I Watch Saturday Night Live Like It’s a Sport, and You Should Too

Photo: Maya Robinson/Vulture and Photo by Getty Images

There is a scene in Mike Birbiglia’s Don’t Think Twice in which a group of improvisers gathers to watch “Weekend Live,” the film’s version of Saturday Night Live. Seemingly in response to something Birbiglia’s character said about a certain cast member’s work on the show, Tami Sagher’s character tells him, “I’m glad you’re keeping score.” Birbiglia says, “It’s the only live sporting event of comedy,” to which Gillian Jacobs’s character responds, “But comedy isn’t a sport.”

They are both right. Comedy isn’t a sport, but you sure can follow Saturday Night Live as if it were. And doing so will make you enjoy it so much more.

You’re probably drawing the parallels already. Each sketch is an inning, quarter, or period in a game. Each episode is a game in a season. Season and season are the same word. The cast members (and the writers) are the players on a team, each with a different skill set and talent level. Lorne Michaels is like a fusion of a coach, general manager, and commissioner. It’s easiest if you don’t get wrapped up trying to apply the idea to one specific game and instead just think of it as its own abstract hybrid of a team/individual sport. Still, that’s just the first step. It’s more about how you apply this framing to interact with the show. The easiest way to explain this is to go full metaphor.

Let’s say you’re watching a baseball game. The pitcher meant to throw a breaking ball down and in, but it doesn’t get the break he wanted, so it’s just sitting there. The batter gets some “good wood” on it and the ball flies to left-center. The center fielder backs up to the wall. I’ll stop right there — no matter what happens in the next second in this play, you have been excited. A failed double play is as exciting as a successful one in the moments before the runner is called safe or out. Whether a play or a collection of plays were good or bad can be determined, but it is secondary to pleasantly consuming a series of moments.

Especially when you watch Saturday Night Live live, a given sketch similarly operates through anticipation, resolution, and occasional surprise. SNL, like sports, has extra oomph in the “don’t know what will happen next” category, because it literally hasn’t happened yet. For SNL, this means watching a sketch as both a piece of comedy and feat of human performance. It’s marveling as much that it’s happening — that a collection of human beings were able to produce 90 minutes (I know this includes music performances, but people have to produce that too) of content in six days — as what the content is. To pick the most exciting example in recent memory, Melissa McCarthy’s debut as Sean Spicer felt akin to watching a relief pitcher strike out the side in the ninth inning of a playoff game, but even if it were less successful, it would still have been something to behold. As Seth Meyers tweeted, McCarthy was throwing a “108 mph fastball.”

The fact that McCarthy stuck the landing (a different sports metaphor!) further bolsters the comparison. We can keep watching baseball games or basketball games every day, every year — as opposed to the once-a-year home-run derbies and dunk contests, respectively — because we appreciate the highlights more when they are rare. Whether SCTV in the ’80s or Mr. Show in the ’90s or Chappelle’s Show in the ’00s or Key and Peele in the ’10s, shows that produced better sketches more frequently have come along, but SNL has lasted because of how singularly exciting it is when something really hits.

I am not saying to judge SNL on a curve; judge it like a curveball. If a sketch is bad, you won’t be able to deny it’s bad. And just like sports, you can analyze exactly why it was bad: “The premise didn’t totally make sense for the target of satire.” “The timing was off.” “Didn’t really have an ending.” “Didn’t really have an ending.” “Didn’t really have an ending.” That’s part of the fun! If I had a nickel for every time I Gchatted “they took too long to establish what was supposed to be funny” to a friend, I’d have, like, 50 nickels! There just isn’t much use comparing it to other comedy shows. Though a great SNL sketch, especially when clipped online, can offer a similar experience to any great sketch show, watching SNL live is unlike any other experience on TV. Well, you know, except sports.

Actually watching SNL makes up only part of how I enjoy following the show like a sports team — and not even a large part. There’s also the off-season! When a season wraps up, the real fun (for nerds) starts (for nerds). Who should stay? Who should go? What do they need more of? Less? Who’s coming up in the minors? These conversations happen a little during the season, especially during weaker ones, but over the course of the last month or so, they really heat up. Sure, the gossip is louder for those in the comedy community, but it’s not that hard to speculate from the outside. (These sorts of conversations are happening all the time on Live from New York, the SNL subreddit.) For example, if a person tweets they’re looking to do a short set of characters on as many shows as possible in the next weeks, they’re auditioning.

Still, a lot of this front-office intrigue happens in public. Like my single favorite moment from last season: The announcement that Michael Che and Colin Jost were joining Kent Sublette and Bryan Tucker as co-head writers. It’s not because I’m some huge Josthead or Che-Bae; it just was so much fun discussing how and why this went down with my friends. I’ll give a glimpse of what we talked about. Before this announcement, I had been feeling the show was in need of a visionary head writer in the vein of Adam McKay or Tina Fey. Sublette and Tucker are good sketch writers and kept things running, but the show lacked a certain propulsion since Seth Meyers left as head writer. Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider offered some hope during their short time on top, but they ended up only lasting a year. (This was another hot topic of discussion.) I had been wondering if the show would make Streeter Seidell and Mikey Day head writers, since Seidell had been promoted to writing supervisor and together they are rumored to write a lot of the sketches in a given episode. “But would Michaels ever let a non-Weekend Update cast member be head writer!?!?” I wondered for months. Instead, the promotion went to the controversial (on Twitter, at least) Che and Jost, despite the fact that Jost specifically stepped down from co-head writer just a couple seasons ago to focus on Weekend Update. Conspiracies were shared. Michaels’s Machiavellian motivations were speculated. Just like there’s no crying in baseball, there aren’t trades in television, but moves like this provide the same feeling for those who follow the show closely. Promoting Che and Jost was like when Chris Paul was traded to the Houston Rockets: The talent is there for it to work, but how will it work, and how did it come about in the first place?

Now, after a summer of speculating about “big changes,” as one friend in the know put it, only Tucker stepped down as co-writer. Why!?!?!?!?!?!? And what does it mean for Kenan Thompson’s potential departure?!?!?!?!

There aren’t trades, but people do get drafted (i.e. hired) and cut (fired). Instead of playing time, there’s screen time. (If you Google around, you’ll even find a few examples of SNL fantasy leagues, but it’s pretty straightforward to do on your own. You hold a draft of all the cast members, and each week, you measure how many appearances they have and if they are the star of the scene, a supporting player, or just playing a person at a party/office/game-show audience.) The result is an opportunity for endless debate on what the show should be doing and how that relates to the strategies of the past. Let’s say an all-sketch-performer cast (like the late ’90s) is like a quick, pass-first, spread offense, and a powerful, stand-up-filled cast (like the early ’90s) is like an old-school, big offensive line, run-based offense. Each have their benefits and supporters who can use them as an example when advocating for changes to a current cast. Similarly, especially if you live in New York, L.A., or Chicago, this line of thinking can lead to you treat your respective comedy scenes like a college football or basketball conference, where you can fantasize about seeing a given player (performer) on your favorite team (SNL). And if you’ve seen Don’t Think Twice, you can imagine that when a new cast member joins the show, all his friends at home are both really happy and really resentful. Drama!

Not glamorous enough for ya? Well, the show drafts a new person every episode — the host — and it comes with its own set of trappings, as hosting tends to reflect a person’s relative position in the entertainment industry. For example, I and others were shocked by the announcement that Adam Driver would be hosting the upcoming season premiere. That’s because the premiere host tends to be a breakout performer from the summer blockbusters (Margot Robbie, Chris Pratt), a former cast member (Tina Fey, Amy Poehler), or just a classic famous person with a project to promote (Ryan Gosling). BlacKkKlansman was a fine film, but it came out over a month ago and it was obviously not a breakout role for Driver. He proved himself a solid, if not very good host his first time, but why is he hosting the premiere? Who said no? Does their name rhyme with Wady Waga? The point is, each host comes with the same intrigue as high-profile front-office moves.

All in all, sounds good, right? How can you start? Read Live From New York, Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller’s definitive oral history of the show. Sure, it has all the stories of sex and drugs and rock and roll and Joe Piscopo, but more so it paints a full picture of what it’s like to work at the show and the politics inherent in being a cast member, even if it’s become a much chiller place over the last 15 years (though less chill these past few seasons). Hate to give you more things to read, but if you’ve gotten this far, you have proven at minimum that you know how, so after finishing the book I’d recommend reading recaps and the think pieces and interviews with cast members and writers. I especially suggest listening to past and current cast members and writers on podcasts, where the conversational nature results in more secret slippage. (To combine two of these suggestions, James Andrew Miller is currently focusing his podcast, Origins, on the last season of SNL.) After that, just try to watch the show live whenever you can and pay attention to who gets on the show and when they get on the show and what roles they play when they do so. Lastly, use the off-season months to follow rumors of cast moves and to think about what the show is or isn’t doing, and what it might mean its future. (Some questions for this upcoming season: Does the show have too many cast members that can do only one thing? Is Kyle Mooney now just there to make bonus web content? Will Alec Baldwin’s Trump ever feel like he’s actually part of the show anymore? Why has there been so much more breaking than usual? With Kate McKinnon, Aidy Bryant, and Cecily Strong likely leaving sooner than later, who will step into their roles? Are we on the verge of a Villaseñoraissance? Kenan’s so good. The last one isn’t a question.)

That’s it. You’re ready to follow Saturday Night Live like it was a sport. It’s pretty easy. I mean, it is just watching a television show. The time’s in the title.

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