It seems like the general consensus around last weekend’s episode of Saturday Night Live was a bit of a bust, with much of the criticism surrounding Jim Carrey’s… less than stellar impression of Vice President Joe Biden (because I guess we’ve all just accepted that Lorne Michaels will not let go of Alec Baldwin’s equally-lackluster impression of Donald Trump now that criticism toward him has died down). But I can’t help but notice much of the negative feedback just assumed as a matter of consensus that such a poor impersonation of the possible next President of the United States is something that’s worth discussing or has any cultural impact whatsoever these days.
“Oh, come on, Robert, of course this doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things!” Here’s the thing, though – in the entertainment industry alone, the show used to be a pretty big deal. SNL has been for years not just a popular sketch comedy show, but a cultural institution and a wellspring of some of the biggest comedy icons of all time. Over the course of show’s history, an improv performer or a stand-up becoming a regular cast member was akin to a student-athlete making it into the NFL or a fighter pilot being invited to join the Blue Angels. It was the opportunity of a lifetime and a signal that you were on the verge of major stardom. This was the one opportunity to prove your worth.
Just look at the major stars who found breakout success on the show: Tina Fey, Al Franken, Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Jim Belushi, Dana Carvey, Dennis Miller (yes, he was actually a successful comedian and not just Bill O’Reilly’s sidekick once upon a time), Bill Murray, Mike Myers, Adam Sandler, Jimmy Fallon, Will Ferrell, Chris Farley, Phil Hartman, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Seth Meyers, and even Robert Downey Jr. (who was fired!). Kate McKinnon will almost certainly enjoy a similarly successful solo career when she eventually leaves the show.
But it seems in the last few years like those influences have waned considerably. Some former cast members have gone on to successful solo careers in the last decade – most notably Academy Award-nominee Kristin Wiig – but the rate at which they’ve discovered and launched the careers of comedy giants is nowhere near what it was in the 80s, 90s, and even the aughts. But just as many stars in recent years have come from other comedy shows with as much, or even more, cultural bonafides, like The Daily Show and The Office.
And it’s not just the entertainment industry. Saturday Night Live also used to have a significant impact on politics. Tina Fey’s impression of Sarah Palin, especially her infamous line “I can see Russia from my house!” played a big part in how she was perceived by voters in the 2008 election. Chevy Chase’s depiction of President Gerald Ford as a bumbling klutz also apparently influenced several voters in the 1976 presidential election. I still remember how cable news networks would discuss the parodies of the major candidates of 2008 and 2012 and what their implications were. But does anyone discuss them now, other than to complain about how bad they are? Seriously, when was the last time one of their sketches became an instant classic? When was their last “I can see Russia from my house!” viral moment? Heck, when was their last “more cowbell?”
I’m sure there are multiple reasons for this, not least of which is just the inevitability of shifting cultural tastes; nothing lasts forever. I’m sure one of the obvious factors is also President Trump, a politician who is so far beyond parody in his behaviors and scandals that it’s probably hard for any comedian to add to the absurdity. Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park flat-out admitted that they’ve faced difficulties writing good episodes in the last few years, which makes sense because their smug and cynical “both sides suck equally” sense of humor doesn’t strike as intelligent satire in this day and age. Neither does the shaggy improv style of Saturday Night Live. Looking at the most popular comedy shows still going today, the biggest influence on how to do comedy during the Trump Administration was clearly The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, for better and for worse.
Did the internet play a factor? Maybe, though it’s worth noting that SNL’s track record of cultivating future movie/TV stars is still better than YouTube’s, and the last decade was brutal for comedy websites like CollegeHumor, Funny Or Die, and Cracked.com. But there is no doubt that consumer tastes seem to be increasingly turning towards more short-form video content and bite-sized tweets for laughs, which requires a different set of skills for a performer than the improv-heavy SNL.
That might be why the show keeps tapping into old, established stars like Baldwin and Carrey to portray the two major party nominees for President, both of whom compare very unfavorably to the impressions of Darrell Hammond and Jason Sudeikis; actual improv veterans who used to play them. I can’t help but wonder if Lorne Michaels’ decision to cast them stems from a weird inferiority complex in the face of cultural shifts. It’s as if he doesn’t have faith in his regulars to deliver the kinds of impressions people will actually talk about, so his desperation dictates tried-and-true old stars. Which in and of itself is disheartening, as writer Daniel Kibblesmith noted last month:
But the real question might be… is this such a bad thing? If Saturday Night Live’s relevance is on the way out, that may be a byproduct of overall positive changes in the long run. In the past, being hired by Saturday Night Live was a big deal for comedians with dreams of stardom because it was one of the only pathways to do so. This meant moving to New York, steeling yourself for the nightly grind of improv tours and stand-up routines until maybe, if you’re lucky, Lorne or one of his friends discovers you and likes you enough to possibly make your way onto the show. And because that show was such a big opportunity, you really didn’t have the option to protest working conditions. If Jim Breuer’s book I’m Not High (But I’ve Got a Lot of Crazy Stories about Life as a Goat Boy, a Dad, and a Spiritual Warrior) is to be believed, Lorne Michaels was a borderline abusive boss.
But these days, the barrier for entry is now almost nonexistent. Anyone with an internet connection can get themselves seen. Being part of the New York standup scene isn’t a prerequisite for comedy stardom anymore. If you perform for the love of it and want to, above anything else, be seen and heard and get your voice out there, there has never been a better time for you in human history than right now (less so if you want to make a living off of it). And if such a thing means we don’t “need” Saturday Night Live anymore… well, it’s not like Eddie Murphy’s career will just up and stop existing.