'Saturday Night Live's Cast Is Just Too Big
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For decades (47 years!), Saturday Night Live has charmed and delighted viewers with its ability to skewer the news, pop culture, and life itself. However, its humble seven-person cast from the 1970s has morphed into a gargantuan comedy monster with 21 cast members! I can’t even think of 21 people in real life I want to see every week, let alone watch on television!
Aidy Bryant! Cecily Strong! Kate McKinnon (she’s too famous and will not be here tonight)! Punkie Johnson? Did you know there’s someone named Punkie Johnson on SNL now? And it’s her SECOND SEASON? And for some reason Pete Davidson, even though his entire vibe screams “I don’t want to be here!”
What was once an ensemble cast working together tightly with a host has become a clown car, and 21 clowns is a lot, even for a clown car. Seriously, can anyone tell me one sketch Andrew Dismukes has been in?
To address all this, let's walk in the shoes of a comedian who wants to be on the show. It's time to dash through what (I imagine) it currently feels like to be a featured player on SNL.
You Worked So Hard To Get The Job
Full disclosure: I am a Chicago comedian/improviser/sketch comedy writer. And being an improvisational/sketch comedian in Chicago means you spend about 40% of your time thinking about Saturday Night Live. Anyone who says they don’t is lying or they're not really IN the scene.
You ask yourself: Could I move to New York City in a day? Could I handle those late-night writing sessions? Would Lorne Michaels like me? Could I eat lunch with Scarlett Johansson or Idris Elba and not spill chili on them? Would America like me? That’s the power of a show like Saturday Night Live. Even being tangentially close to the pipeline makes you wonder … could I fit in there?
Which seemingly makes the fate of those cast on SNL these days all the more frustrating.
In a recent episode (hosted by Kim Kardashian-West), featured player Aristotle Athari appeared in five sketches. Great, right? Wrong. While Athari made five appearances, they were all of the waiter/crew member background variety. You know, the parts no one else wants to play.
This is particularly egregious because the journey to SNL is so hard. I know. I’ve tried. To even be considered for SNL, you have to have a tight five minutes of material made up of original characters, celebrity impressions, AND political impressions.
But let's say you get the call. Boom, it's on.
You'll watch and rewatch Cory Booker on YouTube, wondering “does this guy even have a comedic presence to riff on?” And after a live comedy showcase at your local comedy theater, a curious cocktail hour with SNL writers and cast (they really do this), and an audition on the actual Studio 8H floor that will leave you shell-shocked … if things go well then bam! You’re on Saturday Night Live … as a featured player … playing an assistant to the great Kenan Thompson while mugging for the cameras, hoping you look interesting and don’t get fired!
In my opinion: What a waste of everyone's time!
During the cold open of the Kardashian-West episode, Punkie Johnson (second-year featured player) and Sarah Sherman (first-year featured player and Chicago comedy alumna) sat in the background with the other no-line extras. So, you cast me for this comedy show to do the work of background actors? Glad I busted my ass on that Cory Booker impression. Does anyone want to see it?
It’s A Hard Job With A Low Return Rate
If you do get cast, in addition to spending a lot of shows playing the background roles no one wants, you’ll also probably be exhausted—the job has awful hours.
You’ll be up all night writing sketches that most likely won’t see air. In a David Steinberg interview with Chris Rock, Rock remembers the writing challenges of his SNL days. “Of the forty to fifty sketches submitted, they’d pick about nine or ten. It was a strange system. Why would you have all these people writing s--- that’s not ever going to get on the show? It made no f---ing sense.”
That’s a crazy work schedule for sure, but factor in SNL’s current 21-person expanded roster along with their full writing staff. How is anyone getting any work on the air?
Adding to the “too many kooks in the comedy kitchen” is the bizarre choice in the Kardashian-West episode to debut a new comedy troupe embedded within the show.
Much like Andy Samberg and the Lonely Island, online comics Please Don’t Destroy were featured in a Digital Short towards the end of that show. Please Don’t Destroy adds three new faces to an already bloated cast. And three white guys at that? Perfect. Way to read the room and give this comedic space what it really needed. Please don’t slip on my dripping sarcasm.
It confounds me that the three guys drinking made-up seltzer drinks made the cut but not a fantastic Costco sketch that featured Kardashian-West, Aidy Bryant, and (my personal favorite) Bowen Yang absolutely slaying as the made-up band Glitter Revolution!
In every episode of Saturday Night Live, sketches get cut. But there was something different about this Costco sketch filmed for dress rehearsal.
It was shared not only by Yang and Bryant, but members of the Kardashian family reposted and shared it on social media. As of this writing, the sketch has 3.2 million views—more than double the views of most of the sketches posted on YouTube from that night’s show.
Is this the future of SNL given the huge cast?
It seems clear that if so many people have to fight for screen time, gems like these will have to find new life online. It’s up to the cool kids (like us!) to keep it alive.
Small Casts Do It Better
Here's something important to consider: SNL-style isn’t the only way to play the sketch game.
Take a look at other sketch comedy shows such as Key & Peele, A Black Lady Sketch Show, Portlandia, and the gold standard for comedic gameplay, I Think You Should Leave. What do they all have in common? A tiny cast.
A Black Lady Sketch Show had four cast members in their first season, and for Season 2 they bumped it up to … five. (Lost one and gained two new members.) Key & Peele and Portlandia were two-hander shows.
I Think You Should Leave is a showcase for former SNL cast member and writer Tim Robinson. It’s just him … sometimes. And sometimes it features other actors. Sometimes actors come back and sometimes new ones are introduced. It all depends on what the sketch needs.
With a smaller cast/writers’ room, more voices can shine through.
That’s the approach Chris Rock took after leaving SNL. “When I did my own show on HBO, and we had the pitch meeting, I would make sure that no one would write something I didn’t at least think was kind of funny. If we needed twelve things, I would make us write fourteen. Not freaking sixty! And if a writer didn’t have a good idea, I’d make him write with somebody else. And every three or four weeks I’d switch people’s offices so there wouldn’t be any cliques."
Restrictions inspire creativity. Fewer cast members forces everyone to step up their games. SNL used to be the place where careers in comedy could soar. Now it’s an overbooked flight.
There’s Too Much Attention On The Hosts And Special Guests
At the end of the day, SNL is all about the host. Most people watch SNL to see their favorite actor, actress, model, athlete, politician, or Elon Musk be funny.
One celebrity is fine. But in the Kardashian-West episode, there was a sketch called “The Dream Guy” that featured ten celebrity cameos. Umm .. what?
“Ten celebrity drop-bys tonight on a show with 21 full-time cast members to work with is another indication that building a company is pretty far down on SNL’s priority list,” says AV Club’s Dennis Perkins.
Granted, only SNL can pull off such a spectacle, but is that what the show is all about? Cameos on cameos on cameos?
When functioning correctly, SNL has always been on the pulse of culture, but now it’s drawing right from the arm. Bigger hosts (Elon Musk, Kim Kardashian, TRUMP!), cameos from old cast members like Tina Fey, Maya Rudolph, and Kristen Wiig - those have dramatically reduced the screen time of an already-ever-expanding cast.
It seems soul-crushing to achieve the comedy job that a million comedians would kill for and find that there’s no space for you because Jim Carrey and Alec Baldwin et al are warped-in each week to juice the high-profile roles with star power.
I do wonder if Saturday Night Live is even needed in today's world. SNL was the place to get the latest takes on what’s happening in the news. But with Twitter, we don’t have to wait to hear political satire. SNL used to be a chance to see a celebrity humanized. But with Instagram, we can just watch them go LIVE and get to know them a bit deeper and see what their pajamas look like.
It is going to take strong comedic minds to reshape this inflated show known as SNL, a place that once was a clear dream job for comedians. I know SNL can figure it out. That show has tons of strong comedic minds. They should use 'em.
Top image: NBC