The moment Murray, Belushi and Aykroyd left, it started to be "cool" to dis SNL. You’ve heard the criticisms. When Entertainment Weekly’s Annie Barrett reviewed 30 Rock's live episode (which was shot in SNL’s Studio 8H, with the same production crew), she described it as “like SNL, but funny!” Good one, Annie. No matter how funny or relevant SNL becomes, commentators are still reluctant to praise the show, whining that it has lost the "edge" or "energy" of the previous era.
What’s weird is that I don’t remember anyone loving the "previous era" very much, either. How quickly we forget the visceral reviews hurled at the show during its 1994-1995 disaster season (when the beloved Chris Farley, Adam Sandler and Norm MacDonald roamed 8H), or the days when people joked that Ashlee Simpson’s lip-synching fiasco finally made SNL worth watching again. (Who was running the show in those days? Oh, that’s right… Tina Fey.)
Never mind the show’s brilliant coverage of the 2008 presidential election, its relatively early adoption of the enormously popular (and YouTube- and Hulu-friendly) digital short, and its ongoing ability to attract the country’s most hilarious young writers (Simon Rich, John Mulaney) and character actors (Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig).
That’s right, fuck “Dick in a Box,” Stefon, and “I can see Russia from my house!” The Spartan Cheerleaders and Farley’s ass crack were WAY funnier. Right?
A number of purists, who sob over the premature deaths of shows like Arrested Development, Freaks and Geeks, and The Ben Stiller Show, love to lump SNL in with Jay Leno and The Simpsons as stale, ancient comedic institutions which, despite once being admired as the rightful kings of American comedy, now have enjoyed too many years with solid ratings and mainstream popularity to be “truly funny.” These comedy death panels hope that if they stuff their reviews with enough verbal eye rolls, the lifeless Frankenshows will eventually collapse under the weight of their cynicism.
One of the most prominent of these critics is Ken Tucker, who writes a weekly SNL recap/review for Entertainment Weekly. Although I give Tucker credit for faithfully following a number of different shows and writing consistently thorough and fair reviews, his SNL recaps, which he recounts as if it’s a chore, are tainted by an obvious disdain for the show’s writers and actors, accompanied with heartfelt sympathy for the guest hosts for surviving the night in one piece.
For example, Tucker’s review of this season’s Jon Hamm episode, titled “Wham, bam, thank you, Hamm,” described Hamm like you would describe an NBA star playing a quick game at his son’s neighborhood court: “A good host frequently seems to bring out the best in Saturday Night Live, and this was true of Jon Hamm… at least in the sketches and taped pieces in which he was involved.” Similarly, Tucker felt Jane Lynch "sparked an above-average SNL," saying that "the show used her skills as both a performer and, occasionally, an improviser (adding a sharp reaction or edge to a line in responding to another cast member), to better advantage than could have been expected." Tucker’s primary criticism of the Bryan Cranston episode was that the host wasn’t in enough sketches, and that after the “promising start” of Cranston’s musical opening monologue, “the rest of the night was essentially a slow let-down.”
Obviously Jon Hamm, Jane Lynch and Bryan Cranston are exceptionally talented performers who no doubt contributed to the show in a positive way. Indeed, many great hosts over the years — Alec Baldwin, Tom Hanks, Steve Martin — regularly helm fantastic episodes. But Ken Tucker makes it sound like the actors and writers of SNL would be completely lost without a more seasoned performer holding their hands, as they apparently were when they didn’t let Cranston star in most of the sketches.
I’ve always watched SNL to see what new characters the ensemble will come up with, or what event from the past week will inspire the cold open. I suppose some people are more interested in the old-fashioned schtick of having a big-name celebrity try to read jokes off of cue cards. I mean, how funny was it watching your high school’s assistant principal try to hide that bouquet up his sleeve during the Faculty Follies? I’m sure Ken Tucker laughed his ass off.
Sometimes, the reviews feel like Tucker is watching a completely different show than the rest of us are. His most recent review got a major detail flat-out wrong: He claimed Bill Hader’s elderly reporter Herb Welch died at the end of a sketch, when in reality the sketch’s final gag (a particularly funny one) featured Hader faking death and springing back to life, heckling the camera. He also dismissed Bobby Moynahan’s Guy Feiri impersonation as “heavy-handed,” claiming that it nearly “capsized” a weak Weekend Update until it was “rescued” by Jay Pharoah’s “fine series” of rap songs. Maybe it’s just me, but I thought Moynahan’s delivery was hilarious, while Pharoah’s verbal segues and awkward standing up threw off his comedic timing, and his decent Jay-Z impersonation didn’t make up for his completely-off Biggie Smalls.
Tucker completely trashed the Scarlett Johnansson episode (admittedly the season’s weak point thus far), calling it a “convocation of crickets.” Specifically, Tucker mentioned a sketch in which Kenan Thompson plays a boy in a leg cast who keeps trying to stand out of his wheelchair but pitifully falls on his face each time. Granted, the risky, sight-gag premise didn’t hit too well with the lukewarm studio audience, but Tucker described it as “one of those stare-at-the-ceiling embarrassing sketches.” I wasn’t crazy about it either, but to call it “stare-at-the-ceiling embarrassing” goes a little too far. At least now we know where Tucker was staring during the Herb Welch sketch.
In his review of the Emma Stone episode, Tucker said the following: "At this point in Saturday Night Live's history, any edition with a few good sketches plus good performances by the guest host must be counted a success." I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I’d use that standard for ANY point in SNL's history. SNL remains the most ambitious comedy program currently on television. Week after week it has to fill about 50 minutes of material (after you take out commercial time, the opening and closing credits, and the musical guest performances). Yes, writers for The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, Conan, The Late Show with David Letterman, etc., all have to write fresh jokes every day, but at least a third of the run time on those shows is devoted to guest interviews, and all of them can retape or edit out bits that don’t hit with the studio audience. SNL, on the other hand, broadcasts live, but that doesn’t stop commentators from comparing the show to other pre-taped comedy formats.
So again, I agree with you, Ken Tucker. If an SNL episode has 2-3 funny sketches, a decent Weekend Update, and a fun digital short — all of which SNL pulls off almost every week — that’s 25 minutes of solid material right there. Combine that with a decent performance by the guest host, and it’s a success. Let’s not shrug that off with a cynical sigh of relief, let’s celebrate the incredible feat that these actors, writers, producers and crew just pulled off.
I realize that SNL has certainly seen better days, and that even at their best, the sketches still feel like they’re hit or miss. That’s the mainstream opinion, and in all fairness, I can’t say the show has done all that much to prove it wrong. But it’s not a critic’s job to take his cues from mainstream opinion and preach to the choir. Rather, critics should inform mainstream opinion by actually watching the source material, analyzing it against a fair and consistent set of criteria, and then drawing conclusions.
I don’t think critics are applying this process to SNL anymore. I’m not sure they ever did.
So the next time you want to try to be cool and say that a show is “like SNL, but funny,” try actually watching SNL first. Try watching it live. If you still feel that way, fine. But at least watch the damn show.
Erik Voss stands up for what is right.