The reason SNL "sucks"

SNL is back. That means you can cue the chorus of savvy comedy people who bitch about how unfunny the show is. The thing is: SNL isn't written for them.

SNL is as mainstream as you can get. It has to be broad. It needs to be funny to 15-year olds and 50-year olds. To people in Nebraska and on the coasts. A lot of what flies at an alt show in Brooklyn or at UCB would never be "got" by this kind of huge, mainstream audience.

It's strange when you live in NYC and see these people perform elsewhere. The improv at ASSCAT is often way funnier than what you see on SNL skits. Two of the funniest standups around (Mulaney and Hannibal) write for SNL, yet hardly anything on the show is as funny as their standup. My take on why that's so: Being funny to 200 people in the same room is way different than being funny to 30 million people all over the country.

Hipster-cool and cutting edge isn't a possibility in that context. (Maybe the original SNL achieved that, but the landscape's changed a lot since then.) So SNL consciously shoots for skating the line between mildly subversive and acceptable to the mainstream.

Like I said, I get where the disappointment comes from. I don't really laugh when I watch the show. But I also get that it's not targeted at me. And I respect the difficulty of the dive being attempted.

So next time someone bitches about the lame job Lorne Michaels does, think about the mission he's trying to accomplish. It ain't an easy one.

As for Slategate: Who the fuck cares?

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15 Comment(s)

Anonymous J-L Cauvin said...

I have to disagree with you. I am no big fan of hipster/alt type comedy except in rare cases and consider myself a much more mainstream comedy fan than a lot in the NYC scene, but the opening episode was just plain bad anyway you look at it.

Other than Kristen Wiig (who is much funnier in her movies that reach a larger audience) and Bil Hader, who I find to be just about great in everything he does, the cast is pretty shallow.

Jay Leno makes me laugh and he is often the standard for what Middle America laughs at (and the target of scorn from "real" comics). SNL is neither as funny as Jay Leno or as the better alternative comics in NYC so I am not sure who they are trying to reach.

9/28/09, 12:48 PM  
Anonymous Michael Bertrand said...

I disagree. I think the problems on SNL are far more about crap writing and an apparent complete lack of competent direction or stage management than the fact that it aims for the mainstream. It's always faced the same problems. Sometimes it's been good, and sometimes it's sucked. But I think the rot really set in the last time SNL faced cancellation and made it through. Lorne got the idea that SNL was cancellation-proof and he just plain stopped trying. Everybody involved in the show knows, deep down, that whether the show is any good or not, SNL will just keep going. The only people who face performance pressure are the performers, and what can they do if everyone else has checked out? Suck up to Lorne and a writers and hope to get a "quirky" character with an inane catchphrase, I guess.

SNL sucks the funny out of people. Andy Sandberg was funny... for a while... when he was the skinyn jew-fro kid trying desperately to get onto the show. Now the Digital Short sucks as much as everything else. Why?

Because nothing bad happens when the show is bad, that's why.

Fuck SNL. It's creatively dead.

9/28/09, 12:52 PM  
Anonymous Eric Firth said...

I think you are right about part of the reason SNL is generally bad. But its not like mainstream America loves SNL. I am not a comedian and generally meet people don't spend their time at UCB or anywhere like that and most people don't seem to like SNL and don't really care about it at all. The fanbase seems to be people who loved it when they were young and get in the habit of watching it and like the ebb and flow of how funny it is.
The other reasons the show isn't funny are that generally there is a host who is in every sketch and has a large say in what gets on that is usually in the midst of a giant publicity push and can't learn the sketch. Usually that person is a person who is not funny ever.
And then also they have to fill 90 minutes and because its live they can't have too many set-ups and sketches so they have to drag out premises.
That and the intense pressure of the show is basically designed to take the funniest people around and squeeze a mediocre product out of them. Its why a fair number of people who came from SNL are hilarious as soon as they leave.

9/28/09, 1:34 PM  
Blogger Mo Diggs said...

I think your post is dead-on regarding hipster comedy but not about SNL. I do comedy on LI and I promise you most of the hip kids getting buzz would struggle with the most patient LI crowds. Neverending Story and "The More You Know" would go over many heads. And this is a New York suburb.

Paradoxically, from my own experience, it seems comedy nerds care more about SNL (Jenny Slate fans, John Mulaney fans, Hannibal Burress fans) than regular people do. Most people just say "SNL was great in the Chris Farley days" which is a gross exaggeration. There were shitty sketches back then too.

Truth be told, sketch comedy is hard. COMEDY is hard. The more live comedy you try the more chances for failure you have. It's not like 30 Rock where you have a whole summer to write. With a show this topical, many sketches are written the week of the episode.

Also I fucking love Jenny Slate. She may have a foul mouth but whenever I spoke to her she was always a class act.

9/28/09, 2:28 PM  
OpenID margaretams said...

I know a lot of people are quick to blame the writers and call it "crap writing." But there are some really great writers on the show, and they work really hard. The writing process is based heavily on tradition and perhaps it's not the most effective in terms of producing a quality show. There are so many sketches written every week that you will never see. From what I've heard, a lot of great sketches don't make it past the table read, and weaker ones often make it on the air.

The first episode of this season was pretty bad. But I'm hopeful. Last season's 1st was bad too, but there was a lot of funny stuff in later episodes.

9/28/09, 4:08 PM  
Blogger Matteson said...

While I do agree that SNL's quality is effected by trying to be main stream and having a 60+ year old man as the show's taste maker, I think the structure of the show is the main contributor to the hit or miss nature of it. They perform a new hour of comedy with only a week to write, rehearse, prepare sets, etc. It's really impressive that they pull together a show at all, let alone a good one (occasionally).

Though I gripe about SNL quite a bit, when I'm being open minded I try to think about the show this way: When big comics are putting together an hour special they'll spend 6-12 months working clubs to build material. I've heard from people that have seen Chris Rock in the midst of this and they say 50-75% of his stuff wasn't that funny. He was trying stuff out, some hit, some didn't But by the end of the prep period, he has a solid 60 minutes pulled from who knows how much total material. In a way SNL is "trying" stuff out every week. They don't have enough time to really make sure it works - they just write it and hope it gets a laugh during the show. If you put together a two hour "best of" show from even poor seasons I'd bet that's a pretty damn funny show - kind of like how a Chris Rock special is really great.

Now of course, SNL's end goal isn't to make a 2 hour "best of" show. It's to air a weekly TV show and I don't know that their system is the best way to do that. But then again I don't know of any sketch shows, past or present that did has consistent high quality sketches (maybe Chappelle?). In the end, sketch comedy is probably best consumed live, which is why SNL will probably never seem all around great - we're watching it in bed after midnight, which isn't a good recipe for comedy.

9/28/09, 5:31 PM  
Blogger myq said...

Chappelle's Show is a great example of a sketch show that was consistently high quality. So is Mr. Show.

Sure, the topical nature of material covered and short time span during which it's written can make prove challenging, but don't the writers of the Daily Show and Colbert do something similar, and much more solidly? They're topical, and writing more than 2 hours per week, are they not? (And while they're not going on live, they're certainly not doing a year's worth of prep and workshopping like Chris Rock might do, they're going on that day in front of a live audience, living or dying by the material just like a standup might.)

No?

9/29/09, 12:22 AM  
Blogger Your Hosts said...

I will add my voice to the dissenters here.

The argument that they are aiming for a broader audience and thus are excused from being judged by the same standards doesn't hold up I think. That thinking then dictates that we should excuse all super successful comedy acts from scrutiny, regardless of how bad or distasteful they are (I'm looking at you Jeff Dunham).

I like to think I'm not speaking from a hipster perspective because I enjoy a very wide variety of comedy. Like JL says, I have no idea who they are trying to reach. And when did SNL shift from being new and innovative to aiming for a huge audience?

I think the main problem is that the leadership at SNL is holding back the talent they have. Whatever system they have in place is not effective at utilizing amazingly talented staff.

MO and Matteson -- I feel like the first episode should be always be good because it should suffer least from this "new show each week" syndrome. These guys have the whole summer to come up with sketches (aside from the current events and political stuff).

Matteson -- I don't sketch is best consumed live, mostly because I loved it long before I ever saw it live. While there are many great live sketch performers, I think the best and most interesting stuff on SNL for the past few years has been the Digital Shorts, many of which rely heavily on music and editing.

9/29/09, 11:14 AM  
Blogger Mike Drucker said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

9/29/09, 1:51 PM  
Blogger myq said...

Mike Drucker, is it because you believe Mike Drucker is the reason that SNL is not very good, and you don't want your bosses to be in on that secret?

(Sorry if I inadvertently revealed it to them. If Mr. and Mrs. SNL frequent this blog, that is.)

9/29/09, 3:14 PM  
Blogger Abbi Crutchfield said...

Ruby, if I were you I would invite former SNL writers (e.g., Leo Allen, Corwin Moore, Janeane Garofalo) to share their take on the ebb and flow through the years. Current writers / staff / insiders (Hannibal Burress, John Mulaney, Mike Drucker) could be interviewed for soundbites as well.

For further insight, read Live from New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live. Juicy gossip from insiders who cared to share it.

According to the Museum of Broadcast Communications, the demographic for the show is 18-34. I always feel like when there aren't many women in the cast to write for, the show of mostly white male performers becomes geared towards a white male audience. This would account for the saturation of dick jokes and shock humor in the digital shorts.

As smart as everyone is here, if you don't like what's happening on SNL, go make something yourself. Please. I know it will rock. The whole on-air sketch genre could use more diversity.

As for Slate Gate, I care! "I care!...I care." (Wiig as Elisabeth Hasselbeck)

9/29/09, 4:56 PM  
Blogger Matt Ruby said...

Truth: I don't care that much about SNL. I just think people often knock mainstream stuff without thinking about how hard it is to reach a mass audience with comedy. It's easy to say the people working at certain late night shows aren't good or whatever. But think about how hard it is to write a joke that tries to please everybody and offend nobody.

9/29/09, 5:01 PM  
Blogger Matteson said...

Myq - You do have a valid point with the Daily Show/Colbert point. They seem to have a much high batting average and they do a LOT of comedy. However, I do think SNL is still a higher degree of difficulty for a few reason. 1, Those shows are on for 2 hours a week, but each episode has around 10 minutes of commercials and another 5-10 dedicated to an interview typically. This leaves only 10 minutes a day to fill with comedy, the majority of which are jokes and not fully concieved sketches that require rehersal, multiple actors, sets, costumes, etc. (Not trying to belittle the shows - love them both). 2, Imagine how much more difficult the shows would be if they had new hosts every week instead of Stewart and Colbert. 3, Their format is a bit more cookie cutter than SNL. They have several recurring bits that they have to fill content into (like The Word,), which seems easier (or at least quicker) to do. Other than update, SNL is a blank slate.

Your Hosts - I agree that non-live sketch can be great. In fact, I typically prefer it to live-sketch because filming and editing things allows for so many extra ways to make something funny. However, my point is that the sketches on SNL are written explicitly to be performed live, and yet the vast majority of the people that see them are seeing them on TV - except for the studio audience, everyone watching SNL is seeing it in a format it isn't tailored to.

On another note, while we discuss all the inherent realities that inhibit SNL from being better, it's by far the most successful sketch show ever and arguably the most successful comedy show of any kind. Anybody have any theories why/how the SNL format has produced such a successful show and why it's never been successfully emulated?

9/29/09, 6:53 PM  
Blogger Abbi Crutchfield said...

Anybody have any theories why/how the SNL format has produced such a successful show and why it's never been successfully emulated?

I don't know that anyone has ever tried to emulate the format. I never saw "Fridays" (Larry David) or "House of Buggin'" (John Leguizamo), but every other sketch show I watched growing up, "Kids in the Hall", "Exit 57", "The State", "All That", "SCTV", "The Tracey Ullman Show" all had different formats. Most had recorded sketches like "Mad TV".

The closest to SNL was probably "In Living Color", but that was more like the predecessor to "Mad TV", with the bulk of its material having to do with race. As far as the number of famous celebrity appearances, the only contender is "Sesame Street".

For your reference, Wikipedia's List of Sketch Shows.

You can't ignore the effect that being around for 35 years has on society. It's like oven mits shaped like Elvis. Even toddlers know who he is. Part of the draw could be that it's a household name, part of it could be that most Americans tuned into it when they were young right around the time we cared about what was "cool" (think of the effect Michael Jackson's death had on most people).

I still think that low ratings would put SNL out of business, unless Lorne Michaels were the head of NBC. Maybe the show is entitled to a higher threshold of just how low ratings can be. Overall, since the show was first aired, people have complained that it's not funny. That won't change. But it won't ever be a full reflection of the truth either.

9/30/09, 10:50 AM  
Blogger Mmm Chocolate said...

"It needs to be funny to 15-year olds and 50-year olds."

I'm 16. My parents are 40. Neither one of us is seeing anything funny.

Who's it suppose to appeal to?

I'll admit, I thought it was funny even last year but this year is just...it's not even good whatsoever. Just crap that drags on too long.

12/13/09, 12:46 PM