Oh God, Not Another ‘SNL Is Dead’ Essay

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In his obituary for Saturday Night Live (and what a well-worn genre that has become), Slate.com writer Nathan Heller compares the show, which wrapped its 36th season over the weekend, to an embarrassing uncle: “in-your-face, given to crude gags, often tedious, sometimes funny, obsessed with election politics, versed in daytime TV, weirdly wistful for the ‘70s, and grudgingly beloved.” I like the metaphor — typical of Heller’s incisive writing — but not the conclusion. He’s right that the show is hit-or-miss (part of its charm in my opinion), but he approaches SNL as a fair-weather fan approaches a contending baseball team, bitter that it’s not playing quite as well as it did that one golden season of 1975. In that way, it’s Heller himself — like so many critics of the show — who seems wistful for the ‘70s.

He praises the “early skits’ exotic conceptualism and wild immediacy,” arguing that they “fit with the comic vanguard of the time” in a way that the show doesn’t now. But he’s really arguing that SNL can never be as good as it once was because its cultural power was based on novelty. “A program buttressed by the zeitgeist,” he writes, “isn’t built to weather change. Slowly, the show disintegrated.” He suggests that SNL became too smooth, too corporate, too enamored of “the middlebrow entertainment mainstream” for which it became a feeder.

There is something to the argument that today’s show seems to emerge fully-formed from a kind of comic assembly line (begin with song in monologue, screw in retread gameshow sketch, finish with a light-coat of Stefan), and that it’s occasionally too safe. But Heller’s review does little justice to the show’s daring aspects, and he seems impossible to please; he’s already pointed out that continuing the show at all is a lost cause. So, while praising the devil-may-care absurdism of early-period SNL, he ignores the inventions of recent seasons. And while insisting that Belushi and the gang fit their time, he says very little about our own comic moment or about the show’s current performers.

What I take issue with most is that Heller has built a strawman (or a straw-Wiig) to attack. He references classic skits from the ‘70s and instead of comparing them to the best of what’s been done in recent seasons — to Space Olympics, Dr. Steven Poop, Jeunes de Paris or the Merryville Brothers, for example — he compares them to a throwaway Kristen Wiig vehicle, the sketch in which an office-worker sing-songily repeats the name “Thomas.”

This seems to me like the kind of comparison one might expect from a Proactiv commercial: a bespotted, badly lit woman in a sweatsuit set against a smiling picture of herself in a cocktail dress. The “Thomas” sketches are SNL just rolling out of bed. Elsewhere, though, Wiig is wonderful, as are Taran Killam and Vanessa Bayer. And how, I wonder, can Heller criticize recent SNL without at least acknowledging Andy Samberg and Bill Hader, whose mix of Aykroydal sleaziness and childlike imagination are almost undeniably winning.

Ironically, though, the flailing “Thomas” skit seems to be what Heller is elsewhere calling for: it’s an unexpected concept delivered with no calculation and no concern for middlebrow audience approval. Instead of recognizing it as a kind of constructive failure, though, he writes, “A sketch like this is funny in almost exactly the sense that a cucumber is sexy — finding it so requires a suggestible cast of mind, willful imagination, and unusual tolerance for the ingressions of cold vegetal matter.” Again, I laugh at the well-rendered metaphor, and I’m no superfan of the “Thomas” sketches. But how are a bunch of dudes in bee suits any better? Some stuff works, some stuff doesn’t, but that’s the thrill.

I’m reminded of Tina Fey’s remark about Will Ferrell during his final episode; she suggested that he was most fun to watch in a skit that was going nowhere because he still gave it all his effort. To me, that’s not failure or desperation. That’s the performer’s commitment to his/her own brand of humor. We see that in Kristen Wiig. We saw it in Will Forte and Chris Parnell. And if we’re sitting down at 11:30 on a Saturday night hoping that our friends will be hilarious, we’ll love their hastily-written, show-must-go-on, off-kilter attempts. If we’re looking to stamp it “not funny,” well that’s easy enough too (as we’ve seen in dozens of reviews on the AV Club).

Of course our reception of these comic premises has to do with “our suggestible cast of mind.” And of course we appreciate SNL most when we believe that the “gags [are] wrought […] in the style of an inside joke.” Heller criticizes that style, but I can’t help thinking that what he appreciates about early SNL — that it seemed in tune with its era — came from that same kind of insider’s energy. And while I’m unwilling to say that Heller and other critics don’t “get” Saturday Night Live 36, I don’t think he ought to praise the original show’s connection with its audience and deride this season’s connection with its audience.

Heller’s article is worth reading in full, and many of his criticisms are well-earned (he’s especially ticked about SNL’s self-mythologization, as seen in one too many Sunday night specials, and I agree). And what separates his piece is that he doesn’t seem like a hater. He’s watched the show. He seems to want it to improve. He wants more “fearlessness and risk” and he asks the writers to “try harder.” But he should try harder too. It’s old-hat to criticize SNL just because it doesn’t evoke the same youthful feelings it used to.

To me, the show is more like a sporting event than a normal program. When I watch a baseball game, I know the framework, but I’m almost always going to see something I haven’t seen before, some play made perfectly. And as a pastime, SNL is fundamental too. It’s still one of the funniest shows on TV, a snappily-run public workshop during which we get to test our senses of humor and witness comedy taken most seriously.

David Wanczyk looks forward to seeing the same articles being written at the end of season 37.