If You Think ‘Saturday Night Live’ Sucks, You May Suffer From Selective Memory

If You Think 'Saturday Night Live' Sucks, You May Suffer From Selective Memory

With Andy Samberg at the helm, “Saturday Night Live” broadcast its season finale last weekend. In proud “SNL” tradition, the finale brought back a number of familiar faces to fill out the cast, and the Internet-capable viewing audience, in proud Internet tradition, immediately began the Monday morning quarterbacking of the season and odds-making on which performers will return next year. (Things look good for Sasheer Zamata! Not so much for Brooks Wheelan.)

These critiques are always haunted by a writer’s memory of both the great sketches of the year and the not so great — and what’s interesting is that there’s rarely a critical consensus. (There are apparently people in the world who think nearly five minutes of a man pretending to be a baby is a funny idea. Congratulations to them.)

The fact is that sketch comedy is a hard format to make work in a longform format, especially when you consider that unlike sketch-driven shows like “Mr. Show” and “Key and Peele,” “SNL” is not helmed by a small core group of talent, but instead, written and performed by an eclectic group of comedians. It’s a system deliberately developed by creator Lorne Michaels over 39 years, but it sometimes means that talented performers get overlooked. After all, some of the following cast members only lasted one season: Ben Stiller, Damon Wayans, Janeane Garofalo, Larry David, Robert Downey Jr., Sarah Silverman, Jenny Slate and countless others who have gone on to do great things. 

You might have forgotten entirely that some of those people were ever on the show — which speaks to a core element of the “SNL” experience — that of selective memory, something that happens when anything runs for almost four decades. 

A common meme for TV enthusiasts, when it comes to “Saturday Night Live,” is that the show’s best complete cast is the cast that was on the show when they were in their early teens — just old enough to stay up late to watch the show, if they were allowed. It’s a generational problem that leads to parents and kids just not being able to agree on the talents of John Belushi versus Will Ferrell.

Of course, the “kids today” have no excuse for their ignorance of past casts — not only is a large majority of classic “SNL” available online, but reruns have been happening for decades. Beginning in the early 90s, Comedy Central constantly aired edited versions of classic episodes as part of their programming (VH1 now reruns old episodes) and for many kids of that era, it was their first exposure to the brilliance of the Blues Brothers or Roseanne Roseannadanna or “Jane, you ignorant slut.” 

For those reruns, though, the original episodes were cut down from 90 minutes to 60 minutes — meaning a full half hour of material was lost. That sometimes means losing a musical performance, or a few of the extra commercial breaks the live show used to cover costume changes. But it also allowed the show to remove technical failures, dud sketches and moments of bad taste from the public memory. (Though “Miss Pregnant Teenage America Pageant,” judged by Dudley Moore as Roman Polanski, sounds like a trainwreck worth checking out.) 

If you go looking for past “SNL” stinkers, they’re not hard to track down. But like your memories of a past relationship, it’s a lot easier to remember the good stuff. Those who say things like “worst Weekend Update anchors yet” have had their perceptions skewed by the fact that their exposure to the truly bad stuff of years past is limited. 

READ MORE: ‘Saturday Night Live’s’ Worst Celebrity Hosts and Their Worst Sketches This Season

Seriously, you’re really not allowed to shoot down this season’s Weekend Update anchor Colin Jost (who, so far, has only had three months on the job) until after you sit through a full segment featuring 1998’s Colin Quinn (who managed to stay on the desk until 2000!). And most especially, those decrying this as “‘SNL”s worst season ever” need to bone up on their history — specifically, the Jean Doumanian years, which are so bad that no one really wants to talk about them. 

Though talk they might. Our current awareness of “SNL” as a show and as a creative process is bigger than ever. That’s not just because of  Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller’s oral history “Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live,” a mammoth but fascinating look at what really happened behind the scenes. The basic fact of the Internet not only means we can find out who wrote which sketches, and watch the ones which didn’t make the air, but we can actually see the behind-the-scenes in near real time. The show might still have a mystique to it — but that mystique changes when its stars are posting videos about their first year on the show, as Brooks Whelan did for 2013.

Today’s new “SNL” fans may not have the appreciation they should for performers like Gilda Radner and Dan Aykroyd, but that’s because “Saturday Night Live” was never meant to be a document to withstand the test of time. It’s fast, it’s loose, it’s topical. Which is why it’s live. 

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Comments

tomasz.

i didn’t grow up with it, so as an outsider, everything i’ve seen of it has always seemed bafflingly unfunny.

Alan

I was a teen in the 90’s and always found SNL to be very hit and miss. I have actually watched almost every single episode through roughly 2005 (I believe they used to be up on Netflix, but I only see the 2010’s available at the moment). By the writer’s logic, I should like the early Will Ferrell years or late Sandler/Farley the best. In contrast, I actually find the years with Tina Fey to be the best and most consistent by far (she did overlap with Ferrell, but I’m thinking more of her years on Weekend Update). Part of that could be that a lot of the jokes in the very early episodes are a bit dated and I’m sure some of them go over my head.

BIGMIKE 32

YEA PRETTY STUPID TO GET ALL WORKED UP ABOUT,YEA REAL STUPID ,IF I WANT SOMTHING TO LAUGH AT ITS CRITISIZING HUMOR… REALLY?

Kathleen

It had always suck.
Madtv was gold.

Jeffrey Eugy

SNL never match the talents of Mad TV.

Joe Stalin

NBC would of canceled it years ago if it wasn’t such an effective propaganda tool for weak minded liberal douchebags who are basically trained mobkeys luaghing on que.

jake

The only reason it’s on the air is because it promotes a liberal agenda. It’s nothing more than liberal propaganda for dumb liberals.

Joanie

Snl has become vulgar and not in the damn least funny the show sucks and I really don’t know why it is still on the air I have tried agin tonite to find the humor in it again and Nope it’s not there I laugh harder during bowel movements and funerals

Paul Bartel

SNL has never been funny unlike SCTV which was hilarious but only lasted a few seasons. Just because something has been on tv for decadades it doesn’t mean it’s funny. The simpsons hasn’t been funny in over 15 years.

Vasya Bricklyn

I remember experiences with peoplr inflicting an SNL skit on me- sadly they thought it was funny. I remember one was some portrayal of Lincoln and another was some interview with Chris Christie by Seth Meyer’s. I couldn’t watch them all the way through- both were so bad that I was embarrassed just to watch them.

elio

Maybe I think it sucks because it sucks.

thomasboomer

Saturday night live was EXTREMELY funny in the past not just the old days with Chevy Chase, John Belushi, Jane Curtain, Gilda Radner, Garret Morris, Dan Akyroid, and more later like Eddy Murphy, Joe Piscoppo, Tim Kazurinski, Mike Meyers, and more.

Saturday Night was a live show which meant when they bombed they really bombed. But when they hit it, they hit it out of the park all night long. The bombs were totally worth the successes. I mean great successes like Bill Murray doing Todd DeLamuca to Gilda Radner’s Lisa Lubner. Steve Martin and Dan Akyroid doing two wild and crazy guys!!! Hanz and Franz who want to pump you up!

The real problem is that it is all a series of bombs now. SNL production staff or more precisely NBC has not been on good footing with comedy writers for a long long time. If you don’t have good writers you don’t have your great moments. Pay the writers NBC!

Kimberlydawn

SNL was funniest back in the early 2000’s ….it just sucks now. It’s not funny at all – overly sexual, overly urban – not silly or fun, just irritating. But I guess everyone has his or her favorite SNL "timeframe"(well, except for Chris…)

GenericAnon

Saturday Night Live has never been funny nor will ever be. The problem is because it is on USA TV. Things are funny when it reveals the truth. You are not allowed to talk about real problems in the US. People have the right to vote and, per manufacturing consent, people have to be manipulated and dumbed down. When has Saturday Night Live ever brought up real societal problems?

Monty Python was funny because it made direct comments about their society at the time. It is in fact still timeless in many respects. Ali-g, Borat, Bruno was funny for similar reasons especially when real responses were brought out from politicians and others alike. Beavis and Butthead was funny because it made direct social commentaries (yes Beavis and Butthead was funny on two levels, slap stick and their reactions to deeper societal problems).

Things are funny when you are able to voice and translate what's in people's minds but could not vocalize. When you are able to express an idea that people felt but haven't formed the words, people will laugh.

SNL was designed to keep people dumbed down.

kirk

I haven't watched SNL in more than a decade, but I'm glad it still exists. It's an institution, and it gives all those hopeless improv actors in Chicago something to aspire to.

I can't say I know anyone who voluntarily watches tv on Saturday nights these days. And anyway, the rare inspired sketch will make its way to Youtube by Monday morning (i.e. Dick in a Box).

Chris

I never thought SNL was funny… ever. They try so hard with the ridiculous slapstick nonsense. It's just not my taste.

Your argument is invalid.

Bob Lassiter

SNL has NEVER been all that funny. Ever.
And unfortunately I have been subjected to a great deal of it because my late Wife loved the show and forced me to watch it with her, reruns and all every Saturday Night for YEARS.

Sure a lot of great people have come from Saturday Night Live but the show it self is IMO abysmal.
Unfunny, overlong skits, poor guest hosts, and constant repetition of characters and ideas.

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