As a kid, there was something delightfully naughty about watching Saturday Night Live. I can remember watching the show as a pre-teen and my grandma, who was babysitting me at the time, freaking out at particularly off-color boob joke. The show was on late, past my normal bedtime, and the zany, recurring characters were broad enough that it hardly mattered that I didn’t understand all of the punch lines. Yes, it was cool to watch Saturday Night Live as a 10-year-old.
And then, I got a bit older and slogging through the marathon session of television on a precious Saturday night didn’t seem worth it even if, as was most often the case, I didn’t have anything better to do. There was a long stretch of time that I didn’t bother with the show at all or would watch it on occasion or a few sketches here and there.
Well, I’m here to report that I’m back on the SNL bandwagon and it has little or nothing to do with the quality of the show. It has absolutely everything to do with the way that I am watching the show and having lower, or to be more precise, adjusted expectations (more on that later). And it has yet more to do with humankind’s all time greatest invention: the PVR.
You see, I wouldn’t say that SNL is any funnier these days. I don’t think Taran Killam is any funnier than, say, Mike Myers was and, frankly, I didn’t really “get” Kristen Wiig when she was on the show (although I find her quite charming outside of SNL). I do however, have much more fun while watching the show knowing one very important thing: at any moment I can hit fast forward.
Saturday Night Live has always been hit or miss. The hits are exhilarating because they are sandwiched between four or five (at best) bland or (at worst) excruciating misses. The show frequently tries way too hard to fit in jokes about the most recent political blunder or current pop sensation. It has always done this and I’m sure it always will (I am now convinced the show will always be on TV). It doesn’t help that the show is just shy of 12 hours long. Sometimes the musical guest is awful, sometimes the monologue just goes nowhere, the political humor – every last inch of it – is consistently terrible, there are commercials every 5 minutes. And so, the show benefits immensely if you can breeze through it at a rapid pace. Instead of the 25 hours that I would normally have to watch, the show fits neatly into an hour – whatever hour – I choose. (This, by the way, is the very same technique I employ while watching our city’s particularly horrible football team. You can watch a 3-hour football game in 3 minutes if your team doesn’t score a single point!) And, yes, I know what you are going to say, “you could have recorded the show on your VCR before the invention of the PVR, dummy”. And I would say to you, “I was a very stupid child”.
None of this is to say that SNL is always bad. But humor doesn’t usually improve with length. In fact, more often than not, length negatively affects comedy. Brevity is the soul of wit after all and despite the fact that the sketches on SNL are relatively short, the mere fact that the show is long makes for the unfunny bits (of which there are always plenty) REALLY unfunny.
Sketch comedy is also brutally hard and here is where the lowered expectations help. I have never seen a sketch comedy television show that is consistently good. There are amazing sketch shows to be sure (The State, Kids in the Hall, Tim and Eric Awesome Show) but because of their very nature the sum of their parts are always much greater than the whole. There were some fantastic sketches on these shows but they certainly weren’t all great. So you take the good with the bad and if the good is very, very good the bad doesn’t hurt so much. It is the nature of the beast and the beast is a lot more difficult when you are at the mercy of an extremely tight schedule. This only recently came into focus for me after reading this fantastic interview.
What the interview above gets at, is what people rarely think about when they are watching SNL or, really, any TV show: people are working extremely hard to make things work. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. Saturday Night Live, unlike other scripted shows, is up against many forces that make for a particularly difficult working environment: Long hours, extremely tight timelines, the “real world” where people are always doing insane things ripe for the picking (and picking on), crazy guest hosts, etc, etc. You can’t fault ‘em for trying. It’s the old “Let’s put on a show!” idea writ large and there is little I can see that is wrong with that.
Not only that, the creators of Saturday Night Live are doing some other interesting things as of late. They are using the help of humankind’s second greatest invention, the internet, to give them a hand. Who would the “kids these days” like to see host the show? Why an octogenarian, of course! Well, those kids got their wish and they loved it. Now, more Twitter wishes will be granted and SNL will reap the rewards by getting better ratings than they’ve seen in a long, long time.
I rarely like shows for just “trying their best” but Saturday Night Live is proving to be the exception. The PVR has allowed for the triumphs of the show to shine through while making the failures infinitely more palatable. And maybe that is just me putting my blinders on but, heck, it is fun. What those kids do week after week is pretty incredible and, yep, kinda cool.