When the 21st season of Saturday Night Live debuted in the fall of 1995 it had almost an entirely new cast. Seven new cast members joined the cast that year, signaling a major shift in the show’s history. There were numerous great new actors the joined the show but the most notable new member of the show was undoubtedly Will Ferrell. Although he’s since become one of the biggest leading men in comedy at the time he was just another improv actor who was recruited for the show from the Groundlings. Much like Phil Hartman, Ferrell wasn’t great on the show because he could stand out, but because he could blend in. Ferrell’s versatility was what made him invaluable to the show; he was able to play spacey roles like Harry Caray and masculine roles like Robert Goulet with equal aplomb. It wasn’t until he was on the show for several years that he began to specialize in his signature man-child characters and impressions.
Of course once he did start doing more character-based work on the show, much of it would be repeated ad nauseam. In the years right before this period, SNL began to employ reoccurring characters more often, but in the late ‘90s the show really went overboard with using the same characters and sketches over and over. Will Ferrell and Cheri Oteri as the Spartan Cheerleaders were funny in their first sketch, but after 16 additional sketches the bit began to wear thin. Same thing with Molly Shannon’s Mary Katherine Gallagher, the nervous Catholic school girl who likes to smell her own armpits. Did there really need to be 18 different sketches featuring her? There are numerous other characters with this same problem — there were 16 Ladies Man sketches, 16 of Mango and a whopping 21 of Marty Culp and Bobbi Mohan-Culp, the husband and wife music duo that specialized in musical medleys of raunchy pop songs. I realize that Saturday Night Live, like everything on TV, is a business first and foremost. It makes a lot of sense to give people what they want, but the public is a fickle beast and it’s pretty easy to run something into the ground and ruin its popularity; that’s just what happen with many characters.
Goofy characters weren’t all that the show did during this period. During these years SNL was also lucky enough to have one of the biggest political scandals in decades take place. In January 1998, the Drudge Report broke the story that President Bill Clinton may have had an inappropriate physical relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. The story would dominate the media for the next year and a half and provide countless jokes for all sorts of comedians. SNL had of course always used news stories for jokes, but this, with its lurid details and large cast of characters, must have felt like a personal gift to the writers.
Much as they had done with the O.J. Simpson trial, SNL tried to squeeze every last ounce of comedy out of the scandal, doing a sketch about the story in almost every show from ‘98 to ‘99. To get the most out of the topic they also did sketches featuring the peripheral people involved like Vernon Jordan, Ken Starr and, perhaps most famously, Linda Tripp, who was portrayed with very little makeup by John Goodman. Because a lot of the main details of the scandal are still familiar to most folks who were alive during at the time, these sketches have for the most part aged well, but that may also be because of the lowbrow humor the bits employed.
Instead of using all of these sketches to point out the hypocrisy of conservatives who had also had affairs or suggest that Clinton was unfit for office, the show mostly settled for dick jokes and goofy impressions. Lewinsky is portrayed as an immature airhead with a schoolgirl crush on the president and Clinton is depicted as a fat, lazy womanizer, which isn’t much different than how he had always been portrayed. I love a good dick joke as much as the next guy, but I do feel that SNL missed out on the opportunity to engage in some real satire that would make people think, as they would later do with Sarah Palin and media’s infatuation with Barack Obama during the primaries.
Since the debut of the almost brand new cast in 1995 the show has for the most part managed to avoid the cast purges that were once so common. Many of the cast members that got their start in this period, like Darrell Hammond, stuck around for quite awhile. Hopefully the show can avoid such dramatic shifts from one year to the next, but after this year’s ups and downs it can be hard to say what the future holds.