The Saturday Night Live Originality Quotient FAQ

Gilly, Roseanne Roseanneadanna and Buckwheat on Saturday Night Live. Photo: NBC

Yesterday, after a year of exhaustive research, we released Vulture’s carefully calculated chart of the Originality Quotient for all 36 complete seasons of Saturday Night Live, a measurement of what percentage of each season’s comedy was original, as opposed to depending on recurring characters. In the introduction we explained the broad strokes of our methodology: We counted up every sketch in a season, subtracted the number of sketches that were not original (in that they involved a character who had appeared before … whether his or her catchphrase had caught on or not), then divided the remaining number of original sketches by the total number done that year. Thus, the Originality Quotient. However, as any SNL geek will tell you, the show is not as easily calculated as saying “Canteen Boy over here, Massive Head Wound Harry over there … ” How to treat “Weekend Update”? Monologues? Albert Brooks’s mini-movies? After much debate we settled on rules for all of these elements, so for those of you attempting to duplicate this at home (and we strongly urge you not to, for your own sanity), here is a FAQ of our SNL Originality Quotient methodology.

What constitutes an original sketch?
The best way to illustrate that is via the very first two episodes of SNL. Everything in that very first episode, from Chevy Chase’s inaugural “Weekend Update” to the Killer Bees sketch and on to Lorne Michaels’s ill-conceived inclusion of lesser Muppets, is bright and shiny and original, because it had never aired on Saturday Night Live before. But seven days later, “Weekend Update” is back; thus, it gets counted as recurring, as it does in its third, fourth, and 702nd iteration.

You say “bright and shiny and original,” but what happens when a character originated somewhere else, like Ed Grimley, which Martin Short brought over from SCTV. Was his very first appearance counted as recuring?
No; their first appearances were counted as original, the rationale being that SNL is its own universe.

Getting back to “Weekend Update”: It’s always a recurring sketch? What about when a new anchor takes over, as Jane Curtin did in season two?
We still have to treat that as recurring because it’s just another variation on the idea of presenting fake news from behind a desk in Studio 8H — and in that particular case, the segment is even called “Weekend Update.”

A-ha! What about those seasons during which “Weekend Update” had a different name, as with season seven’s “SNL Newsbreak”?
Semantics! That would be like that time in 1989 when Michaels dredged up the Coneheads but moved the action to the eighties and retitled it “The New Coneheads.” In the universe of Saturday Night Live, where the original Coneheads had previously appeared in eleven episodes, that’s not an original idea, even if it was likely tongue-in-cheek.

But what about the many characters who have become popular over the years owing to their guest commentaries on “Weekend Update,” such as Roseanne Roseannadanna, Opera Man, and Aunt Linda. How do you account for them?
If a recurring character gives a guest commentary or has a sketchlike bit during “Weekend Update,” we count that as a unique sketch in addition to the “Weekend Update” installment, subject to the same criteria as any other sketch.

So it is possible to have multiple sketches within one “Weekend Update,” which is counted as a sketch in itself?
Yes; you could conceivably have four different sketches inside one “Weekend Update.”

The math seems imperfect there. Why did you do it that way?
Since each edition of “Weekend Update” is a recurring sketch, it is mathematically important to differentiate a minimalist edition of “Weekend Update” devoid of guest commentaries and those that prominently feature shtick by characters who might also appear in other types of sketches. Whether Brian Fellow appears in a more traditional sketch or on “Weekend Update” doesn’t matter; it only matters statistically that he’s racking up another appearance.

So, are you treating the monologues the same way?
Actually, no. Monologues were, in many ways, our trickiest decision, which is partially what led to banning them entirely from our calculations: There were too many exceptions to every rule we devised. Initially, we were counting them as sketches, as we did “Weekend Update,” saying only the very first legitimate monologue qualified as original, the rest were recurring. But that comparison didn’t hold up. For one thing, some opening monologues were essentially standup, including the very first one, during which guest host George Carlin did a bit from one of his comedy albums nearly verbatim. Others featured the host doing a song-and-dance — not so much of a monologue as a musical performance, and often without repertory members involved. And others still were just the guest host reading robotically from cue cards; not very sketchlike. Of course, a handful of monologues over the years have turned out to be the highlight of their episode, especially when they feature sketchlike elements, like when a host goes backstage to address a problem or interacts with cast members who are planted in the audience (such as two appearances by the aptly named Sandler character Audience McGee). But what pushed us over the edge into the “doesn’t count” zone was growing evidence that, more often than not, the monologues are promotional in nature; they exist so that the guest host can hawk their junk. So, there go 702 potential sketches.

Is nothing sacred? What about the musical performances?
Those definitely aren’t sketches, even in those rare instances when a recurring character (such as Ferrell’s “more cowbell!” guy, who played the cowbell during a 2005 Queens of the Stone Age performance) appears. But this provision doesn’t extend to the occasional cast member who belts out tunes; if it did, we would have zero SNL appearances by the Blues Brothers. The main rule of thumb we followed regarding musical performances is that they should count as sketches only if at least one cast member is the main focus of the segment, but not if the thrust of the performance is the musician’s own material.

I assume, then, that you also aren’t counting the self-congratulatory farewells doled out by most guest hosts at the end of every show?
As Phil Hartman’s boisterous Ed McMahon would say, “You are correct, sir!” And sadly, that even includes the surprising end gag during John Travolta’s lone guest-hosting spot, when he, musical guest Seal, and various cast members busted into a Grease parody “sketch” to cap the episode’s hilarity. (Perhaps the only hilarious episode in that entire 1994–95 year, the one that nearly broke Janeane Garofalo.)

Let’s move on to impressions. Since they’re just lampooning people who actually exist, wouldn’t even the first iteration be recurring?
While impressions certainly don’t rank highly on the originality scale, each new one is a shiny new bauble to look at. Most have little value or staying power, but in the right hands, such as Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin or Darrell Hammond’s Sean Connery, for example, an impression can be as fresh and original as any fictional character. For our purposes, we count impressions and characters the same way.

What about when two different cast members do the same impression, such as the many variations on Barbara Walters we’ve seen over the years?
That doesn’t matter. Whenever a particular cast member trots out an impression that first time, whether it has already been done to death or not, it counts as original. One reason for this is that each actors puts his own spin on it; case in point: Gilda Radner’s Baba Wawa and Cheri Oteri’s Barbara Walters. And there’s a world of difference between Joe Piscopo’s respectful Sinatra and Phil Hartman’s “I got chunks of guys like you in my stool!” Sinatra.

Okay, speed round. Are Albert Brooks’s movies from season one all originals?
Yes, as they’re all wildly different.

Gary Weiss’s films?
Yes, same thing. Same with Schiller Reels.

Mr. Bill?
No, just the first. Just because he’s clay doesn’t mean he doesn’t have to play by the same rules that the Church Lady does.

What about Robert Smigel’s “TV Funhouse”?
They were treated like sketches: The first “Fun with Real Audio,” “Ambiguously Gay Duo,” or “X-Presidents” were all original, the next ones not so much. Same rules go for the current run of Digital Shorts: original, unless there’s a retread, like a return of “Laser Cats.”

Okay, last question. What about Andy Kaufman? Did you count Andy Kaufman?
No. In the early days of SNL, comedians like he or Sam Kinison would show up, perform material directly from their act, and return to their own world — just like musical guests. So, while Andy Kaufman’s sets got a lot of attention, especially after the fact, they weren’t any different than if he’d had a guitar and a microphone.

Previously: A Vulture Study: Which SNL Season Reused the Most Characters?
Saturday Night Live’s 25 Most Repeated Characters

The Saturday Night Live Originality Quotient FAQ