I was a bit of a homebody, periodically, as a kid. I watched, admittedly, a lot of television–or, at least, I used to leave the television on a lot when I did whatever it was I was doing. From about the age of ten, the only show that consistently held my attention was Saturday Night Live.
Saturday Night Live, because it has lasted so long and nurtured so many sense of humor in their formative phases, gets accused every handful of years of being stale, with people hearkening back to their own personal “golden era” of the show. When I was a kid, people still remembered the early cast fondly. When I was in college, people used to reminisce about Sandler, Farley, Spade, Nealon. Now, people look back at the Ferrell or Fey era as the “last time” it was any good.
But for each successive age cohort, the golden era of the show is usually the time period that had them coming into their adult sense of humor. Some runs (like Tina Fey’s tenure) are longer running than others. SNL has some chronic problems that traverse eras: the lack of links and the live format of the show make ending sketches difficult; having to showcase unfunny celebrities–often not even actors–makes the writing hostage to terrible execution; and being subject to intense network pressure for week-to-week ratings sends the writers back to the same wells over and over again: recurring characters and formats (oh my god, we get it, talk shows). But for all that, SNL still sets the standard for comedy in the US more consistently than any other institution. And they do this because they have a pretty clever model: have a powerful, connected producer who knows how to make Brewster’s Millions-style blocks of cash for your corporate overlords, and recruit broke but cutting edge comics to write for you at the stage when they’re most creative and most desperate to break into show business.
Credit Lorne Michaels for his choice of head writers who can go out and recruit the people doing polished but creative comedy in the highly competitive comedy communities in major markets. But of course, what we see on Saturday Night Live is rarely as good or unique as what you can see in the local comedy scenes of the major markets–New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. What we get is the repackaging of that comedy for a mainstream audience. Maybe that’s not as pure as we’d like, but getting people to laugh is their job number one, and as any stand up will tell you, getting your average comedy club audience to laugh is not the same as getting a room of other comedians to laugh.
MTV can air a show like Wonder Showzen for a few seasons for a tiny, in-the-know audience. Later, SNL takes the same type of cutting edge stuff and puts it out for a more general audience. Thus why SNL gets sneers from comedy nerds everywhere (not unfairly). But an alternate view is that SNL does its part to change America’s comedy tastes for the better. Say what you will about SNL’s propensity to co-opt the comedy happening elsewhere, at least they’re trying to bring that comedy out into the open in the face of all the Two and a Half Mens of the world.
Besides, SNL has a sneaky subversiveness to the comedy that often can work on a few levels. I’d argue that Fred Armisen’s impression of New York Governor David Paterson is one example, as are the Lonely Island music videos with their pitch perfect genre parodies and faintly gross lyrics.
SNL will never seem as funny to us as we get older for the same reason that rewatching the DVDs of The State is just as often painful as hilarious: it’s impossible to capture the feeling of watching something that seems fresh and edgy just as you’re figuring out what makes you laugh.
The point? Lighten up, it’s comedy.