When television first went nationwide in the 1940's, there were only three networks and the shows that were broadcast became a part of the national conversation. Shows like I Love Lucy, The Andy Griffith Show, Your Show of Shows, and Bob Hope specials gained such wide viewership that they were called "Water cooler shows", meaning that everybody would be talking about the shows the next day when they met at work by the water cooler.
In the 2020's, television has splintered into such small corners that water cooler moments almost never happen anymore, with the possible exception of the Super Bowl. Between broadcast television, cable networks, and streaming services, it's very unlikely that a large group will see the same show and have something to talk about the next day at work or wherever. This is a part of our continuing polarization as well, where entire groups of Americans wall themselves off and have nothing in common with other groups. Water cooler shows at least gave us some sort of common bond.
Saturday Night Live concludes its 47th season as I write this, and the fate of the departing cast members such as Kate McKinnon and Pete Davidson has been a national conversation that has lit up the virtual water coolers. SNL is our last and only such show that can unite large groups of people, with the exception of a devoted group of SNL deniers who claim the show is past its prime and not nearly as good as it once was. (or never was)
I know I shouldn't, but I occasionally read the Facebook comments on SNL stories to see where people are regarding this show, which I have faithfully followed since its beginning. Trolls have been making fun of SNL for years, always claiming that the show isn't as good as it was in whatever year it used to be funny, it's too political, it's been on too long etc. Dumping on SNL is a popular pastime for internet judges who love hating on the show for whatever reason, but even the trolls have to admit that the show still captures their attention, or they wouldn't bother writing snarky things about it.
Saturday Night Live hasn't shied away from politics, and that's a big part of the backlash against it. While the show has featured prominent Republicans like Donald Trump, John McCain, and Rudy Giulani, it's often criticized for having a leftist bias, which appears to be true of the majority of comedians. To be funny, comedians are required to poke fun at the rich and powerful, at the stodgy and stuck-up, and at most institutions in general. This is harder to do from a conservative viewpoint, where the object is to preserve social order.
But most of the classic comedy sketches- Stefan, the Coneheads, Blues Brothers, Spartan Cheerleaders, Jeopardy, Wayne's World, Debbie Downer, and many more are decidedly apolitical. The people who object to these sketches just don't have much of a sense of humor and need a good laugh more than the rest of us.
When it comes to SNL, I see four basic truths:
- 47 seasons on network television is an amazing record, especially considering all of the transition that television has seen with the rise of cable tv, streaming tv, and the internet during that time period. And though the ratings have fluctuated, the show remains vibrant today and likely to continue for decades more
- SNL may be the last "water-cooler" show remaining that the majority of Americans are still aware of and talk about with any regularity. The characters and comedians that the show has spawned and introduced to America have changed pop culture more than any other source.
- There was no "golden age" of SNL. The first season made all of the others possible, but it had some truly bad moments. The show was nearly cancelled in the 1980's but found a way to re-invent itself. Each season has its highs and lows, it's stars and bit players. To compare one cast to another is a fruitless task, and just because one season has no breakout moment doesn't diminish it over other seasons. Viewers tend to prefer the cast that was on the show when they were in their youth, which is why baby boomers can be so down on the current cast. The cast and writers of SNL are the creme of the comedy crop- gathered from comedy troupes all over America.
- Comedy is a messy business. It's very hit and miss. The goal is to surprise, delight and shock viewers without offending them, and that can be a very fine line. This is why the writers of SNL have to come up with dozens and dozens of sketches that never make it to the live shows. Some get killed at the table read, some make it to live auditions and get axed. The ones we actually see are the ones that survive a tough process of culling and re-writing.
Saturday Night Live didn't invent its format. It owes a lot to Your Show of Shows, a live sketch and music show with Sid Caesar that dominated the 1950's. It also owes its existence to Johnny Carson, the king of late night, who decided to cut back to four days a week on his weekday show, moving the best-of reruns from Saturday to Friday and creating a hole in NBC's schedule.
I highly recommend the book "Live From New York" by James Miller and Tom Shales. It gives a complete and uncensored history of SNL as told by its stars, writers, and guests and goes from the earliest days to today. I have the 40th anniversary edition, and I imagine it will be updated for the 50th anniversary. This book has inside stories about the show that make the reader truly appreciate all of the hard work and drama that go into making the show, and how hard it's grueling pace can be on both writers and performers.