Forty Years of Corporate Comedy

SNLI 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.

Afterword

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!

6 thoughts on “Forty Years of Corporate Comedy

  1. I believe the atmosphere was similarly cutthroat on some of the old comedy shows like Sid Caesar’s — probably because Caesar was himself under intense pressure to keep ratings up. Clearly, commercial-driven television is not the best at everything. (How many good documentaries has it produced?)

    Sweeney’s a great example of how so many talented people were wasted on that show. I always thought Kevin Nealon was a nobody on SNL; he’s done some good stuff since. I’ve seen a very funny piece of Victoria Jackson stand up (her politics and mine don’t agree, but I can still find her funny when she’s talking about non-political stuff.) So many others.

    Think of how neutered Key & Peele would be on “SNL.” They’d be forced to take their a successful skit and repeat it endlessly (more texting mishaps!) and it probably wouldn’t even be one they cared about much. Certainly nothing with bite. About the only biting satire I can remember from SNL was maybe some of Al Franken’s impersonations of Pat Robertson.

    This is another instance where a competitive atmosphere doesn’t bring out the best in people; it brings out the most desperate in them. A good comedy program will no doubt have all kinds of heated arguments in the writers’ room, but in the end everyone wants to see the funniest material out there.

    In how many situations does competition bring out the best in people? I’m not even sure it does in sports. True excellence comes from wanting to do the best job you can do, not from doing just enough to beat the competition.

    • I thought the show did a better job than usual with Kevin Nealon — which isn’t saying much. But if you listen to his stand-up, he does one thing and he does it well. And that’s what he did on SNL. I think that shows like Key & Peele and Mr Show work better because they have the stars and so the writers know that they have to work for them. It is far less divisive. In fact, as I recall, Mr Show was written as a group. To be honest, I don’t know how Key & Peele even made it on American TV. It may be a racial thing where the white execs don’t think they can mess with it because they don’t understand all that “black comedy.”

      Speaking of competitive atmospheres, I finally got around to reading David Graeber’s Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit. Absolutely fantastic. A quote from it is going up later today and then I’ll probably write an article about in the coming days.

  2. My wife has been a big fan of SNL for 40 years. Me, not so much. I’d watch bits on the show and understand why they were supposed to be funny, but then they weren’t funny. I had the same reaction to Al Franken’s comedy sketches on Air America. I loved listening to Franken talk about politics and he was an off-the-cuff funny guy. But the comedy sketches: I understood what he was getting at, but they just fell flat.

    Maybe I’m just out of step with the rest of the world. Like JMF, give me some Key & Peele!

    • It isn’t that I think SNL is totally horrible. It has its moments. But I think the producers learned the wrong lesson from Monty Python. It would usually not end sketches, but take some kind of surreal turn into another sketch. SNL seemed to conclude, “Oh, sketches don’t have to go anywhere!” But clearly, some people at SNL understood the problem. Bob Odenkirk, who wrote for SNL, went on to do the Monty Python thing brilliantly in Mr Show.

  3. And don’t forget the horrible movies most of the former skit artists from SNL made over the years.

    Lame humor appears to be a feature and not a defect of corporate comedy.

    • Oh yeah, the movies are important because they demonstrate that there really wasn’t any depth with the characters. Of course, this isn’t specific to them. Mr Show managed to make a terrible movie with Run Ronnie Run. But even there, the problem was different. With SNL there is a remarkable thinness to the comedy that rarely works for a minute much less 90.

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