Assessing This Year's Painful, Disastrous Season of 'Saturday Night Live'
This isn’t a piece I wanted to write.
For two years I’ve put it off, rationalizing procrastination behind statements like “It’s early yet; give the crew a chance to find its legs,” and “The cast and writers just need time to adjust to all the changes.” Yet the line between cautious optimism and outright delusion can be a thin one. After watching last week’s Charlize Theron-hosted “Saturday Night Live,” pretending that a longer timeline can pull the show from its tailspin is beyond foolish.
“SNL” is now about as funny as Bryan Singer dressing up as a scoutmaster for Halloween. Most “SNL” fans anticipated a rough 39th season given the veteran talent exodus (Bill Hader, Jason Sudekis, Fred Armisen, Kristen Wiig, Andy Samberg, and Seth Meyers all turned in their 30 Rock badges in the last two years). Yet even the most jaded watcher couldn’t have imagined the depths to which the show has sunk. The 2013-14 campaign featured three of the worst episodes the show has aired in over a decade (“Edward Norton/Janelle Monae,” “Jim Parsons/Beck,” “Charlize Theron/The Black Keys”), and a few more (“Bruce Willis/Katy Perry,” “Lady Gaga,” “Josh Hutcherson/HAIM,” “Seth Rogen/Ed Sheeran”) that the CIA screens for Gitmo detainees who prove resistant to waterboarding. I tried to come up with 10 legitimately hysterical sketches from this season and gave up 20 minutes later to teach myself quantum theory because it was easier. Outside of event episodes - premiere, finale, the Christmas show, and former cast member hosting - the 2013-14 season is a comic wasteland.
It’s tempting to blame one party - cast, writers, producers - but everyone is culpable here from Lorne Michaels all the way down to the newest staff writer. “Weekend Update,” once a reliable lynchpin even in the weakest seasons, is presently a lurching, awkward mess. Whatever horrendous Lorne-involved scandal Colin Jost used to leverage his way into the co-anchor spot must make the mortgage crisis seem like littering. I almost hope Jost has HD footage of Michaels fisting a baby seal while wearing a homemade Hitler costume and snorting a Holocaust victim’s cremated remains. At least that way there’s an explanation for his seat at the desk. Otherwise, Jost’s ascension to the show’s most high-profile position remains the biggest “SNL” head-scratcher since another Colin (Quinn). How did he survive tryouts? And then rehearsals? Yes, Jost is earnest and appears to genuinely appreciate his opportunity. But he looks and delivers punchlines like a dead-eyed Robert Zemeckis mocap character. He’s the unfunny valley, and he’s killing whatever enthusiasm and comic timing Cecily Strong brings to “Update’s” increasingly weak material.
In fairness to Jost and his fellow castmates, this crew isn’t exactly defiling a Monet. Cold opens have been agonizing enough to make viewers yearn for horrific hometown massacres that extend their local news coverage an extra 10 minutes. The number of utterly unbearable sketch concepts this season has to be a record. Die, “Undercover Sharpton.” Throwing ideas at the wall to see what sticks is a sound strategy in sketch comedy. Beloved SNL skits - “Bill Brasky,” for one - were grown in the 10-to-1 incubator. Somehow, the writers under Jost’s stewardship seem incapable of churning out even intermittently funny content let alone consistent knee-slappers.
Worse, they’re actually doubling down on terrible ideas. Writers aren’t just going back to the well too often. They’re drawing from a well filled with fetid water and rotted goat carcasses. “Girlfriends Talk Show,” “Waking up with Kimye,” Shallon, Jacob the Bar Mitzvah Boy - these sketches and characters are trotted out multiple times a year despite zero clamoring for their return. Why not bring back Gilly and “The Californians” while you’re at it? You’d need the “Cosmos” dildo ship to traverse the gap between what’s funny, and what the writers believe is funny.
Granted, writing for “SNL” must be a chore in the modern age. Where “SNL” was once one of the few destinations for biting topical humor, everyone from Jon Stewart to @LovesTittatys69 floods the zone with jokes on a near-perpetual basis. I’d wager a substantial amount of money that at least one person in the writers’ room spends hours scanning social media to see if a proposed zinger is already in the ether. Crafting witty sketches and hilarious one-liners on a weekly basis is difficult enough without having to worry about being beaten to the punch by some cube drone farting around on Twitter during a boring meeting.
But that excuse only flies so far. Competition is nothing new to comedy. Daily late-night shows have existed for more than 60 years. “SNL” used to be the standard bearer. The producers have the exposure, money, and cache to hire almost anyone they want. If these scribes aren’t cutting it after a reasonable interval, find new ones.
This isn’t exclusively on the writers. Talented “SNL” casts and hosts have elevated thin material before. Drake screaming “HIT HIM WITH THE WHIP, RAHAT!” 40 times in succession while wearing three-inch shorts should have resulted in an all-time terrible sketch. But the Raptors/Heat/Nets/Clippers/UConn/Kentucky fan didn’t just save a paper-napkin concept through passion and delivery; he actually turned it into a relatively enjoyable experience. Unfortunately, Drizzy is an outlier. Outside of Taran Killam, Jay Pharaoh, Kate McKinnon, and Vanessa Bayer, the 2013-14 group simply can’t save disastrous ideas, one-joke concepts, and groan-worthy lines through sheer charisma and talent.
Claxons should sound in the Michaels mansion when a rapper outperforms three-quarters of his cast with less than a week to prep. Of the 11 newbies hired since Wiig and Samberg departed in 2012 - Jost, Strong, Aidy Bryant, Tim Robinson, Kyle Mooney, Beck Bennett, Noël Wells, Mike O’Brien (a former “SNL” writer), Brooks Wheelan, John Milhiser, and Sasheer Zamata - only Strong, Bryant, Mooney, and Bennett have distinguished themselves in any meaningful way. Wheelan’s career highlight is being tied up in the back of a car awaiting his own murder. Robinson returned to the writer’s room, Zamata started strong and then mostly disappeared, and Milhiser could be sitting in my lap and I wouldn’t have the first clue who he is. Wells and O’Brien are just sort of there, existing in the periphery and rarely adding any value to sketches. Not that it’s necessarily their faults. How exactly these freshmen players should carve out a niche when each is competing with 16 fellow cast members for airtime is a question Lorne should be asking himself in the offseason.
Mooney, a quirky poor man’s Samberg (who’s a poor man’s Adam Sandler, who’s in turn a poor man’s syphilis-ridden court jester), was tasked with filling the digital content chasm created when Lonely Island walked away in 2012. His often-bizarre efforts occasionally yield positive results (“The Beygency” was fantastic), but Mooney’s work has a frustrating tendency to spend far too much time on a joke’s setup. “Ooh Child,” and “Flirty Neighbors” put viewers through minutes of bland repetitive banter before reaching an admittedly funny kicker that didn’t pack the punch it should due to the excruciating build. Mooney and Co. need to mix some sustainably funny pre-taped concepts - movies are always ripe for parody - with their more esoteric concepts.
“SNL” does have a few highlights this year and shouldn’t get overly lambasted for its whiffs on a weekly basis. In sketch comedy, batting .300 during a 90-minute episode is outstanding. There’s a difference between aiming high and sporadically failing, however, and consistently churning out mediocre-to-embarrassing work. “SNL” is mired in the latter swamp with no easy exit strategy. Both the cast and writers’ room could benefit from fresh - and fewer - voices. There’s certainly precedent: the 1994-95 season also featured a bloated ensemble with similarly disastrous results. Michaels cleaned house in the summer and retooled with a comparatively miniscule 11-person crew. A few of them - Will Ferrell, Darrell Hammond, Jim Breuer, Cheri Oteri - turned out all right.
If Michaels is hesitant to swing the ax, there are other options. Attempt more impressions, replace Jost on the “Update” desk, and get a little nasty every now and then (particularly during political segments). Lorne should also be more circumspect with who he brings in to host. Tapping an ill-suited movie star for the gig simply because his or her tentpole opens the same weekend may draw eyeballs, but at what long-term cost to the series? Since hitting a 5.4 on Seth Meyers’ farewell episode, ratings have dropped each week for seven consecutive weeks despite major hosting star power (“SNL” remains NBC’s highest-rated scripted comedy series). If Michaels wants to up the celebrity quotient while booking great comedic hosts, bring on a slew a guest stars whenever someone less famous is onstage. Anyone up that late on a Saturday probably uses social media. Even if they’re not tuned in, they might hear the buzz and flip over.
“SNL” will survive this period. The show always does because it’s an important pop-culture institution. How much of the audience will wait for Michaels to right the ship remains to be seen.
Brian Byrd criticizes comedy writers yet isn’t funny on Twitter.
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