Wednesday, October 13th, 2010

SNL and The Curse of the Transitional Season

Something isn’t quite right on Saturday Night Live this season. It’s not that the first three episodes of the 36th season have been bad, per se. More like ominous. Chalk it up to a classic Transitional Season. That is, one where new cast members are being introduced (in this case, four new featured players), older stars are starting to show some wear, and an overhaul may be on the horizon. This summer, cast linchpin and eight-year veteran Will Forte announced he would leave the show. In early September, it was announced that first-year player Jenny Slate’s contract would not be renewed for a second season. The new four—Taran Killam, Paul Brittain, Jay Pharaoh, and Vanessa Bayer—were officially added to the cast one day later. Their integration has been rocky.

There have been bright spots—think Bayer’s “The Miley Cyrus Show” or Pharoah’s bafflingly conceived but spot-on Denzel Washington sketch last week. But Killam and Brittain still have no profile. Meanwhile, Kristen Wiig is rolling out creaky warhorses (Gilly!), New York Governor David Paterson continues bumbling his way through Weekend Update, and Kenan Thompson is still asking “What up with that?” This season will more than likely be wracked by growing pains through next May. By this time next year, staples like Wiig, Andy Samberg, Fred Armisen, and others could be off to the land of ill-considered feature films, leaving the reins to Bayer, Pharoah, Nasim Pedrad, and Abby Elliott. This is hardly the first time SNL has endured these sorts of changes. Below are the five most painful Transitional Seasons in Saturday Night history.

No. 1: Season Six (1980-1981)
Crucial Figure: Jean Doumanian
Turning Point: The end of season five, when all original cast members and all but one writer departed the show, including paterfamilias Lorne Michaels.
The Struggle: Doumanian was an experienced producer who had worked on Woody Allen’s films for years, but she flopped badly in her stint on SNL. Faced with replenishing an entire staff and cast, Doumanian passed on future stars John Goodman and Jim Carrey in favor of ill-suited sketch artists like Gilbert Gottfried, Charles Rocket, and Denny Dillon. Ratings plummeted, critics attacked, and SNL ceased to matter. By March, Doumanian was out, after a notorious episode starring embarrassed-to-be-there former player Bill Murray. NBC executive Dick Ebersol retooled the show later that year, scrapping the entire cast, save Eddie Murphy.
Bright Spot: Murphy officially becomes a repertory player by the eighth season.
The Aftermath: Hey, at least Doumanian found Eddie, right? Then again, she also blessed us with Joe Piscopo.

No. 2: Season 20 (1994-1995)
Crucial Figure: Mike Myers
Turning Point: Myers and first-year player Janeane Garofalo quit mid-season.
The Struggle: Myers was fast becoming a star so his exit was hardly surprising, while Garofalo later complained about the “boys’ club” atmosphere of the show. This season featured thirteen repertory and four featured players in all, a bloated rotation. And though Adam Sandler, David Spade, and Chris Farley went on to become comedy stars, Lorne Michaels once said this season was the one when he was closest to being fired. A scathing New York magazine cover story called the show a “grim joke,” all but writing it off.
Bright Spot: The cataclysm of this season has always been a bit overstated—and Garofalo’s last episode was notably Molly Shannon’s first. Bill Murray’s tribute to deceased longtime SNL writer and comedy godhead Michael O’Donoghue at the end of the November 12 episode was a wryly elegiac moment.
The Aftermath: Kevin Nealon, Farley, Sandler, Ellen Cleghorne, Morwenna Banks, Jay Mohr, Laura Kightlinger, Michael McKean and Chris Elliott would all depart the show at season’s end. Season 21 saw the start of the Will Ferrell era.

No. 3: Season Nine (1983-1984)
Crucial Figure: Eddie Murphy
Turning Point: On February 25, Murphy quit after 48 Hours took off at the box office.
The Struggle: Piscopo—now a punchline, but then a serious force on the show—grew increasingly jealous of Murphy’s success and reportedly seethed behind the scenes.
Bright Spot: Billy Crystal’s two guest hosting stints this season previewed what would become an underrated run on the show the following year.
The Aftermath: Piscopo split at season’s end, while Robin Duke, Brad Hall and Tim Kazurinsky were fired. This also marked the beginning of the end for Ebersol, paving the way for Michaels’ return two seasons later.

No. 4: Season 11 (1985-1986)
Crucial Figure: Lorne Michaels
Turning Point: According to Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller’s essential "Live From New York: The Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live," host Chevy Chase pitched an idea for a sketch that featured openly gay cast member Terry Sweeney as an AIDS-afflicted man being weighted by a doctor. Also notable: Damon Wayans getting fired after curiously portraying a police officer as homosexual during a sketch when it was not called for in the script.
The Struggle: In Michaels' big return after five years of self-imposed exile, he hired a strange cast of soon-to-be famous, if not exactly SNL legends, including Joan Cusack, Anthony Michael Hall, Robert Downey Jr.(!), and Randy Quaid. It remains one of the show’s lowest-rated seasons.
Bright Spot: Michaels’ was barely able to convince NBC President Brandon Tartikoff not to cancel the show. Cusack, Downey Jr., Quaid, and Hall (among others) would not return.
The Aftermath: Season twelve remains one of the show’s most crucial, introducing new cast members Phil Hartman, Dana Carvey, Jan Hooks, and Kevin Nealon, and announcing a reinvigorated run for the show.

No. 5: Season 31 (2005-2006)
Crucial Figure: Andy Samberg
Turning Point: “Lazy Sunday,” and the rise of the Digital Short.
The Struggle: This was Wiig, Samberg, and Bill Hader’s first season, and Jason Sudeikis’ second as a featured player. But few remember that Tina Fey and Maya Rudolph sat out large stretches due to pregnancy. In a forgettable, unfortunate moment, Horatio Sanz filled in for Fey on Weekend Update.
Bright Spot: Well, “Lazy Sunday.” This was not a bright, shining season, otherwise.
The Aftermath: Rachel Dratch, Fey, Finesse Mitchell, Chris Parnell and Horatio Sanz all left the show at season’s end. Parnell, Mitchell, and Sanz, were released after Lorne Michaels was given the choice to either cut episodes or cast members. Budget cuts are a bitch.

Sean Fennessey is a writer and editor living in New York. His favorite SNL cast member is and always has been Jon Lovitz.

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  • http://whatevs.tumblr.com Mark Graham

    I have never read that old NY Mag piece, but have it Instapapered now. Great piece, Sean!

  • miseducation

    The best example of what's wrong with this season can be encapsulated by the brutally unfunny Glee sketch from last episode. It started fine and the Glee imitations were certainly amusing enough before they turned it into a shitty Gilly sketch.

    There's nothing wrong with sticking to the Warhorses if they can add something of value on each outing (like Celebrity Jeopardy.) It's just lazy writing to tack on Gilly to the obligatory 'guest of the week'-plug sketch.

    That and I'll argue that Kristen Wiig was already hurting more than she was helping at the beginning of last season.

    • http://whatevs.tumblr.com Mark Graham

      I have been beating the "This should be Wiig's last season" drum, too. It seems like she hasn't put the effort into coming up with new characters, and all of her old ones are now reaching the "grating" stage of their evolutionary cycle. Hader also seems like he's ready to move on (even though I still love him).

  • http://www.twitter.com/becca_oneal Becca

    After reading Live From New York, I was SHOCKED to find that Robert Downey Jr and that whole gang had been on a season of SNL. Who would have known? (Besides people who were alive then and watched SNL…).

    Jean Doumian's tenure gets a lot of piling on, but I don't think Eddie Murphy would have been hired by Lorne Michaels. SNL finds cast members from the same places a lot of the time and Murphy was hired in a pretty unconventional way (being persistent, annoying, cold calling). And Murphy and Michaels' time never even overlapped.

    Talk about a transitional period!

    • YourNameHere

       Jean Doumanian didn't intend on hiring Eddie Murphy. Apparently, it took a lot of convincing from cast and crew for her to hire him – her money was on Robert Townsend.

  • Jennifer G. Lewis

    For me, the show has been heading downhill for a long time, in part because the character impressions are so insular: there’s very little sense of looking out into the world. This is in theory offset by the incredibly topics Weekend Update segments, but in fact, to me, all they do is prove my point further when they dissolve into endless guest segments featuring insular character impressions.

    Also, I am thrilled to see you say that Jon Lovitz is your favorite character. Mine, too. I just bought a book (Celebrity Chekov, by Ben Greenman) where he is the star of one of the longest stories, and I remembered all at once all the things about him that I loved: the bright eyes, the oldfashioned way of speaking, and above all the tone of his voice. Now there was a comedian!

    • HerooftheBeach

      Hi, Jon! I always thought you were totally underrated, too!

  • Steve Hoban

    I was hoping last season was the transitional season.