By: Scott Davis - WSS Associate Television Critic
In a sketch from 1986 lampooning Star Trek convention attendees, William Shatner tells the crowd “Get a life, will you, people?” I would offer up that SNL isn’t “just a TV show.” All you need to do is find the first episode they did after the 9-11-01, broadcast on 9-26-01.
Currently on VH1 Classic, a Saturday Night Live marathon is in progress, showing episodes from all 40 seasons as the anniversary special approaches on February 15th. As with “The Simpsons” marathon from last year, there are bound to be countless articles examining SNL's place in the North American cultural encyclopedia. Well, here's a manifesto from someone you know, because too many thoughts are bouncing around my head as it tries to absorb just how much of this show I have watched. And since I somehow have already recorded most of the episodes they’re showing in the marathon, I’ve got some extra time on my hands.
Watching SNL over this many years is about like following your favorite sports team: Players of varying talent levels come and go, there are good seasons and bad seasons, and once in a while, something unpredictable and memorable occurs that you were lucky enough to witness.
As a young one, The Muppet Show was probably my introduction to variety shows. SCTV (Second City Television) was big in Canada at the time and I saw some of those episodes too. For some reason, they clicked with me. Being familiar with the “Airplane!” movies didn’t hurt. It all flows from the same river.
The first exposure I got to SNL was when it was on in place of Saturday Night’s Main Event, as produced by the (then known as) World Wrestling Federation. Precious VHS recording space was set aside for Hulk Hogan, Ricky Steamboat and Randy Savage over Randy Quaid, Jon Lovitz and Dennis Miller. In those days, there was no Internet, much less YouTube. TV shows not immortalized on VHS tapes were not easily accessible elsewhere and SNL did not put out home video collections until the late 90’s. It seemed like a grown-up show and I wasn’t interested.
Then I saw the movie "Three Amigos", a project of SNL creator and executive producer Lorne Michaels. It featured several actors with SNL ties as hosts or cast members. Around the same time, my family visited friends in Georgia who had a VHS copy of a "Best of SNL" special which included virtually all of the iconic 70's and some 80's sketches. I watched it several times over. I was sold.
The Muppet Show was out. SNL took over.
Fast forward a few years and SNL turned 15. They aired an anniversary special that was nothing short of life changing for me at the time. In a span of a couple hours, they covered a decade and a half of significant comedy and musical acts. It was quite the crash course in music, actors and actresses for someone not yet in high school. I re-watched it several times with my father asking him who people were who I didn’t know already. For years afterward, I would recognize songs, people and references to SNL in countless movies and TV shows. It was like SNL was the foundation of pop culture and you were missing out if you missed it.
Eventually, SNL took over for SNME in the VHS library. The WWF was less important than episodes with Rob Lowe, Chris Evert, and Tom Hanks.
Which brings me to the elephant in the room. How many times have you heard (or said) this:
"SNL isn't as funny as it used to be."
Guess what year that gem of critical analysis is from? The answer: every year since 1975. Generally, people point to the 70's as the show's "Golden Era". Well of course it was, when you consider that it was ahead of its time, they had no prior casts to be compared to, there wasn't much else like it on network, cable or satellite TV, and most people who say that, probably base it on the great sketches they like, while not remembering the mediocre or bad sketches.
I've seen some of the entire shows from the 70's thanks to the release of the complete first 5 seasons on DVD. Not to spoil it, but SOME ARE ABSOLUTELY AWFUL. The ratio of memorable sketch to average sketches varies each year, but I would estimate it’s about 1 out of 10, and always has been. For every Coneheads, Blues Brothers and Roseanne Roseannadanna, there were many more forgettable entries such as Land of Gorch, "New Dad" commercials and Albert Brooks' short films. Keep in mind this was a late night, 90-minute program, a format which a few years earlier Johnny Carson had jettisoned due to its unsustainability. Rather than reduce it to a 60-minute show, there was a point at which SNL was accepting "viewer submissions" of short films to help fill the time. Does this maybe indicate that less-than-perfect sketches and by extension, episodes, made it to air? Definitely.
Try to imagine something: put together a cast of a sketch comedy show and hire only established TV and movie stars. Impossible, right? SNL has done it, however, on several occasions over 40 years, only in reverse order. That's why the shows of yesteryear seem so much "better" than now: look at all those established stars in the episodes from 10-15 years ago. "Oh right, that guy/gal used to be on this show.”
There's a reason that many cast members have career arcs that outdo many of the hosts appearing alongside them: many of them are talent on the way up, and the show is consistently good from year to year. But more on that determination later.
“I watched SNL last week. I don’t know anyone on the show and it wasn’t funny.”
Hey genius, each season has peaks and valleys, just like each show has good sketches, average and bad. What did you tune in and expect to see? A rerun from 1979? 1992? 2005? Those are only good because many old episodes are like a fine wine, they get better with age. The only difference is that over time, you forgot about the bad ones and remember only the good. You’re crazy if you tune in today (or to any FULL episode, ever) expecting every single episode to be an all-star collection of great, memorable sketches. Does your favorite sports team win every game? Have more wins than losses every year? Of course not. Is there any other show held to this standard? I think every run of every TV show has a wide range of episodes, why would SNL be any different? Without the bad times, how else would the glory days mean so much to us? But you keep watching because it’s your favorite sport/team.
I did not develop a sense of appreciation for the peaks and valleys of the show in the early 90's. Several episodes I recorded are missing some sketches. I would frequently back up and record over portions of the show if I did not like them immediately. I am too embarrassed to admit which ones they were. I would have been better served recording each episode in their entirety. Nonetheless, I kept recording every live and rerun episode I could get my hands on. This show is one of my “teams” and the only way I’ll stop watching at this point is if they cancel it. Obsessive? Maybe. But I don’t watch too many other shows in their entirety. The only ones I can say match my episode percentage would be “30 Rock”, “24” or the first 9 seasons of “The Simpsons.”
Eventually, there was a 25th anniversary special. That night, Chris Rock summed up the careers of several people in attendance quite well: “Some of the worst movies ever made were made by people in this room.” It featured segments which covered the 1990's, the first decade which I felt I could expertly recall most of the episodes.
For all of the obsessive recording disorder I was experiencing. I was disappointed that I missed several of the rare, unrepeatable moments on SNL in the 90’s, namely the Sinead O’Connor incident and Martin Lawrence’s 1994 monologue. I did however, manage to record on two separate occasions (I accidently erased the first) the episode hosted by Fred Savage which originally aired in 1990.
It features a sketch which I’m sure will never be broadcasted again, be available online, or see distribution on DVD. Not because of a controversial element, accidental profanity, or intentionally lacking in taste or humor. It is particularly haunting to remember and I’m sure it haunts everyone who was involved with its writing, production and performing. It was a sketch involving Savage playing a teenage character left home alone by mom (Victoria Jackson) and dad characters. They discuss their reservations about leaving him alone in a house with a gun. They discuss in detail where the gun and ammunition are hidden. He finds both after they leave and begins to roll around the living room pretending to fire it at the television. Then dad returns to the house and is confronted by Savage, who at gunpoint, orders him to sit on a couch. Mom eventually returns and brandishes her own pistol, and orders Savage to drop the gun and go to his room.
Kevin Nealon then appears in Rod Serling-esque fashion as a narrator of sorts, explaining that the idea of the sketch was to show how carelessness on the part of parents in a house with a firearm can lead to its discovery by curious children. Then the dad character interrupts Nealon, who draws a pistol from his suit coat and utters probably the most disturbing line I’ve ever heard on the show “Phil. Don’t interrupt me. I nearly blew your head off.” Unless you want to access Google to reveal all the SNL cast members named Phil, I can save you the effort: Phil Hartman plays the dad in this sketch. In 1998, Hartman was shot in the head at his home by his wife Brynn. She later turned the gun on herself, leaving their children parent-less. It shocked the nation (or at least those in the SNL universe) but has not been revisited much outside of the occasional mention in SNL retrospectives or books. It’s a shame of sorts; the incident was a crossroads of many hot-button issues like drug addiction, domestic violence and mental illness; things that in 1998 were not exactly out in the open.
There was obviously no way anyone could have predicted that this sketch would become so retroactively disturbing. It’s possibly the one downside of casting such wide net of VHS recording. They are also quite a pain in the ass to pack, store, or move. I really wish they would get a move on and release the remaining seasons on DVD. (I don’t have Netflix, are there any episodes on it? Seriously.) Based on what I’ve heard about the episodes from the early 80’s, there may not be a worse era than 1980-1986. Entire casts were replaced, Lorne Michaels was absent, and there was not much of a bright spot other than Eddie Murphy. The show was almost canceled on several occasions and probably owes it to Murphy for its survival. It’s refreshing to see him willing to return to SNL for the upcoming 40th anniversary show.
Which brings me to the reason I thought to write this. Considering the 19-day marathon of episodes is progressing in reverse order and I have most episodes between 2001 and 2015 already, I’ve been able to watch them on TV while reflecting on what there is left to experience with this show, because it probably won’t be on forever.
#5 - What will be the next fall-over funny, immediately classic moment? There’s no way to quantify it, but you’ll know it when it happens. I mean something on the level of Dan Aykroyd’s plumber crack, “down by the river” or “more cowbell”.
#4 - Who will be the next cast member with breakaway talent? You could argue that no one has come close to matching either Will Ferrell, Jimmy Fallon, Kristin Wiig or Tracy Morgan since any of them left. It is possible one is on the show right now (Kate McKinnon?), but none have quite reached that level. Michael Che and Pete Davidson appear the odds-on-favorites at this point but they’re just rookies.
#3 - How about another couple of CD’s with some of the better musical performances? It’s been almost 20 years since the last two.
#2 - Will Lorne Michaels ever retire? Who would take over as Executive Producer? I can only hope that Tina Fey would be his successor. I’m not sure anything she accomplishes on TV (30 Rock is a show you should own) or in movies (none I really liked) would compare to his job. I could see them easily getting another 20 years out of SNL if she were to take over.
#1 - Will I ever get to see the show in person? I have been submitting postcards, and later, emails, during the month of August, every year, since 1999. If anyone has a better plan to get tickets to a live show, I’m all ears. I’ve been putting off visiting New York City to coincide with seeing the show but I’m getting a little impatient.
If you have a DVR or three spare hours February 15th, you should record and/or watch the 40th anniversary show. You might find it to be life-changing.