The current “Saturday Night Live” is as edgy as a spork after a few passes with a belt sander.
Irreverent shows like “SNL” struggle to maintain their sense of impropriety. Shocking western culture rarely allows for second acts, and the novelty wears off eventually. Think Sacha Baron Cohen, Madonna and Howard Stern, although the latter two figures endured far longer than most expected.
Perhaps the biggest institution to maintain its subversive streak is “South Park,” the animated smackdown that started all the way back in 1997 on Comedy Central.
That show still grabs headlines for wading into the culture wars without a flak jacket. And it shows little sign of doing anything but for the foreseeable future.
“SNL,” by stark comparison, is as formulaic as a “Fast & Furious” sequel. At least those movies repeat the franchise’s greatest hits, crashes and crunches. “SNL” just limps along each week, its cultural cache dwindling with every predictable bit.
We’ll get to the show’s politics in a moment, but when was the last “SNL” alum to become a major movie star? How many recurring “SNL” sketches fueled big screen comedies, or just became pop culture staples? How long has it been since anyone said to a friend or stranger, “man, did you see ‘Saturday Night Live’ this week … wow!”
Even liberal critics turned on Alec Baldwin’s one-note impression of President Donald Trump.
The show debuted in 1975, bringing with it a gifted class of comics along with hosts renowned for their fearless wit. Think George Carlin, Steve Martin and Richard Pryor.
The early cast members performed as if each show might be their last, from Dan Aykroyd spurting fake blood at the TV screen as a whacked out Julia Child to Chevy Chase playing a racially charged game of word association with Pryor.
Over the years the show honed its mix of silly sketches and spot-on political parodies. Recent interviews revealed how key players like Chase wanted to use the show to smite politicians they disliked. Chase’s President Ford imitation, for example, created an image of the president that didn’t mirror reality. It was still funny and fresh, and it stuck.
“[Ford] was a sweet man, a terrific man — [we] became good friends after, but … he just tripped over things a lot,” he said. “It’s not that I can imitate him so much that I can do a lot of physical comedy and I just made it, I just went after him. And … obviously my leanings were Democratic and I wanted [Jimmy] Carter in and I wanted [Ford] out, and I figured look, we’re reaching millions of people every weekend, why not do it.”
“SNL” didn’t pull any punches with future Democrats, though. Darrell Hammond had a field day with President Bill Clinton, playing up his sexually appetites without a hint of remorse.
Those old sketches had bite, but they weren’t vicious. You could see some humanity beneath the comic tics, even during skits that drew political blood. Some Leftists worried Will Ferrell’s scathing “Dubya” impression made the president endearing, to a degree.
Over the years more than a few critics have panned the sketch show with variations of “Saturday Night Dead” headlines. And, at times, the show deserved the brickbats. For every truly hilarious sketch there are dozens that should never made it on air.
A series bent on capturing the comic zeitgeist is bound to miss now and then. And, to creator Lorne Michaels’ credit, his eye for spotting fresh talent has proven remarkable over the years.
Then again, the show flashed signs of the stifling spirit that would envelope it in the modern era. Elvis Costello famously switched up his song list during his Dec. 17, 1977 appearance so he could crank up “Radio, Radio,” a song blistering commercialized content.
“SNL” creator Lorne Michaels banned Costello from the show for the next 12 years. One of the greatest singer/songwriters got benched because he didn’t play by the rules on “SNL.” Let that sink in.
The most recent “SNL” captured precisely why the show no longer cares about its original formula. The show all but ignored the new administration for its last four shows, spending even more time attacking GOP figures.
This weekend, it built a sketch around Vice President Kamala Harris but used her as a vehicle to smite Republicans without so much as poking her with a joke. That’s how the show eventually treated President Barack Obama … and it’s a preview of how they’ll handle President Harris sooner or later.
Days after President Joe Biden shocked the world by holding a press conference with multi-colored cheat sheets all “SNL” could do was reference it with a single, modest line.
Comedy demands surprise and truth to be successful, particularly political humor. Is anyone surprised by anything “SNL” does at this point? Does anyone think the next episode will tear into any Democrats in any fashion?
The New York-based show didn’t lay a glove on Gov. Andrew Cuomo until an avalanche of awful news landed at his mansion’s door. Since then, “SNL” poked the crooked governor a bit, but not nearly as much as Sen. Ted Cruz, for example.
Cruz’s crimes? A tone-deaf vacation during a freakish winter storm and, of course, having an “R” before his name.
The show exists to defend Democrats, excoriate Republicans and sustain cultural narratives that the corporate press endorses. That’s the new, dispiriting formula.
It’s why the show mocked spring breakers over the weekend for living it up during a pandemic … but not progressive protesters who shattered windows, businesses and people’s dreams over the past nine or so months. When Gina Carano got sandbagged by a massive corporation “SNL” was there … to carry Disney’s water.
It’s not comedy, it’s kissing up the cultural establishment. It’s also an embarrassment to the show’s rich history. We thought “SNL” couldn’t sink lower when it literally sang a mournful tribute to Hillary Clinton after she lost the presidency to Donald Trump.
Or when the show sang, again, but this time a heartfelt tribute to President Barack Obama after failing to make rich satire from his presidency for eight excruciating years.
And yet week after week the program proves us wrong. It can get worse.
In reality, “SNL” should have wrapped a good while ago. The show’s purpose no longer exists. Late Night television hits the latest headlines much faster, and most have big enough budgets to trot out sketches to keep us entertained.
More importantly, the current cultural scolds wouldn’t let “SNL” reclaim its past glory. Consider this article from Insider which wags its finger at classic “SNL” routines.
Or, to paraphrase the article, “problematic” moments.
“SNL” has the history, the corporate wealth and, in theory, the comedic DNA to defy the woke mob and reclaim its status as the culture’s best comedy forum. But it doesn’t … and won’t.
These days, the show’s signature “Weekend Update” segment feels like the angriest Seth Meyers jokes that didn’t make the “Late Night” cut.
Consider this recent “joke” tied to the gun control debate and ask yourself, is this an attempt at comedy or just a broadcast version of toxic Twitter?
“And Republicans stop pretending that this is about the Second Amendment and just admit you love guns more than people you don’t know.”
When hateful humor has no truth behind it … it’s just hate, period.
The bigger question is, has the show officially chased away every GOP voter at this point?
If “SNL” truly wanted to reclaim its irreverent past it would start telling jokes the woke mob don’t want us to hear. It could hire Ryan Long to be a new featured player, putting his amazing woke smackdowns front and center on its platform.
We’d also see some ideological diversity in the writer’s room, allowing more than one rigid position on modern political debates to emerge.
We might actually hear jokes that catch us off guard and challenge humor’s monotonous groupthink.
None of that will happen. The truly subversive material thrives on YouTube, Rumble and other parts of the Web left untouched by Big Tech. There’s nothing on “SNL” that will get caught in Jack Dorsey’s censorial web.
“SNL” is just part of the cultural machine, instead of the upstart series mean to give it one long, spitty raspberry.