One of the most notable aspects of the early 2000’s in Saturday Night Live’s history is Tina Fey’s position has head writer. Fey has become one of the most popular and lauded comedians of our time, but she started out as a regular SNL scribe like many others. In my mind, the most notable aspect of her tenure as head writer is how little of her later brilliance is on display in these sketches. That’s not to say that these years are unfunny — far from it — it’s just they hardly hint at how consistently hilarious her work has been since leaving the show. While a head writer is responsible for the overall tone of the show and which sketches make it to the air, they’re still not writing the majority of the sketches. That being said, some of the show’s most memorable sketches came from this era, like the famous “More Cowbell!” piece with Christopher Walken.
On September 29th 2001 the 27th season of Saturday Night Live debuted as scheduled, just 18 days after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Rudy Giuliani opened the show by speaking in front of a group of first responders, after which Paul Simon performed “The Boxer.” Lorne Michaels then came out and asked Giuliani if they could now be funny, to which he responded, “why start now?”
The post-9/11 era resulted in some of the weirdest sketches SNL has ever done. One sketch begins with a mom and dad concerned about their flatulent newborn and ends with the father and their pediatrician discussing his recent attempts to cut back on coffee. Part of me feels a bit guilty enjoying the absurd humor of these sketches when they are so clearly an expression of grief. At the same time though these sketches, as always, were intended to entertain and make people laugh and that’s what they do.
The absurd humor of the episodes immediately after 9/11 lingered on for much of the 26th season, giving it a loose, free form feeling that the show never had before or since. No other era has featured such bizarre, and at times stupid reoccurring characters like Nicole, the Girl With No Gaydar and Gay Hitler.
I’ve often complained in these pieces about the overuse of reoccurring characters with signature catchphrases by countless sketch shows. It’s not that I have anything against memorable characters that show up repeatedly, but too often it can be a crutch, a simple formula to be followed for cheap laughs. While that’s absolutely true, it’s occurred to me recently that I’ve perhaps been a bit shortsighted with how I’ve how viewed many of these older episodes. I’m watching them in the era of Hulu and Netflix, when you can call up any clip or episode of almost any show whenever you want. That’s certainly not the way these older episodes were intended to be consumed.
I’m hardly the first to make this observation, and I’m certainly not the smartest. I’ve read countless articles pointing out that the type of analyzing and obsessing that shows like Lost inspired (and required, really) was only possible in an era of Tivo and YouTube where you’re able to watch and rewatch something whenever and however you want. I’m sure it’s out there, but I haven’t seen too much material on how this new mode of media consumption is effecting comedy in general, and sketch comedy in particular.
Reoccurring characters existed very differently in the pre-YouTube era. Today almost any TV clip of moderate popularity is preserved permanently on a video site for all to see and watch as many times as they want. It’s not especially difficult to see all of the “What’s Up With That?” sketches, all you need is an internet connection and a few minutes to kill. 20 years ago, seeing every Wayne’s World bit required diligence, commitment, and a special kind of nerdiness. Unless you wanted to wait for syndication and reruns the only time you were able to view sketches and characters was when they were first aired. If you missed it, you missed it. When the fifth Wayne’s World sketch aired there was still a healthy part of the audience who was seeing the characters for the first time. That’s no longer the case with today’s characters like Stefon, which make their debut on live TV like their predecessors, but more often than not are viewed by the majority of people on YouTube the Monday after.
This period of SNL makes the end of the pre-YouTube era. Beginning in the fall of 2005 with The blockbuster success of digital shorts like Lazy Sunday, SNL firmly entered the digital era. The transition has of course been a slow one, and the show is still very much performed for a live audience, but many of younger and more memorable performers on the show in the last five years seem to have recognized that it’s on a computer screen rather than in front of a live audience that they have the greatest chance for success.
While there’s a lot of funny material here, these years are a period of transition in many ways. The last of the cast members from the big turnover in 1995 were departing, but it would be a few years until the next generation of cast members, like Andy Samberg, Bill Hader and Jason Sudeikis really became stars.