Last year, in his third time hosting SNL, Zach Galifianakis gave us a wonderful sketch called “Darrell’s House.” The sketch came in two parts. The first part was an odd piece that aired live early in the episode, with Galifianakis playing a public access TV show host who barked at an off-screen director to make various specific edits in post: remove a fight with his wife, insert a shot of a laughing crowd at the Apollo, etc. But it was the second part that was the true marvel. At the end of the night, SNL aired a recut version of the sketch with exactly all of the edits Galifianakis called for, including a surreal split-screen with Jon Hamm. The feat was pulled off by Oz Rodriguez of SNL’s video crew, who apparently worked feverishly in an editing bay as soon as Part 1 ended to make all the little changes before Part 2 would need to air. On the night it aired, Mike Birbiglia tweeted: “sketch comedians will study ‘Darrell’s House’ for years to come.”
What impressed me most about the sketch was that it was something that only worked within a live broadcast. If SNL was pretaped like any other sketch or late-night show on television, every sketch would pass through an editing bay, with plenty of time to tinker around with it, and the before-and-after effect of “Darrell’s House” would have lost its punch. It was seeing those same shots from the live portion of the sketch, which we all saw recorded barely half an hour an earlier, that made the edited portion so exciting to watch. It was dangerous. And not Hader-breaking-as-Stefon dangerous, or Farley’s-pants-falling-down dangerous, but a bold, creative risk that the show challenged itself with just to mix things up. It reminded me of the early years of the show, when the writers made NBC censors sweat with that Richard Pryor “Word Association” piece, or when Belushi accidentally cut Buck Henry’s head with a samurai sword and the rest of the cast began wearing bandages throughout the night in solidarity.
It’s precisely that sense of live-television danger that seems to be missing from SNL these days. Aside from the occasional breaking of character or cue card misread, entire episodes very well could have been pretaped, especially with the increasing amount of video segments that the show has been relying on recently. Longtime viewers took notice of this shift when Andy Samberg’s popular Digital Shorts dominated watercooler conversations and began winning their own Emmys. And in the time since Samberg and his Lonely Island cohorts left the show in 2012, the show has expanded its use of pretaped videos to a full third of its lineup, including a regular mix of commercial parodies, fake movie trailers and TV promos, music videos, standalone short films, and Good Neighbor-style clips with Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett. SNL’s cinematic strength has been perhaps its only consistent element this transitional season, with the most worthwhile things to come out of the show being videos like “Twin Bed,” “Dyke & Fats,” “The Beygency,” and parodies of Wes Anderson films, Her, “We Can’t Stop,” and Girls. In some cases, it seems, SNL will produce ambitious videos just to do them, even when the concept behind them is less inspired (“Dongs,” “Boy Dance Party,” “H&M“) or when there isn’t enough time for them in the broadcast (“Wing,” “Zap“).
Meanwhile, there have been far fewer standout moments from the live portions of the show. Other than Weekend Update – still a fairly reliable vehicle for topical jokes and character monologues – the other live sketches seem to be fading into the periphery, with the longtime SNL crutch of talk shows, game shows, and press conferences filling in the cracks between bland setups and odd character pieces that never quite take off. Sure, there have been a few exceptions. Josh Hutcherson’s “Your Love” and Anna Kendrick’s “Little Mermaid” were true of-the-moment delights, but really the most daring thing about those sketches was that they used licensed music. As far as new characters go, Beck Bennett’s “Baby CEO” and Nasim Pedrad’s “Shallon” have been suitably enjoyable but have fallen victim to the law of diminishing returns as much as any recurring character.
And what does that leave us? A funny argument between Seth Rogen and Cecily Strong about dog food, a clever cold open about astronauts trapped in space during a government shutdown, and Kerry Washington mocking the show’s whitewashed cast? In other words, not a whole lot. Whether SNL is trying to play it safe during a rebuilding year, or licking its wounds from the race controversies that have overshadowed this season, the show seems to be moving very distinctly in the direction of pretape, and very distinctly away from things like “Darrell’s House.”
Of course, there has always been plenty of live sketches on SNL that fall flat for one reason or another, and the current hit-to-miss ratio of the live material likely isn’t that much lower than it was for past seasons. What has changed is how often SNL seems to be doing videos instead of live pieces, and how much more successful those videos have been than the live ones. One of my favorite live sketches from this season was “Women’s Group,” in which Melissa McCarthy played a woman whose dark revenge plans derail a laid-back goal-setting chat with a group of ladies. As funny as the bit was, it didn’t hit as hard as a video from the same episode in which McCarthy played a congresswoman violently attacking all the people recording her (a nod to Congressman Michael Grimm’s outburst and a callback of a character she played in her previous time hosting). The video ran about half the time “Women’s Group” did and allowed the game to heighten to far more interesting extremes. No host has been as “dangerous” a live performer as Melissa McCarthy, and yet, the writers were unable to make her shine as bright in the episode’s live components as they did in the pretaped ones. That certainly wasn’t the case when McCarthy first hosted in 2011, when she gave viewers a live shot to the face in the form of ranch dressing.
The clearest explanation for that shift has been the show’s wise recruitment of some of the top video production talent in the wake of the Lonely Island’s departure. Director Rhys Thomas, who has been with SNL for the past decade or so, is the visionary behind the show’s impressive production value, and he has quite a dream team. Sarah Schneider and Chris Kelly, who joined the staff in 2011 from online video networks like CollegeHumor and Funny or Die, appear to be among the brightest of the writers room (they wrote the scripts for “The Beygency,” “Dyke & Fats,” “Twin Bed”, “Blockbuster”, and “Dongs”, amongst others). Meanwhile, Mooney and Bennett (along with director Dave McCary) have certainly been making their mark during the 10-to-1 slot, with fun Good Neighbor-y videos like “Beer Pong,” “Chris for President,” and “Wing.” DP Alex Buono was behind the current season’s title sequence, as well as memorable videos like “Louie Lincoln,” the Her parody “Me,” and the epic Wes Anderson film parody that he documented the arduous production process of here. And of course there is Oz Rodriguez and Matt Villines, aka Matt and Oz, who have been true video powerhouses for SNL, with their hands on everything from “Darrell’s House” to this season’s “Ooh Child,” “Bird Bible,” “Blockbusters,” and pretty much everything else we mentioned. Nothing against the rest of the show’s writing staff – which undoubtedly features some truly talented comedians – but few, if any, of the live sketches this season have featured the comedic precision that these short films have.
With so many talented minds on staff putting out quality videos every week, it becomes a little more understandable why the typical live scenes – which often start sluggishly, stretch as long as six minutes, and peter out without real endings – have had trouble competing. Even the best live sketch scripts can have all sorts of things go wrong with them when the red light goes on – hosts misreading the cards, cameramen missing their cues by crucial milliseconds, actors getting stuck in weird energy traps, or the jokes strangely not landing as well with the live audience as they did with the rehearsal audience. But those are all challenges SNL has fought through since the beginning, and they never let it box them into completely avoiding risk… until recently, that is.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with SNL doing more pretaped material; these videos provide episodes with much-needed variety and breathing room between complex transitions, as well as help the show keep pace with the ever-increasing quality of online sketch comedy. But as the show adapts with the times, it becomes even more important for the writers and producers to look for ways to push the envelope with its current live format. Allowing Leslie Jones to ruffle feathers with racially edgy material during Weekend Update was a good step, but the show will need to shoot the moon with more head-turning “did you see that?” live stunts like “Darrell’s House” if it wants to stay relevant. Because for all its great videos this season, “live” is one of the few things SNL still has over Key & Peele, Portlandia, or any of the great single-cam sketch shows on TV right now.
SNL should think of that live component as an opportunity to take a risk, not a requirement to play it safe.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was amended to include Rhys Thomas’ role in SNL’s video production team.
Erik Voss is a writer and performer living in Los Angeles. He hosts the Evil Blond Kid podcast and performs on the house team Wheelhouse at the iO Theater.