The new 'SNL'
Published: Tuesday, January 11, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 10, 2005 at 10:12 p.m.
On a recent broadcast of "Saturday Night Live," cast members Maya Rudolph and Amy Poehler, playing the troubled celebrities Diana Ross and Anna Nicole Smith, lurched across the stage, sporting gala attire and looks of bewildered inebriation. The two actresses were appearing in a skit called "The American Trainwreck Awards," honoring the "most embarrassing moments in American entertainment."
In groups of two, other "SNL" cast members performed dead-on impersonations of scandal-plagued figures like Tara Reid and Mickey Rourke, reading off the names of nominees like Courtney Love, Nick Nolte and Janet Jackson.
The skit perfectly summarized what has become the dominant form of humor on "Saturday Night Live": parodies of the foibles of hapless celebrities. In recent months, both Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan have appeared on "Weekend Update," which is generally devoted to political humor, to poke fun at their party-girl reputations.
When Reid, the buxom B-list starlet, popped out of her peek-a-boo party dress at a birthday party for Sean Combs in November, the slip-up was parodied in not one but two separate skits that were seen on successive weeks. Meanwhile, the show's highly coveted guest-host slots now frequently go to the kind of performers - Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, Christina Aguilera, Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey, Janet Jackson - who seem to have arrived straight out of the pages of Us Weekly.
Veterans of "SNL," as well as longtime fans, wonder whether a show that once built skits around Chevy Chase's impression of President Gerald Ford or sui generis characters like Gilda Radner's Emily Litella can still be regarded as dangerous or inventive when it now takes aim at sitting ducks like Britney Spears.
"It's such a safe, wishy-washy target, as opposed to going after the powers that be," said Adam McKay, an "SNL" writer from 1995 to 2001, and its head writer from 1996 to 1999. "We always knew that the No. 1 reason the show exists is to do impersonations of the president, our leaders, the Donald Trumps of the world - the people who need to be made fun of. And the show works when you do that, and it doesn't work when you don't do that."
By emphasizing broad comedy about celebrity culture, McKay said, "SNL" had ceded considerable ground to popular rivals like Comedy Central's "Daily Show With Jon Stewart."
Some of the show's most devoted viewers agree.
"With all the tabloids and 'Access Hollywood' entertainment shows, we're already pounded on with Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan," said Heather O'Neill, co-author of a weekly critique of "SNL" for the pop-culture blog whatevs.org. "When that starts being brought into a show that's supposed to be controversial, it makes me lose interest in it."
Whereas "SNL" writers of previous eras could generate "an entire sketch out of nothing," said her writing partner, Jason Nummer, "now they're based on whoever the paparazzi are targeting."
Of course, "Saturday Night Live" is a franchise that viewers love to disparage even as they organize their weekend plans around it. Now in its 30th season on NBC, the late-night variety series has been criticized for being sophomoric and uneven for roughly 29 and a half of them, even as it continues to deliver high ratings and mint new comedic stars.
Lorne Michaels, the creator of "SNL" and its executive producer for 25 of its 30 years, warned against wallowing too deeply in nostalgia for the show's formative years, when giants like Lily Tomlin and Dick Cavett served as hosts.
"If it was the same group of people as when it started in 1975," he said, "we'd all just be sitting in a room, staring at each other." Without specifically citing competitors like "The Daily Show," he said that, as a network series, "SNL" has a larger mission to fulfill. "We're a big-tent show," Michaels said. "We bring a coalition of tastes. A cable show can do a one rating and be enormously popular. We're not that show. People who are staying to watch 'Update,' or the people who want to see the music, or the people hoping we do a political sketch, all those audiences have to coexist." (Ratings for "SNL" are as strong as ever, with this season's live broadcasts drawing from 6 million to 9 million viewers each.)
But there is one group in particular that Michaels considers to be the show's core audience. "I used to say that the longest four years of your life are high school," he said, "and that's when people generally form an attachment to 'Saturday Night Live.' " He said the show did not look for hosts to reach specific viewers, but rather stars "who we think we could do a good show around - that when they come out that door, there's a real excitement in the studio."
Tina Fey, one of two head writers for "SNL" and the author of "The American Trainwreck Awards" sketch, said that the show's sensibility was simply too immediate and its production schedule too chaotic for a formula to dictate its contents. Writers may draw their material from celebrity tabloids scattered around their offices. ("They're like pornography," she joked. "That's how disgusting you feel.") But more than anything, they are inspired by a fundamental, Darwinian desire to get their material onto the air. "Everyone's trying to figure out their road to job security," Fey said. "It's almost like one of those experiments with pigeons pecking at things to get food, and if you peck at something and get food, you're going to keep pecking at it."
In a given week, Fey said, about 20 writers (for many of whom "SNL" represents their first television job) gather on Monday morning to pitch ideas for that Saturday's show. Sketches are written late into Tuesday night, and at a Wednesday read-through, some 40 skits are presented for about 10 available slots. "Thirty sketches a week fall into oblivion," she said. If more topical material tends to survive this process, Fey said, it's because audiences tend to react more strongly to it. "Responding to the events of the week is part of what keeps the show interesting," she said. "People know that it's live and can respond to that."
The show's embrace of celebrity travails may have been speeded by the May 2002 departure of Will Ferrell, who took an entourage of recurring characters with him. "He was a huge alpha male," said James Andrew Miller, the author, with Tom Shales, of the book "Live From New York," an oral history of "SNL." "You just stick him in the middle of a sketch and you can't take your eyes off him." When Fey started at "SNL" in 1997, the show was dominated by its recurring characters - say, the high-school cheerleaders played by Ferrell and Molly Shannon, or Mango, the male stripper portrayed by Chris Kattan.
"As a new writer," Fey said, "it was like, oh boy, that's one slot every week that you can't get in the show, because those skits always got in first."
Interestingly, Fey credits her work on a series of gossipy celebrity send-ups - a recurring parody of the daytime talk show "The View"- for helping to preserve her staff writing position at "SNL."
"If you look back at them, they do not hold up," she said. "They're really not good. But at the time, I was like, 'I got something on!' It was my first year, and I needed to figure out how to stay afloat."
As co-anchor of "Weekend Update," Fey said that the inherent disposability of celebrity gossip made it a perfect fit for the show's fake-news segment. "You don't want to spend the time and effort on a whole sketch about that," she said, "but on 'Update' you can try it and cut it if it's not funny." To the extent that celebrity culture has taken up more airtime on "SNL," Fey said that the show was simply reflecting celebrity's domination of the national consciousness. "We're becoming like Spanish-language television," she said. "Everyone is a movie star, and has a record album, and has a scandal."
Paradoxically, the surge of safe, celebrity-oriented material may also be the result of serious political and social concerns on the part of "SNL" writers. Hugh Fink, who wrote for the show from 1995 to 2002, said that the events of Sept. 11 had a significant impact on the program.
"For the first time, there was discussion in the writers' room about, 'We can't do this sketch, because it could be perceived as racist or anti-Arab,"' Fink recalled. "And I'd never heard those discussions in an 'SNL' writing room before."
McKay added that post-9/11 patriotism, along with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, had made "SNL" reluctant to take hard shots at President Bush, an unwillingness that he feels persists at the show today.
"In the name of political fairness or some odd sense of patriotism, Lorne has laid off the president for the last couple of years, and I don't agree with that move," he said.
Instead, both writers said, "SNL" has relied on pop-culture skits, which, while occasionally caustic, never really run the risk of offending anyone.
The show's comedy may also be driven by its guest hosts. In between perennial guest hosts like Steve Martin and John Goodman, "SNL" has always relied on hosts whose fame belonged to a specific moment in time - 2004's Jessica Simpson is 1987's Angie Dickinson is 1979's Kate Jackson. While these sorts of hosts may draw high ratings, they may not be deft at live comedy.
"It's the one place where you have to be really, really careful, because you could get the teenage bimbette du jour," Miller said. "She's in a hit movie this weekend, and you're going to get lots of 13- to 17-year-olds watching. But what happens if she's no good at sketch comedy?"
The inevitable results, say the former "SNL" staffers, are lackluster shows that can't be salvaged even by a couple of memorable skits. "You can have all these ostensibly great, writerly pieces," Fink said. "They're not got to make a dent if the people performing them aren't more than mediocre."
Ultimately, McKay said, "SNL" is only as good as its guest hosts, pointing to its earliest seasons as a time when the show's sense of what was culturally significant could be guided by its own internal compass.
"The reason we loved 'SNL' when we were kids was because it was cooler than us," he said. "You would see someone like Elvis Costello on that show, or Buck Henry, and you could tell everyone thought he was cool, and you were trying to figure out why. The show should be a little cooler than its audience, and when it goes into that Justin Timberlake-land, it becomes less cool."
Fink, who is currently developing a celebrity-news-oriented "Daily Show"-style series for Comedy Central, added that if "SNL" had always been driven by the scandal-of-the-week spirit that currently fuels the show, it would have probably ignored many of the performers most closely associated with it. "If Christopher Walken were a young character actor now," he said, "I don't think he'd ever be hosting the show."
For his part, Michaels says his basic philosophy in running "SNL" has not changed, even as the show's guest-host slot alternates between tabloid stars like the Olsen twins and venerated icons like Robert De Niro. "I've always been, when in doubt, go young," Michaels said. "Because lots of things are much more forgivable when it's someone young trying it."
Emerging briefly from the fog of another Tuesday-night writing session, Fey said that celebrity parody sketches still occupied a prominent place in her comedic arsenal; a few weeks ago, she composed one that satirized the heavily hyped marriage of Star Jones, the ebullient co-host of "The View."
"The only evidence of any growth for me in the past eight years is that it wasn't a straight parody of 'The View,"' Fey said with a laugh. Though she was glad to have staved off her deadline anxiety for one more week, she confessed experiencing the slightest pang of regret for having written the skit: "You feel like, should I eat these cheese curls or should I eat a plate of lean protein and vegetables? All right, cheese curls for everybody."
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