1990-95 were some Saturday Night Live’s brightest years. Countless classic bits and characters where created during this time period and a whole new generation of comedians were introduced to a national audience. I think I speak for a lot of folks when said that this period of SNL is the first sketch comedy I ever encountered, late on Saturday Nights when my parents thought I was sleeping. Thinking back on this time I want to believe that it was priceless gag after priceless gag, but was that really the case?
SNL entered 1990’s with a little bit of momentum. After six disastrous years trying again and again to reinvent itself the show had finally found a formula that worked. Ever since the 1986-87 season, the show had been slowly building up steam thanks to a slew of talented young writers and performers. By 1990, with the debut of Chris Farley, Adam Sandler, Tim Meadows, and David Spade among others, it seemed the show was back on track.
During this period the show began to rely heavily on regularly reoccurring characters such as Matt Foley, the Gap girls, Canteen Boy, Linda Richman many, many more. SNL has of course always featured goofy characters created by their cast members, but this period saw a strong rise in their use as NBC put pressure on the show to create catchphrases and bankable movie subjects. Since most these characters don’t rely on topicality for their humor they’ve generally aged much better than other material from the past.
There is of course a downside to this reliance on characters. Once a character became a success with audiences they would sometimes be featured ad nauseum, running them until the ground until you just don’t care what word ending in “tion” Cajun Man can come up with next. This is something that would become the bigger problem in later years.
Success in show business always seems to bring with it jealousy and drama and these golden years were no exception for SNL. Numerous cast members have expressed there dissatisfaction with the toxic environment during these years. The problem may have been further exacerbated by the fact that during this period the cast ballooned to an enormous size. For several years there were as many regularly appearing featured players as cast members, a situation that’s bound to create an unhealthy level of competition and envy.
Every single era of Saturday Night Live has had its ups and downs, episodes that are brilliant and episodes that are terrible, this period is no exception. Despite my memories of nothing but Deep Thoughts and spot-on commercial parodies there are plenty of bits and characters that either failed to stand the test of time, or were never funny to begin with.
Eventually the quality control began to slip for the show. By the 94-95 season the show began sliding in the ratings. New York magazine published a cover story on the show, dismissing it as unfunny and over with. Lorne Michaels has said that the closest he’s ever been to being fired was during this period.
Much as he had done during the poorly-received 11th season Lorne Michaels brought on several already-established comedians like Chris Elliott, Michael McKean and Mark McKinney to try and mix things up. While the new cast members were all hilarious on their own they weren’t able to change the direction of the show the way Michaels had hoped.
With few options left, the show was forced to do what it had done so many times before — reinvent itself. The following year the show debuted with a largely new cast, including a little known comedian from Irvine, California by the name of Will Ferrell. Some of SNL’s best days were behind them, but there were plenty of laughs still to come.