Last November, SNL aired a mock promo for a hacky, whitewashed family sitcom called “The Dudleys.” In the sketch, a voiceover explains the various lengths the show has gone to satisfy complaints on Twitter – “You tweeted, ‘It’s 2014, why can’t any of The Dudleys be gay?’ Well, we heard you loud and clear!” – with Woody Harrelson playing at various degrees of homosexuality before dialing it back up to a “gay 5.” “The Dudleys” was a clever piece of satire in a great episode, but it also reflected a truth SNL’s current cast and writers have been coming to terms with: they can’t win on Twitter.
In some ways, social media has been more blessing than curse for SNL, allowing for instant mass sharing of episode highlights, with clips like “The Dudleys” potentially reaching millions more viewers the following day. Even the finger-wagging online campaigns have resulted in net gains for show. In 2009, Betty White was asked to host an episode after a Facebook group called “Betty White to Host SNL (please?)!” reached nearly 500,000 members. Four years later, the show’s “diversity crisis” eventually led to the show hiring three black women and – indirectly, perhaps – its promotion of writer Michael Che to Weekend Update host.
But as Michael Che could testify, the relationship between SNL and people who tweet about it seems far more confrontational. The same allegedly-progressive online movement that demanded to hear from voices like Leslie Jones quickly tried to shut her up when it objected to what she had to say. Her on-camera debut last May – in which Jones joked about all the sex she would have if she was a slave – evoked such a misplaced outrage that Che jumped to her defense, tweeting: “we make 90mins of LIVE comedy produced in a week. & an idiot gets to critique it.” A few weeks later, Che elaborated his views to Splitsider:
Sometimes it’s mind-blowing that people talk to performers as if they’re not people, as if this guy doesn’t have a family or husband or wife and kids or whatever and wants to follow him and just say “you suck” and “you should be fired” and “you’re the worst thing ever.” These people have stayed up thirty hours in a row working on content to make these people laugh and so that just seems so, I don’t know… evil?
Che himself landed in the center of controversy last October when, in a post on Instagram, he compared the sexist remarks made to a woman in a viral catcalling video to fans recognizing him on the street. Che has regularly engaged those critical of SNL on social media during his time on the show. In early January, he blasted those he considered “nerds” and mused, “When have intellectual critics been right about funny?”
When I’m on stage, I have control. I can pace it, I can set it up, I can go back… I can do all these things to everybody at once, collectively. On Twitter, or on Facebook, each person is reading. It’s not a joke anymore. It’s a statement. And people are attacking a statement.
SNL Twitter skirmishes aren’t new. (To be clear: they also aren’t news, but I promise I’m making a broader point here.) Before Che replaced her as Weekend Update host, Cecily Strong (whose Twitter account has also been deleted) briefly fired back at haters last season. She described the experience in the new edition of the oral history Live from New York:
Anything I put out there now – I feel so scared about guarding everything. In January , after a show, I was on Twitter and I was getting all these mean ones. Some were really sexist and nasty, and so many were, “Are you pregnant? Are you pregnant?” And I just felt like, “Hey, I have to deal with my body, my own self, my own image issues; why should the public get to weigh in and be bullies about it?” I couldn’t decide what to do for months and then I thought, “I’m just going to say one thing, and then after I’ve said it, I’m going to address the nicer ones.” I think I just said, “No, I’m not pregnant, you bully dickheads,” or something along those lines. Then Lorne was on me, for “watch your language” or something. And I said, “Am I allowed to say how I feel? Are we allowed to stick up for ourselves? I’m with you on swear words. My mother would say the same thing, and I trust my mother. Get your point across without swear words. But I want to make sure I have the right to be myself.” Figuring all that out has been tough.
It’s not just Twitter trolls getting under SNL’s skin. For the past five years or so, websites like the AV Club, Entertainment Weekly, and yes, Splitsider, have published next-day reviews of episodes, putting the show under the critical microscope on a weekly basis. These posts began as simple recaps, surveying highs and lows from the night before, but they have since evolved into doggedly right-brained dissections. Mike Ryan, whose SNL Scorecard runs on Uproxx, assigns scores to each sketch, sorting them into “good,” “bad,” and “ugly” categories. I too am guilty of this quantitative approach, tabulating cast member screen time, recurring sketch counts, and diversity rates. And that’s in addition to the various think-pieces and videolists with headlines like “Is ‘Saturday Night Live’ Becoming ‘Saturday Night Pretaped’?” and “40 Less-Iconic SNL Sketches We Love Anyway.” (Both have my name in the byline). As Kate McKinnon points out, no pre-Internet journalist would bother spilling ink on SNL this regularly:
I do wonder what it was like not to have the immediate feedback of the Internet the next day. Ultimately I think that all change is bad so, yeah, I think it’s more a curse than a blessing, because as I’m rehearsing throughout the week I’m thinking how this is going to live forever – not in some archive but on the Internet and on blogs people are going to write things about. I don’t think SNL was in the paper every week in 1995. Everyone’s a comedian now; everyone’s on social media commenting in a joking way, and everything becomes immediate fodder for comedy. Doing sketch comedy has become harder because the pace of it is impossible.
Aidy Bryant echoed this sentiment to The Daily Beast:
We hear things. Some of us read more and some of us don’t. One of the things we talk about a lot within the cast is how much the show now is broken down into three-minute chunks and dissected. I don’t think that happened in the ‘90s and the ‘80s and I wonder if there’s a purity to that that I envy sometimes. I think that if you went to go see a stand-up show or a sketch show live, you’d take it for what it is and just enjoy it. “I had a good time, and that’s what matters.” But it’s become such a math problem of “who has the most to do this week,” or “who had the most screentime?” … I think sometimes I almost feel like, it’s just a comedy show. You know? Just enjoy it and then go to bed.
The cast can’t help reading the reviews. And according to longtime writer Paula Pell, neither can the writers: “Everyone always says, ‘Oh, I try not to read that stuff,’ and it’s just bullshit because you know Sunday, they go online and they Google their sketch and they see what people said about it, and that affects them, you know? It affects writers, new writers, and actors.”
Indeed, after some complained that his “Asian-American Doll” sketch highlighted the show’s nearly non-existent track record with Asian-American staffers, writer Chris Kelly (who also co-wrote “The Dudleys”) tweeted this nugget of sarcasm:
And then of course there was last weekend’s outrage at the excellent “Father Daughter Ad,” which Taran Killam defended when the sketch’s writers declined to identify themselves (probably to avoid being included on ISIS’ hit list):
Online feedback weighs even more heavily on the show’s newcomers, whose survival depends on their bits making a lasting impression with viewers. In his first two seasons, Killam would see screen time algorithms and gawk at how “horrible” he was. “It’s a dangerous pitfall,” he says. “With a forty-year history, there’s so much to compare yourself to. The shadow grows longer and darker the longer the show goes on.”
This may shed light on why SNL bristles at criticism more than other recapped and tweeted-at shows do. Most comedians working in television gradually learn the PR ropes in relatively low-stakes gigs – co-stars on sitcoms, late-night writers, etc. – long before the general public ever learns their names. Their jokes reach niche audiences too small (and too loyal) to crucify them online. For new talent on SNL, however, that transition occurs in a fraction of the time, and in a hotter spotlight. Barely a week passes between reading their names in a press release and hearing them announced by Darrell Hammond before they’re thrust into representing a 40-year-old brand with the medium’s most opinionated fanbase. “People will always have an opinion,” says Vanessa Bayer. “When people think about SNL, they feel a lot of ownership over it. It’s like a sports team.”
And while comparisons to previous generations have haunted every cast member since Chevy Chase and John Belushi, this is the first era to hear complaints blasted by an army of social media watchdogs. Between the confusing hostility toward Leslie Jones and the absurd #CancelColbert movement, the trigger-happy ”shame culture” on social media has festered into an unavoidable distraction for many comedians – a distraction Chase and Belushi never had to fear. Not that they would. We later heard the tales of these men’s offensive behind-the-scenes behavior, but in a pre-Twitter world, they became treasured icons credited with giving SNL its signature irreverence in the 1970s. Lorne Michaels allowed Chase to say the N-word on air in 1975; 40 years later, he scolded Cecily Strong for tweeting “dickheads.”
Times have changed, and modern SNL isn’t too thrilled about it. “I think the Internet is a disaster and it’s a bad idea. I do,” said Amy Poehler at a 92Y event last October. “I think it should be stopped now, and over.”
Of course, trying to sympathize with well-paid celebrities for having to read insulting tweets or unfair reviews is a bit like hearing George Clooney whine about the paparazzi: yeah, that must suck, but you chose this life, you beautiful, talented person! Mean tweets is a minor downside to landing a dream job, and it’s a trade-off any comedian would take in a heartbeat. But beyond bruised egos, the recent culture of incessant scrutiny is gradually transforming the show, for better or worse. As Bill Hader explains, inconsistent online criticism can make writers and cast members more self-conscious, at times forcing them to question their material in unhealthy ways:
I remember one of the websites hated Herb Welch. They were just like, “Please get rid of this character; it’s my least favorite character.” And I wasn’t reading stuff online, but the people I wrote the sketch with were, and they were like, “Oh yeah, people fucking hate Herb Welch.” I did an interview with them for a movie I was in, and they said, “We want to get a comment from you because Herb Welch is in our favorite-sketches-of-the-year thing.” And I was like, “Wait – what?” It’s this weird yo-yo thing, going up and down and just not knowing. And then it’s affecting your work. Then you’re sitting in front of you computer going, “Oh, okay, I’m writing this thing people hate.”
On the other hand, awareness may also yield creative gains for the show. Both “The Dudleys” and “Asian-American Doll” provide hilarious commentaries on the futility of trying to please everyone in a medium that demands perfect political correctness – undoubtedly an example of art reflecting life on SNL. (With sketches limited to subjects the writers find funny, I’ll take foot-in-mouth humor over obscure odes to Brooklyn.) And again, it wasn’t until bloggers and tweets rallied against the show’s historic whiteness that SNL gave Leslie Jones a chance as a writer. That decision – along with the decision to stand by her controversial set in May, followed by the decision to promote her to the cast in September – suggests SNL is capable of bending to the scrutiny when it matters and ignoring it when it doesn’t.
Hopefully SNL will cling to that wisdom, despite hearing everyone’s opinions “loud and clear.”
Attributions in this article were excerpted from James Andrew Miller and Tom Schales’ Live from New York: The Complete, Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live (2014 edition).