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Thursday, January 23rd, 2014

The Evolution of 'SNL's Pretaped Sketches and Digital Shorts

Andy Samberg and the Lonely Island were not the first to produce pre-recorded material for Saturday Night Live. The show has a long tradition of commercial parodies, short films by directors like Albert Brooks and Tom Schiller, and animated work like Robert Smigel’s TV Funhouse sketches. They weren’t even the first to use the “SNL Digital Short” tag. What they did do, was usher SNL into the age of digital online content in a time when it needed to tap into that relevance more than ever. And because they were able to tap into the early rising of the online video tide, as well as produce work prodigiously at a quality pace, for better or for worse the “SNL Digital Short” title remains synonymous with the Lonely Island.

However, when Andy Samberg left the show along with his Lonely Island mates (Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer) after the 2012 season, SNL did not stop producing content meant to play as stand-alone sketches that could be viewed online without any loss of excitement from the live show. The following season they premiered two of my favorite sketches in recent memory, “Sad Mouse” and “Lincoln,” both of which clearly drew a line in the sand that indicated the new age of the digital short would be quite different from the more high-energy Lonely Island days (also indicated by the lack of “SNL Digital Short” title card preceding them).

Prior to the 2013 season, SNL hired Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett as featured players along with Dave McCary as a segment director. Making up 3/4 of the popular web sketch group Good Neighbor, the show clearly was looking to replicate the success of the Lonely Island videos by allowing a previously established sketch group to create pre-recorded original material for the show. So far, the Good Neighbor sketches have mostly occupied the famously weird final slot on the show, but they've been fresh, funny, and a fine spotlight for performers who haven’t otherwise seen much airtime on the show. More importantly, the Good Neighbor sketches are doing something similar to what made the Lonely Island so successful: they are creating work in a style and tone that could not be made as a live sketch.

At first glance, the two groups are incredibly different, with Lonely Island going to big-budget loud parodies of excess and Good Neighbor tending towards quiet, DIY-style production, but both are successful at pioneering what people want to see in online video in their respective times.

Given what they are known for now, it's hard to believe that the first Lonely Island digital short was this sketch, “Lettuce”, written by Will Forte. It has none of the staples of their later comedy, most notably without any music or high concept production design. But what Akiva Schaffer, the groups primary director, does have and takes advantage of, is a uniquely confident performer in Andy Samberg. In fact, whether he's chomping lettuce or bragging about his sexual conquests despite having an embarrassing condition in my personal favorite Lonely Island sketch, Samberg performs with a confidence that allows the material to make fun of his character without making his shame the butt of the joke. Samberg isn’t embarrassed of what we all are laughing at, he's proud of it, and that makes it easier for the audience to laugh at him.

What really allowed the Lonely Island sketches to take off was their high production value, using video effects, lighting, sets and locations that allowed their sketches to exist in a world that looked nothing like SNL's other live sketches. It also looked nothing like much of the other material on the internet. Since they were backed by SNL, the Lonely Island had the benefit of looking more exciting than the work that surrounded it on television but more professional than the work that surrounded it on the internet; the sketches stood out in both places. They existed in a unique place and as a result were able to use their medium to its fullest. By combining their very confidently goofy sensibilities with the self-seriousness and extreme excess of modern pop music production, the Lonely Island was able to best present their voice.

Good Neighbor exists on the opposite end of the spectrum. Their work, directed entirely by McCary, has a DIY, home-video feel to it. This is a no less of a style choice than the high production of the Lonely Island sketches and it feels as out of place in the SNL lineup because of its handheld style and real, often unexciting locations. The key thing McCary and Good Neighbor seem to realize is the difference in performance when not in front of a live audience. Performers on SNL need to play to a crowd to get the excitement of the live audience to translate onto the screen. This usually means playing to the back of the room, eschewing subtlety for large gestures. Low energy sketches have a harder time one SNL because ultimately in many ways they are filming a stage show. By taking away the audience, Good Neighbor is able to give SNL lower energy work that plays on its subtleties and visual specificity. My favorite Good Neighbor sketch so far, “Sigma”, requires subtle camera movements and flatly delivered lines in order to work, and it's a sketch that would not have played as well live because of the importance of the patience in the reveals.

The Good Neighbor home-video style also revels in finding humor in mistakes or making things seem like accidents that the camera happened to catch. Obviously, this is hard to accomplish in a live show because the goal of the live show is to “pull it off.” What impresses people about live television is the idea that everything could come tumbling down at any moment, but that the performers are so prepared and flexible that nothing can stop them. The excitement comes from the risk, but ultimately in order to pull it off, the production needs to be fairly risk-averse. This is why many SNL sketches have simple constructions like a game show or a talk show. Those familiar sets are easier to build and to block for acting. Good Neighbor sketches play on the idea that what you are seeing is not staged, it is real life, so their characters can make mistakes and the joke can be in the mistake. Their work isn’t trying to hide the seams of the production, but rather is finding humor in revealing them.

In their ushering of SNL into the digital era, the Lonely Island made their work as big and flamboyant as possible. Their goal was to out-produce the live show, with production values that couldn’t be accomplished on live TV. Eventually the internet, and even the general production of the live (particularly musical acts, which now give the guests full visual freedom in creating their stage) caught up to the high production of the Lonely Island sketches, so the choice to hire Good Neighbor as the heir apparent shows a commitment to do things with pre-taped material that can’t be done with on the live show. Whereas Lonely Island was out-producing the live show, Good Neighbor underproduces, harking back to a more analog feel. Their work makes the show feel personal and accessible in a way that the currently constructed SNL-as-starmaker tends not to feel. Their sketches show their performers individuality and vulnerability beyond characters and silly costumes and their model is a strong one to follow in an era when audiences respond well to direct engagement, whether it be YouTube channels or Twitter. More and more cast members will start at SNL with an already established online presence and an ability to create personal work for an already engaged audience (see: newest cast member Sasheer Zamata’s web short that circulated the internet when her hiring was announced), so SNL would be smart to continue to trust it’s cast, writers, and segment directors to produce work that keeps the show active and relevant in the ever-important online conversation.

Brad Becker-Parton is a film person living in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter; you'll regret it during Knicks games.