Last Saturday, I did something I haven’t done in many years: I watched a new episode of Saturday Night Live. I did this for a couple reasons, the main one being that some friends had said it was a good episode, and that this was a rarity for the current season (I’m in the Pacific Time Zone, these friends are in Eastern and Central, so I was able to get a heads-up; and yes, this does mean I wasn’t watching it “live”). I had also seen some chatter from Dan Aykroyd and Steve Martin that they would be on, and I’m a fan of the older comics, so that was an incentive as well. And finally, I’ve been reading a book on the history of Saturday Night Live (which I’ll probably give its own review when I finish it), so the show has been on my mind lately.
Justin Timberlake was hosting, and while I’m not the biggest fan of him as a serious actor, he does pretty well in sketch comedy. Since I haven’t really watched it since high school, I didn’t expect to recognize any of the cast members; other than the surprise of seeing Kenan Thompson among the players, this held true. But overall, even though I didn’t know the comics, it felt like the same show. I didn’t like every sketch, but I laughed at most of them, so I’d say it was a fairly good episode. Naturally I got a big kick out of the “five timers club” and the Three Amigos salute.
I don’t see a need to recap the whole episode. But all this reading and this recent watching has gotten me thinking about the show, and about sketch comedies in general. So it seemed like a good time for a ramble on the subject.
Somebody, and I regrettably forget who, said that everybody’s favorite period of Saturday Night Live is the one from when they were in high school. It’s probably accurate; at least, most people that I’ve talked to, while sometimes acknowledging the quality of other periods (everyone praises the original cast, and with good reason), usually gravitate to the cast that were on the show when they were adolescents. In my case, it wasn’t high school, though; it was more middle school. This is probably due in large part to my brother, who is four years older than me, and who has had a non-negligible effect on my entertainment interests. So I guess you could say my favorite era of SNL was the one from when my brother was in high school. Dana Carvey was probably my favorite cast member at the time, but I also enjoyed Mike Myers, Phil Hartman, Kevin Nealon, and Chris Farley. I don’t really remember disliking any of the cast, though I disliked some sketches. I even liked David Spade in small doses.
I’m sorry, that pun was beneath me. Of course, at his size, Spade’s beneath just about everybody.
But while I was watching Saturday Night Live‘s then-current episodes once a week, I was also catching some of the older stuff on Comedy Central. I’d seen bits and pieces of the original cast before — those parts my parents thought were safe to show us, I think; I mostly remember the Land Shark — but now I got to see the full shows, as well as episodes from the 1980s featuring Eddie Murphy and Billy Crystal. The stuff coming out as I was in my early to mid teens may have been more topical, and thus more relatable, but I laughed as hard at the older sketches. Comedy is comedy, it only loses its shine with age if it was too topical. I also watched episodes of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and the occasional (sadly too occasional) bit of The Carol Burnett Show, SCtv, and The Smothers Brothers. Unfortunately I never found a channel that was airing Your Show of Shows, so there are definite gaps in my sketch comedy history. But there’s still enough to give me a sense of the broader scope, and the shows that sprang up after I started watching SNL supplied more. I watched MAD TV (the original one, not the more recent MAD) and In Living Color regularly. Sketch comedy is a format that always has certain similarities no matter who is doing it, but everybody has their own unique voice.
The format lends itself to churning out characters who have ongoing misadventures that the audience just occasionally gets peeks into. People have been bemoaning the use of recurring characters in Saturday Night Live and other sketch comedies since the show began, and there’s a certain validity to it; certainly not every character needs to show up more than once, and an over-reliance on characters can run the risk of edging out a brilliant one-shot idea. But the recurring characters have always been around. Laugh-In had the dirty old man. Monty Python had the Gumbys (and SNL just had Gumby, damn it!) And really, what are the Three Stooges but recurring sketch characters without the surrounding sketch show?
If the Stooges were created today, they would start as a sketch on Saturday Night Live.
Once, several years ago, I read a blog where someone said that SCtv was funnier than Saturday Night Live, “and I don’t care which overused character from SNL you like”. I won’t dispute the main point; everyone has their own tastes, and what I’ve seen of SCtv was certainly as good as anything from SNL I’ve seen. But I wondered at the time if anybody had ever pointed out to this guy that the McKenzie Brothers were recurring characters on SCtv, and that Martin Short had created Ed Grimley on SCtv before taking the character with him to Saturday Night Live. I’m not knocking those characters or the show (it’s all good), but just pointing out that it’s a little hypocritical to knock one show for reusing characters while praising another that is just as responsible for creating heavily-used characters. (In fact, as Grimley was on two sketch series, got his own cartoon show, and was reused repeatedly in the 1997 Martin Short Show, as well as cameos elsewhere over the years, he is almost certainly the most heavily-used sketch comedy character in TV history.)
The John Munch of sketch comedy.
But really, the concept of “overused” is nebulous and subjective. I suppose if NBC and the other networks that have aired sketch comedies kept track of audience reactions they could devise a metric that indicates when a character is starting to wear thin. But it’s not like the public ever sees that. Really, when somebody says a character is overused, it’s synonymous with “I don’t like this character anymore (or never did).” I thought Pat was a one-sketch character; beyond that, I found him/her tiresome. But I never tired of Wayne Campbell and Garth Algar. I thought Fire Marshall Bill on In Living Color wore thin after a few sketches, but most of their other recurring characters were more consistently entertaining to me. My point is, it’s all subjective. I might object to a particular character getting used again, but not to the general concept of reusing a character. Character is one of the things that comedy is built around, and having an established character can allow a sketch to cut to the chase — how many of these characters had their funniest sketch be one after the first one simply because their role didn’t need to be explained the second time around?
Of course, when the show is being fronted by an entertainment conglomerate, it’s tempting to try and make a big thing even bigger. One of the things I learned reading the history of SNL is that at one point, about the time I was watching regularly, there was a desire to try and spin characters off into their own sitcoms. That never came to fruition (which is probably a good thing), but movie attempts were certainly made. Other than Wayne’s World and The Blues Brothers, they haven’t been particularly notable, though (and arguably The Blues Brothers only sort of counts, since they were on the show as “musical guests” rather than a straight-up sketch.) Just for the sake of reference, here’s a chart featuring the chronological success (and lack thereof) of films based on Saturday Night Live characters. (Click to make it larger.)
As you can see, the tale of the tape isn’t very kind to SNL movies. There have been only four profitable movies out of fourteen, and only two of those were profitable enough to be considered hits — but with those being the first two, and being so wildly successful, it’s not hard to see why Lorne Michaels and company have wanted to make further attempts at transitioning characters from the small screen to the large screen. Why have they been such repeated failures? Super-small budgets, including a general lack of promotion, may be responsible for some of it. But it’s probably the novelty factor at work. Some of these characters — Pat, again, comes to mind — simply don’t have much to them. It’s enough to sustain a sketch, but a full film requires a little more meat to it. Character comedy works for sketches; films need a plot to go with that character comedy. The Blues Brothers wasn’t just Jake and Elwood playing music together, and Wayne’s World wasn’t just Wayne and Garth hanging out in the basement. There was a purpose to the film, a sense of putting these characters in something grander. Rightly or wrongly, audiences didn’t anticipate that quality from the other films (the sequels to the two hits suffered from their own problems). Or it may simply be that the lightning-in-a-bottle of the first two simply hasn’t been recaptured by later creations. It’s a bit doubtful any of the sketches were as popular as “Wayne’s World” on the show itself.
Sketch comedy is a different beast than film comedy, and it may be that Saturday Night Live won’t ever achieve that level of success again in the theatre. But they’ve got to be doing something right as far as television goes. The show is currently in its 38th season, which makes it the longest-running sketch comedy series by a long shot. Some seasons may be terrible (and I’ve heard the current one is), but the show keeps plugging along, even when other sketch comedies come and go, whether it’s after several years (such as In Living Color) or just a few weeks (such as She TV). Will I watch the show again? Probably not soon; I’ll wait for the inevitable shake-up if the season really is as dire as friends have been saying. But I’m glad the show’s there for those who do enjoy it, and so that the current crop of high schoolers still have something to check out.