‘SNL’ Gets the Academic Treatment in ‘Saturday Night Live and American TV’

There’s no arguing that countless articles, interviews, books, and essays are available to SNL fans at any given time. Those who already read the 2003 oral history book Live from New York and the 1989 narrative history Saturday Night can branch out to books by former cast members (Tina Fey, Rachel Dratch, Darrell Hammond, and Jay Mohr in particular), and in the past few weeks alone we’ve seen the oral history of audition tales on The New York Times, Lorne Michaels’ Vanity Fair piece on the birth of SNL, Robert Smigel’s interview with Grantland’s Bill Simmons, and a thoughtful examination of the show’s diversity problems over at Salon – not to mention all the SNL articles we bring you here on a near-daily basis. But there’s a void that hasn’t been filled until now, maybe because it takes a fan who has burned through all the dishy and subjective work already out there to fully appreciate it. So if the idea of a comprehensive collection of SNL-centric academic essays appeals to your geekiest fanatic fantasies, read on.

Available starting tomorrow through Indiana University Press, Saturday Night Live and American TV looks at the show through a modern media studies lens, exploring SNL’s impact on the cultural landscape both as a satiric reflection and surreptitious political peacemaker. Editors Nick Marx, Matt Sienkiewicz, and Ron Becker have compiled essays by 15 professors and PhD candidates who study the show in a sometimes painfully objective fashion, taking into account the competition of Netflix and the “multichannel era,” the facets of “production culture” involved, and the factors behind SNL’s success not as casual late night entertainment, but as a marketable brand that is as adaptable as it is problematic. The rosy lens that filters a fan’s emotional connection to cast members, characters, sketches, and their own preconceptions of SNL history usually found online and in books is largely absent in Saturday Night and American TV, allowing the writers to give the show props for its accomplishments as well as put it to task for where it falls short, most notably for its tokenism of black cast members (and favor of white dudes and Harvard grads).

The editors split the book’s 13 essays into four chapters that follow a loosely chronological SNL evolution from rebellious 1970s groundbreaker to ultimate interpreter of political and current event news to friend of the internet age. It’s far from a personal history and instead hops from one target of analysis to the next – SNL’s comedy-variety radio program roots, the progression of its opening credit sequence (and how it’s affected NYC’s national reputation), its cautious relationship with musical guests (particularly female singers), its ideological shift after 9/11, Fred Armisen’s honeyfaced “Fauxbama,” The Lonely Island’s irreversible viral impact, and much more. And while the whole ‘college research paper’ tone does get a bit dry at points (and had me begging the writers to accidentally let a personal anecdote or candid opinion slip), there’s something wildly exciting about a bunch of profs diligently contextualizing SNL the way they would a scientific discovery or the works of Shakespeare; where there’s an absence of intimate perspective there’s the realization that SNL’s now big enough of a beast to be studied much more seriously than a review, profile, listicle, or pile of GIFs. An excerpt from the book’s introduction:

Most people who watched SNL’s debut episode did so via a picture-tube TV equipped with a rabbit ear antenna. Since then, cable boxes, satellite dishes, computers, plasma screens, fiber optics, and smartphones have transformed the medium’s distribution, and changes no less revolutionary have taken place at the level of production and consumption. Yet, for all these changes, SNL will premiere once again in the fall, putting forth an effort very different, and yet somehow fundamentally similar, to what it offered in October 1975. To understand that dynamic is, we suggest, a key to unlocking the nature of American television culture.

Even though the book aims for objectivity, one could argue that driving the idea of a recurring character or female pop singer performance into the ground with over-analysis kills the beauty of SNL’s live TV magic. But the editors don’t let the ‘live’ excuse fly, and rightly so – it’s not 1975 anymore, and the show has long perfected its creative process and withstood the test of time. And now that SNL’s undergoing one of its biggest cast transitions in years, fan scrutiny is in the air more than ever. The fact that the new cast members are five white guys and one white lady certainly doesn’t help ease that, and when Seth Meyers leaves in 2014 we’ll see the first cast all born after the show’s 1975 premiere – that’s a whole new can of criticism worms to open by old fans and their “kids these days” complaints, or new fans who don’t know who Candy Slice is but can google her into their knowledge in five seconds.

But those of us who watch SNL religiously and enjoy flipping through old sketches on Netflix reruns know that SNL is always changing and the resulting criticism is far from new; it happens every time a veteran player leaves the show, every time there’s an underwhelming host, and every time a blogger or internet commenter writes how SNL hasn’t been funny since [insert your favorite sketch/cast/the word “never” here]. Thankfully the writers of Saturday Night Live and American TV get that, and what results is not just an intriguing academic text on the show but a jumping-off point for the next generation of SNL discussion, debate, coverage, and points of view.

Saturday Night Live and American TV is available on Amazon starting tomorrow.

‘SNL’ Gets the Academic Treatment in ‘Saturday Night […]