Saturday Night Live: A Brief History of SNL Being "Dead"

Saturday Night Live: A Brief History of SNL Being "Dead"

During a recent interview with noted satire expert Glenn Beck, Rob “You can do it!” Schneider performed last rites for Saturday Night Live, the show that provided his comedy bona fides.  SNL, Rob opined, has swung too far to the left, identifying “the exact moment” when the show went kaput--Kate McKinnon singing “Hallelujah” after Hilary Clinton lost the 2016 election.

“I hate to crap on my own show,” said Schneider before crapping on his own show. “It’s over. It’s over. It’s not gonna come back,” he proclaimed, ringing the funeral bells six full seasons after the sketch that he claims killed the show. (Someone ought to tell YouTube -- the official clip of the song that murdered SNL has more than 13 million views.)

Schneider is not alone, however, He’s just the latest Nostrodamus to herald the long-running show’s demise, despite its stubborn insistence on continuing to air every Saturday night.  Here’s a brief history of the show being left for dead over the years.

1980: ‘Saturday Night Dead on Arrival’

We can’t say for sure that witty Newsday columnist Marvin Kittman was the first critic to use “Saturday Night Dead” in a headline, but he got in on the ground floor.  The unlucky comics who had to follow Belushi, Radner, and Murray were dismissed as “squeaky clean California types.”  Worst yet, the new show was “offensive and raunchy” (and yet somehow, squeaky clean). The new version of SNL, proclaimed Pittman, was “Saturday Night Dead on Arrival.”  The ax was surely about to fall! 


Squeaky clean or raunchy?  You make the call. 

1985-1992: More ‘Saturday Night Dead’

By the time Lorne Michaels returned to the (still living) show, “Saturday Night Dead” had become a go-to for critics predicting its swift cancellation. “It was the roughest season Lorne ever had doing the show, and everybody came out of the woodwork to attack,” says NBC exec Dick Ebersol. “It was the first time he’d ever been subject to that ‘Saturday Night Dead’ stuff.”

Everybody wanted the show off the air, says eventual host Tom Hanks. “‘Saturday Night Dead.’ How often did you read that by the time I was on the show for the first time?”

After Dana Carvey and Phil Hartman left, say Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller in Live From New York, the old shouts of ‘Saturday Night Dead’ started up again, with one critic declaring the show “a lifeless, humorless corpse.” 

1994: Is Saturday Night Dead?

At least Entertainment Weekly was kind enough to pose its headline as a question rather than an out-and-out death certificate. Still, it proclaimed watching the show to be “an arduous ordeal.”  With ratings down, the magazine gave suggestions to save the show from eventual extinction, wondering if the show had what it took to resuscitate itself once more. 

1995: Comedy Isn’t Funny


New York Magazine

The SNL hatchet job of all hatchet jobs.

An infamous New York Magazine article seemed intent on murdering the show all on its lonesome, declaring SNL to be a “gargantuan exertion of sweat, blood, fried food, and bluff self-denial that yields, for example, a mind-bendingly awful sketch about space aliens and rectal probes.”

The article, rightly or wrongly, makes working on SNL sound like a living hell, with plenty of complaints not only from critics but disgruntled cast members as well.  While the show’s ratings made cancellation unlikely, Lorne admits to the writer that the show is “fighting for its life.”

2014: The Nine Lives of Saturday Night Live

The New Yorker lamented the show’s rating problems (a then-recent episode hosted by Bill Hader had the lowest ratings in SNL history).  Critic Ian Crouch understood that people always say the show is dying, but maybe this time it would actually be fatal -- the dawn of YouTube meant people could watch SNL anytime, and its real-time immediacy was the main element keeping it alive.  Would the diminished value of “live” be the poison that finally killed the show?

No, says Rob Schneider.  It’s Hilary Clinton sketches that will strike the death blow. Or not. No show lasts forever, but if history has taught us anything, it’s that a prediction of SNL’s death is pretty much a guarantee of its survival. Several years ago, SNL writer Steve Higgins shrugged off all of the death prognostications, noting that the “it’s not as good as it used to be” complaints likely started in 1975 after show #2.  

“It’s a matter of time,” he wisely prophesied, “before we’re going to read ‘Saturday Night Dead’ in the papers again.”

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