Sunday, February 15, 2015

Saturday Night Live

When my parents bought a VCR back in 1978... or was it 1979?... one of the first things we did was tape a lot of PBS Masterpiece Theater shows, because MOM had control of the house dammit and nothing was getting in the way of her All Creatures Great and Small.

But we sons had the option to get Saturday Night Live recorded to our amusement, and that helped keep up appraised of the wild and crazy skits until we were old enough - about 12ish - to stay up late on our own to watch.

It's slightly amazing that the show is still chugging along 40 years after its debut in 1975.  Part of the reason is that the show works as an ensemble, it is not tied to one person, although one person or duo can tie everybody together to an era like no other.  Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy, Phil Hartman, Darrell Hammond, Will Ferrell, Tina Fey...  Eddie Murphy in particular became a superstar straight out of SNL, unlike any of the others.  Like Bill Simmons notes in his Grantland article about Murphy, I too watched the bit where Eddie mocks Stevie Wonder, and felt the same way about watching LIVE a classic moment that millions of others were seeing.

Over on the Salon site, that sharing among fellow viewers is argued as the main reason SNL remains on the air even decades after so many other skit shows - In Living Color, MAD TV, various others that barely lasted a season - faded into history.  Mostly because those shows encircled a key player or team - Living Color in particular revolved around the Wayans family - and when those players left, the shows couldn't continue.  SNL was one of the firsts to exist without revolving around a singular talent (even though a singular talent would rise to dominance over a 3-5 year period), taking from the variety act shows of Ed Sullivan and merging it with the improv and satire of underground stage comedy, and people keep tuning in because, God help us, we want to be there watching when something brilliant - More Cowbell! Lazy Sunday! - happens.  As Sonia Saraiya writes:

Saturday Night Live’s finest moments have a way of becoming instant history, meaning that we’re instantly nostalgic for them. And that’s because when we witness them, we sort of all feel like we were there for it, that we witnessed it firsthand. It doesn't have to be good, honestly, because the point is that we showed up—the bad moments sometimes just give you more to talk about.
I’m of the opinion—as is Gary Susman at MovieFone—that SNL has gotten way, way too safe as it’s aged, mostly because its star showrunner, talent scout and occasional on-screen presence Lorne Michaels has aged along with it. That’s left the show vulnerable to other shows that also rely on our sense of togetherness—The Daily Show with Jon Stewart being the best example. I’d love to see Saturday Night Live take a lot more risks, to get not-safe-for-work, to take advantage of its timeslot and its storied history to say something really provocative...
 ...Live television is so fundamentally exciting to watch—it’s a thrill knowing that it is happening now, and that you, as an audience member, are a part of it. But sports are a competition played on a field; awards shows are glorified industry events. It’s only stuff like Saturday Night Live that really talks back to its audience, that looks into the cameras and literally says “goodnight.” As it is now, “SNL” squanders something very precious—the opportunity to be on everyone’s TV, unvarnished, unedited and in a bad wig, making the rest of us laugh. Its very presence. If the show isn’t careful, even though it is the last/only live variety show we have, it may find itself replaced.
But I do hope that we are never without some version of Saturday Night Live—of the closest thing we have to all of America attending the same play. We have fascination and disdain for SNL, yes—at its inconsistency, its former glory, its cast members breaking character to start snickering during a bit. But at least we have it, together, and that is something.
There are a lot of memories for me watching SNL back when I could - when I was young enough to stay up late and not suffer for it.  I remember turning on the show one night in 2005, just no reason why, did it not realizing it was a new episode that night, and happened to turn it on just as "Lazy Sunday" started playing on the show.

By the end of the clip, I knew I had watched one of those Big Moments, when Saturday Night Live hit the home run, making a cultural and historical milestone around which the show could stagger on for another five years. It reminded me of the times back in 1992, during the Presidential primaries and campaigns, when Dana Carvey and Phil Hartman teamed up for some of the greatest political satire I've ever seen (and this is with SNL bringing in solid satire nearly every 4 year Presidential cycle).

We still tune in for those moments.

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