Saturday Night Live

Saturday Night Live is a long-running sketch comedy show that airs live on Saturday nights. It often airs on other nights, parts of it aren't shot live and it's not always funny.

Just The Facts

  1. Debuting in 1975, it holds numerous awards and a permanent place in television history. This pisses off a lot of people for some reason.
  2. The show has launched the careers of several talented comedians, actors, writers and performers. However, at any given time, someone will always complain that the new cast is nothing compared the cast from an older season.
  3. Each show features a guest host who performs in sketches and a live musical guest. The standalone quality of each show is entirely dependant on the strength of these guests, usually resulting in disaster.
  4. The show has been known to parody subjects like current events, politics and pop culture. But most of the time you'll just be watching a bizzare "Character."
  5. Still funnier than MadTV.

Show History

The good ol' boys

In the mid-seventies, Lorne Michaels (a Canadian man who talked like Dr. Evil from Austin Powers) was asked by the producers at NBC to put together a variety series to fill a weekend timeslot left vacant when they decided to stop running reruns of Johnny Carson's Tonight Show. Michaels complied, and went on to create one of the most beloved and culturally significant Monty Python's Flying Circus knock-offs ever made.

Hiring a team of talented writers and now-legendary performers like Chevy Chase, Dan Akroyd, Gilda Radner and John Belushi, the show was an instant hit. At a time when variety shows were a dime-a-dozen, it was equal parts ground-breaking, hip, genre-defining and, perhaps because especially because drugs were everywhere in the 70s, edgy.

When John Belushi looks the most sober in a picture, it's saying something

By the time season 5 rolled around, Lorne Michaels, the writing staff and all the original cast members had left the show. SNL was still a hit so I guess the producers decided to do everything they could to drive it into the ground. After shaky ratings, behind the scenes turmoil and a revolving door of executive creators and castmembers (including already established comedic actors Billy Crystal and Martin Short) Michaels returned in the mid-eighties to save the series. His plan was to rebuild the entire show from scratch... a process that included bringing on Robert fuckin' Downey Jr. as a featured castmember!

The show continued to bomb.

So Michaels was given ANOTHER SECOND chance and rebuilt the show, this time with actors like Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman, Nora Dunn, Jan Hooks, Jon Lovitz and Kevin Nealon. The rest as they say is history (For those of you too busy having sex on Saturday nights to watch TV, what I'm getting at is that once again the show was a hit and has been a television standard ever since)

Ha ha, there he is!

Format

As a weekly live show, SNL's staff has a gruelling work process. Here's a summary of how it all works according to Wikipedia (dictated, not read)...

MONDAY - Pitch meeting with the show's cast, writers producers and the host. The host generally has the most say and input in what sketches they want to be in. So there you have it, if the show is bad, blame the host.

TUESDAY - Everyone ignores their friends, family and the outside world while they write a shit ton of scripts. Meanwhile, the producers meet with the musical guest to go over which songs to sing/ petition them for sexual favours.

WEDNESDAY - Read-through of all the scripts, separating the weak from the strong. The strong are fast-tracked while the weak are shot and fed to dogs. People with poor grammar and spelling are also exposed on this day and ejected from the group.

THURSDAY - Rehearsal and a bunch of other stuff. I don't know, what do I look like, a Saturday Night Live nerd? Go look it up yourself, jerk.

FRIDAY - Sketch writers act like prima donnas as set builders, costume designers and musicians try to make their oh-so-precious ideas come to life.

SATURDAY - Lots of dress rehearsals where last minute decisions get made. I assume everyone is grumpy this day because they've already put in a full work week and now they have to come in on a Saturday.

Each show is kicked-off at 11:29pm by an opening sketch before leading into the opening titles. As is tradition, the credits don't start until one of the featured players in the sketch breaks character and screams "Live from New York, it's Saturday night!" The only exception was when then-featured player Eddie Murphy exclaimed "Live from New York, it's the Eddie Murphy show!" This was significant in that was the first in a long line of poor career decisions for Murphy.

Oh shit, that's cold

After the titles the host performs an opening monologue. The monologues are normally unique to each host, but the following basic points are always touched on: They were big fans of the show growing up how this is their _______ time hosting, to poke a little fun at themselves, plug their movie/TV show aaaaaaaaaand take questions from cast members posing as audience members.

From there we're treated to a handful of sketches that are usually hit or miss. A general rule of thumb to determine whether a sketch will be funny or not is to consider its premise: If it's an original idea or tackling something from the news chances are it'll be pretty good. If, however, it consists mainly of watching a cast member parade around in a goofy outfit spouting off annoying catchphrases while the other players in the sketch have nothing funny to say or do you might be S.O.L.

...Sorry

Eventually, the musical guest will be introduced and perform a single off their latest album. These are always interesting to watch because you never know when a singer will try to slip an F-bomb past the censors or get exposed as a fraud on national TV (I'll get to Ashlee Simpson in a minute). Afterwards it'll be time for the Weekend Update segment. This is a long-running mock news format that satirizes topical events and has been doing so way before The Daily Show made it cool. Weekend Update is great because it gives the audience SNL's "take" on news-worthy subjects in quick blurbs... rather than stretched out in entire sketches with one punchline.

At some point a Digital Short will be shown. Digital shorts are pre-taped bits where Andy Samburg raps or needed special effects and a change in location to make his ideas work. SNL has done pre-taped segments before, but the digital shorts in particular are immensely popular. I assume they're also useful for the cast members if they need extra time to prepare for the next sketch. However, an important thing to remember about the digital shorts is that no matter how funny or well-made they are, they're shown on a show called Saturday Night LIVE. And with the wealth of stagecraft experience working on the show, and some creative readjusting, there's probably NO reason why those GODDAMN bits couldn't have been performed LIVE!!!!!

It's fine! It's fine! It's just....Nevermind! Let's just move on!

After few more sketches and the second musical number, you'd think it would be time to end the show, right? It's almost 1AM afterall. Well, here's the thing, sometimes they have time for one last sketch just to run out the clock; and I'm not gonna lie, when that happens you're usually in for some pretty wild TV. Here's what happens, sometimes a cast member or writer comes up with an idea that they fight tooth-and-nail to get on the air, but if it isn't mass-audience friendly the producers push it back to the very end of the show in the hopes they'll run out of time. When that doesn't happen... oh man. These offbeat sketches run the gamut from hilarious, irritating, occasionally heartfelt and most of all absurd. The final sketches on SNL are a testament to the kind of madness it takes to frantically finish a sketch at 3AM before the deadline.

When all is said and done the host, cast, musical guest and crew hop on stage and say their goodbyes, hug each other before hitting the bar.

Featured Players

From L-R: Chris Rock, Chris Farley, Rob Schneider, David Spade, Adam Sandler

Throughout its on-air history, Saturday Night Live has featured over 100 talented cast members. Christened the 'Not ready for Prime time Players' (Because they're all ugly), they've often exhibited greater acting skill from performing live on stage, week-after-week, not only while in the presence of famous guests but also while enduring hectic work schedules. Of course all this goes out the window whenever they pull a Jimmy Fallon and crack-up during a sketch. These unintentional slips expose a chink in their otherwise impenetrable armour, sending the audience into a fit of riotous laughter, humiliating the actor for disgracing their craft on live TV and sending them spiralling down into their own personal hell.

At any given time, SNL's cast is generally made-up of gifted impressionists, fearless stage performers, multi-talented humourists and, if they're lucky, more than one black guy. SNL has proven to be a talent farm of sorts in the world of show business. Some, like Bill Murray, Adam Sandler and Will Ferrell have gone on to build successful film careers, while others like Tina Fey, Conan O'Brien and Julia Louis Dreyfus continue to excel in television. However, this is usually an exception, not a rule. Enduring popularity and vast riches for an SNL alum isn't necessarily the norm.

See what I did there?

As mentioned before, the quality of each SNL episode is almost entirely dependent on the quality of the guests. Some hosts are so good that not only do they get asked back but they also get standing offers to return each year... you know, in case they're in New York and looking to destroy a week of their life once again. The best hosts are usually people with stage or singing backgrounds, a good sense of humour about themselves, are multi-talented, are former cast members or happen to be Christopher Walken. Seriously, there's a reason he has his own "Best of" compilation set. If you haven't seen it stop what you're doing and check it out. And when you're done that, check out the SNL skit where Kevin Spacey plays Christopher Walken auditioning for the role of Han Solo. Christopher. Walken!

So what makes a bad SNL host? Well, generally it's someone who contributes nothing of value to the writing process. Here are some tell-tale signs of that being the case:

  • The musical guest is bumped-up a sketch or two.
  • There seems to be an over-abundance of regular SNL "character" sketches.
  • The hosts haven't bothered to memorize most of their lines before airtime.
  • The host has never acted before.
  • The host plays themself in multiple talk show sketches,
  • The host is a professional athlete. Seriously, what the hell is up with that? It's like every time someone wins the Super Bowl or a gold medal in something they have to go on SNL like it's a damn Wheetie's box. If I wanted to watch an athlete late Saturday night I'd close my blinds and look up Simona Halep on youtube.

Tennis anyone?

In pop culture

Any fledgling comedy writer who tells you Saturday Night Live did not have an impact on them growing up is probably lying. As a weekly television fixture, SNL has enjoyed cultural significance for generations, providing buzz-worthy bits and enduring caricatures for years to come. Hell, you play Haddaway's 'What is Love' and I guarantee you someone will start nodding their head.

04/08/00 -- Never forget

Of particular note are the portrayals of political figures on the show. Much has been said in the past about Dana Carvey, Will Ferrell and Tina Fey's performances as Bush Sr, Bush Jr and Sarah Palin (Respectively). Is it a sad statement on the capabilities of our elected officials that they can be mocked regularly with such ease and gusto, or merely wishful thinking that our political leaders were as charming and easy to watch as a bunch of comedians goofing around? We may never or want to know.

But as with all things in life, the things on SNL that make the most headlines are whenever something goes terribly wrong. Like the famous Ashlee Simpson incident; when during her second musical performance, Ms. Simpson's singing voice was heard playing over the speakers before she even opened her mouth. She later tried to excuse her lip-syncing by saying her band began playing the wrong song. While more controversial music numbers have occurred in the past, like Rage Against The Machine trying to protest then-host Steve Forbes on air and Sinead O'Connor tearing apart a picture of the Pope to protest sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, they were generally making important statements. Whereas the Ashlee Simpson thing was funny because she was an annoying celebrity who got exposed as a fraud.

And like everything else in 2004, Jude Law was in it, too

SNL's other main contribution to the world is making movies based on their characters and sketches. Because certain sketches barely have enough material for two whole minutes, stretching them out for two full hours are almost always destined to fail. As of November 2010, there have been 11 feature films based on SNL sketches, two of which were actually good (I'll give you hints as to which ones: One contained the word "Blues", the other "Wayne", and neither of them were sequels.) Nobody knows exactly why SNL movies keep getting made, but it's worth noting that most of the time they're made starring exiting or ex-cast members. What this means is that if audiences are willing to put-up with the shtick for two whole hours, humanity will be spared from ever seeing that character again.

...Until that actor comes back to host.

Specials

Sometimes SNL will have special commemorative episodes to show off their best game show, presidential election, Christmas or weekend update themed sketches. For some reason these are shown on other days during the week and may include live performances and interviews as segways into the clips. I guess because these people aren't busy enough putting together and rehearsing a new stage show every week.

Also featured sometime are 'Best of' specials, where standout clips of former cast members are strung together so you can watch a parade of their funniest (most popular) characters and sketches. These collections are often sold in stores and include bonus materials like their early SNL audition tapes. These features are great because while they may be notable stars now, they're shown as insecure and untested novices, underdressed and overweight versions of the people they will one day become. And if you're into guilty pleasures, people conducting the auditions are instructed not to laugh at the routines on stage. So if by chance you consider a former SNL member particularly overrated, you can take sick delight in watching them utterly fail to evoke a chuckle with their desperate-for-approval antics.

Lastly, for whatever reason, SNL made headlines when they caved to a Facebook petition to get Betty White to host the show for a Mother's day salute. Now, I get that Betty White is a sweetheart, a TV icon and the current "ironically hip" quasi-celebrity. But a salute to mothers episode? It's not like they had Jamie Lee Curtis host an episode on Halloween or Tiger Woods on Valentines Day. I'm just sayin' is all.

In conclusion

Saturday Night Live is mostly harmless fun. Sure it has its ups and downs but it's certainly stood the test of time and delivered countless laughs to millions of people. That said, I swear to god if they make a movie about Fred Armisen and Maya Rudolph's annoying Nuni and Nooni characters you're going to find me on top of a clock tower with a rifle and scope.

Party on, Wayne