its early years. And I do mean its early years. I was raised by people who would today be called bad parents who had no problem with my staying up until one in the morning. But I always thought that SCTV (Second City Television) was far superior to SNL. This might seem strange because most of the stars of each show came out of the same place: The Second City. So why did SNL fail so much more than it succeeded?
I think the problem was Lorne Michaels — or at least his production staff. Rather than build something, the show constantly depended upon hiring talent that did a single character. The character was funny — no writing was required. The best example of this was Julia Sweeney. Let’s be clear: she’s a comedic genius. I love her. But the only thing that SNL could ever find for her to do that was at all interesting was the annoyingly androgynous Pat. And that is the linchpin to the “magic” that is SNL.
During the first season, the show had seven cast members plus the only person who was truly amazing in those early years, Michael O’Donoghue. Now every time I see the opening of SNL I’m shocked at the dozens of cast members. Again, it’s the “Oh, you do one thing? Join the cast!” philosophy of the show. If SNL is on for another 40 years, I figure it will be an hour and twenty-five minutes of cast introduction followed by a single skit that makes one long for the mediocrity of Chevy Chase.
What really struck me about Norton’s interview was his claim about what a big happy family the people are who make Saturday Night Live. I am at a distinct disadvantage in believing this. First, there is the fact that people like Edward Norton and other stars are about as truthful during these interviews as Bill Clinton was when Hillary first brought up Monica Lewinsky. But even more, I’ve read a lot about the show — several books. They present a rather different picture of the show. It is one in which everyone hates everyone else and is jealous of everyone’s success. They fight viciously to get the better writers to create things for them and to get their own work featured. In other words, SNL is the perfect example of everything you’ve heard about what horrible people comedians are.
If you want to get a good idea of this, I suggest that you check out the director’s commentary of any Christopher Guest film ever. Guest — or as his friends call him, Christopher Haden-Guest, 5th Baron Haden-Guest — is very clearly a miserable bastard. I’m really quite amazed that he hasn’t killed himself. It must be that royal blood — a form of noblesse oblige. Then again, maybe he’s a decent guy and just one season working on Saturday Night Live will do that to you.
Regardless, let’s not make a big deal about Saturday Night Live. In an international context, it is an embarrassment. Is it supposed to be our Monty Python? God help us if that’s so. But most of all, let’s not romanticize the show as though it is some happy place where all the kids get together to “put on a show!” It’s corporate entertainment — moderately funny at its best. And it’s survived because it hasn’t had to compete with Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert and The Dick Cavett Show.
I would remind anyone who thinks I’m being overly hard on SNL that I have a long history of complaining about the show. My biggest complaint all along is that it has lowered the quality of comedy writing in the United States. I don’t doubt for a second the quality of the acting talent on the show. But again, that’s what corporate media are good at: looking around and finding onscreen talent. But at no time did anyone think that writing quality comedy was important. The show had two options: go with the cutting edge of Michael O’Donoghue or go with well crafted comedy. Instead, it went with poorly crafted comedy designed to never offend: the worst of all worlds!