Fired Rookies, Designated Stars and the Troubling SNL Status Quo

Brooks Wheelan, Noel Wells and John Milhiser have all been fired from Saturday Night Live last week.  That’s one half of the cohort of featured players brought in at the beginning of the 2013-14 season.  Despite trumpeting their collective SNL debut in the season premiere with two sketches devoted to the new hires, it felt like the show lost faith in them by the end of November: they were quickly relegated to the background in favor of gratuitous cameos and the show’s current Designated Stars; the additions of Sasheer Zamata in January and Colin Jost as replacement Weekend Update anchor in March further diminished their chances of making an impact.

Honestly, this news doesn’t give me much hope for an improvement in SNL’s quality next season.  I’m beginning to have deep misgivings about Lorne Michaels and his producers’ (Erik Kenward, Steve Higgins, Lindsay Shookus and Erin Doyle) ability to competently run the show.

I’ve been saying all year that the show’s in a creative slump; eventually I found it so frustrating that I stopped tuning in regularly for the live shows (the bulk of the material is usually put online the next day anyway).   I wasn’t alone in my dislike of this season; 2013-14 was SNL’s most critically panned season in years.  The more I thought about how the show fired Wheelan, Wells and Milhiser before they really had much of an opportunity to establish themselves on the show, the more unfair it seemed: it was as if, once again, the cast had to pay for the sins of the writers and producers.

The writing staff has experienced a fair amount of turnover since the Writer’s Guild strike of 2007-08, but it’s usually the newer writers that leave or get fired.   A good number of the show’s current writers as of the season finale have been on staff since before the strike: excluding Lorne Michaels, nine of the shows current writers were hired before November 2007.   While longtime head writer Seth Meyers has departed to succeed Jimmy Fallon as the host of Late Night, the current head writers (Colin Jost, Rob Klein and Bryan Tucker) are all long-tenured veterans: assuming all three stay in their position, Jost and Tucker will be going in to their tenth year on the show, Klein into his eighth.   This suggests that rather than go for a new creative direction in the wake of Meyers’ departure, SNL would rather continue with an already tired status quo.

The show hires new talent every year, but a lot of it doesn’t seem to take root.   Since the strike, thirteen writers have come and gone from SNL.  Of those thirteen, eight were “one and done”, mostly from 2009-10 and 2010-11’s groups of rookie writers.   Some, like John Mulaney, leave due to their own career momentum.  Many are cut.  Michael Che, who was brought on late last season, is the latest new writer to defect to more fertile creative pastures, having just landed a position on The Daily Show. 

A few post-strike hires have been able to succeed on the show, particularly Sarah Schneider and Chris Kelly, arguably SNL’s best current writers.  Schneider and Kelly were responsible for some of the most celebrated material this season:  many of their taped pieces, including Twin Bed, The Beygency, and Dyke and Fats have gone viral, and I thought their Blockbuster short mined a bittersweet emotional timbre that has been in short supply on SNL since the show’s earliest years.   The two also wrote Cartoon Catchphrase in the Kerry Washington show, lauded by many on message boards as the strongest-written live sketch of the season.  While they’ve had a few misses (Dongs All Over The World seemed to be a calculated attempt at another Twin Bed), most of their output is consistently strong. 

As much of the show’s potential rests with Kelly and Schneider, one particular writer is a major factor in SNL’s stagnation: James Anderson, who has been with the show since 2000.  Anderson and frequent collaborator Kent Sublette seem to get their work on the air by virtue of hitching their wagon to the show’s Designated Star; they were responsible for many of Kristen Wiig’s more excruciating characters, and it looks like they’ve started to collaborate with SNL’s current Star-Designate, Cecily Strong.  Their sketches, many of which Lorne Michaels would have likely called “too Carol Burnett” in the seventies, have a recognizable style: broad strokes and a tendency to play to the back of the room.  They also tip the main joke of the sketch early on, and then repeat it for the next few minutes.  I’ve learned to not expect much of their sketches after the first minute.    

Anderson and Sublette’s output this year includes Cheer Squad Abduction (which appears to be a more ridiculous rewrite of a weak 2006 sketch involving Nascarettes being mowed down one by one), Christmas Past (featuring Jimmy Fallon as a stereotypically gay younger Scrooge), and  Couples Quiz (an ostensible game show parody revolving around jokes about a clogged toilet).  Their Bird Bible commercial parody was comparatively strong, yet I dock points for it being too similar a concept to a late 80s commercial parody called “Myowling Bible”.   Anderson is also responsible for the tired Girlfriends Talk Show and his collaboration with Fred Armisen, The Californians.  When working apart from Anderson, Sublette has demonstrated some skill (he collaborated with Jonah Hill, Rob Klein and John Solomon on the Her parody), but when these two write together, it’s likely the result will be shrill, self-indulgent, and about as subtle as an alarm clock.   Because they can write quickly as needed, often spotlight the show’s “face” and can play to the studio audience’s sensibilities, their output is a major crutch for SNL, and is all but guaranteed a slot in every show.

Of the three veterans promoted to the head writer position, Jost has the strongest overall body of work, but unlike his predecessor Seth Meyers, he doesn’t have a concealed dark or bizarre streak.  More troubling about Jost’s promotion is his affinity for celebrity walk-ons.  His 2009 Goodnight Saigon sketch was largely considered the perfect capper to a successful season, yet it wasn’t without a notable detractor: in an interview in Mike Sacks’ Poking A Dead Frog, Jim Downey mentions his distaste for surprise celebrity cameos, and singles out Goodnight Saigon as a “massive wankathon, star-fucking extravaganza”.   Indeed, since Jost’s initial promotion to co-head writer, a number of big ticket shows have had wall-to-wall cameos; even the shows with less advance hype frequently had a boost from a big celebrity’s walk-on, such as Leonardo DiCaprio confronting Jonah Hill during his monologue.  The applause that each cameo nets further cuts into the airtime that struggling castmembers need to establish themselves.

I’ve often believed in the strength of the current SNL cast, but for the longest time, the producers haven’t been using them to their full potential.   Since the December 2008 departure of Amy Poehler and Kristen Wiig’s ascendance to Designated Stardom, the cast has been unbalanced, with favored performers dominating the show and untested players not being allowed to develop the chops or chemistry they need to integrate into the ensemble.  A few new hires, particularly Taran Killam and Kate McKinnon, quickly demonstrated themselves as versatile and confident players, but many of the post-Poehler hires seemed almost timorous in their limited on-camera time.   

Cecily Strong is an exception: almost immediately following her 2012 debut on the show, Strong created a much talked-about character (The Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started A Conversation With At A Party).  Recurring sketches, such as Girlfriends Talk Show (with Aidy Bryant) and the series of “commercials” with Strong and Vanessa Bayer as a pair of spaced-out ex-porn stars, indicated her star was on the rise; by February, she was carrying cold openings with Jason Sudeikis.   When her promotion to the Weekend Update desk was announced last September, this all but cemented Strong as the show’s new Designated Star.

However, in pushing Cecily Strong as the current face of the show, Lorne Michaels seems to be embracing his inner Dick Ebersol, or perhaps even his inner Jean Doumanian: pinning all hope for the future on the show on one player.  While I thought Strong gave a good first impression last season, her promotion to the Weekend Update desk and increased prominence on the show has exposed her faults.  She isn’t as versatile as McKinnon or Killam, nor does she have the ability to transcend the material she’s given.   She’s a competent performer, but seeing her more frequently on the show has revealed that a number of her sketches rely on the same shouted delivery and unlikable characterization, with only costumes, hair, makeup and a choice of regional accent differentiating the character.

While Strong’s dominance this season was likely not a surprise to many, Kenan Thompson’s increased prominence was a bit jarring.  A veteran of the show since 2003 (Jimmy Fallon’s last season), Thompson has always been a fairly limited performer; while tolerable in small doses, his broad, bug-eyed mugging suggests that he’s playing to the crowd that grew up with All That, but as if neither has matured since the Nickelodeon sketch comedy show was on the air.  The show devoting more airtime than ever to Thompson’s tired schtick instead of the new featured players comes across as a slap in their faces. 

Weekend Update has become the most troubling manifestation of SNL’s problems this season.  The news parody and centrepiece of each week’s broadcast has essentially become a reward for the current head writer and the “it” player: since 2000’s successful pairing of Tina Fey and Jimmy Fallon, the anchor position has invariably followed this formula: two years of Fey and Amy Poehler, two and a half of Poehler and Seth Meyers, and four and a half of Meyers solo before Strong joined him at the desk in September 2013 (a rumored co-anchor gig for Kristen Wiig in 2009 never came to fruition).  Instead of reinventing the segment with each new anchor, SNL has strove for continuity.  This has provided diminishing returns for WU.

Far from providing the spark of chemistry that Fallon and Fey had in their four years, Meyers’ stint with Strong was essentially identical to Meyers’ solo stint, with Strong aping her boss’ delivery as if she wore a “TRAINEE” button on her jacket, and reacting to the parade of wacky guest commentators that have been a staple of the last few seasons.  The junior anchor would eventually show some signs of her own personality, but her promotion was essentially to provide a transition to the new anchor, who was revealed to be Jost in January 2014. 

When the new Jost-Strong team debuted on the March 1 broadcast (which was also SNL’s first week without Meyers as co-head writer), reaction was mixed, with Jost’s over-earnest acceptance speech at the outset coming off poorly.  Leeway given for first-week jitters soon gave way to the creeping realization that Jost was not anchor material: his delivery stilted and awkward, his interaction and chemistry with Strong minimal.   Some fans and critics argued that Jost needed more time to grow into the role, but even among those calling for patience would be hard-pressed to call the pairing a success.   Without developing on-air personas for their Weekend Update anchor roles, Jost and Strong come off as “The Junior Seth Meyers League” behind the desk.

Many of SNL’s problems this season seem to stem from the show’s adhesion to its internal hierarchy, a problem that was also at the core of the show’s legendary problems during 1994-95.  However, the backstage drama and sapped spirits of that season don’t seem to be replicating themselves, at least not on a visible level.   The main issue isn’t backstage morale, though: it’s a culture at the show that seems a little too trusting that the show’s most loyal employees are their most creative ones.

I doubt Lorne Michaels has much incentive to fix SNL, though.  He’s now the ruler of the NBC late night empire (Last Call doesn’t count), and able to franchise the Saturday Night Live name and format to other countries as if the show was The Olive Garden.  When the show’s future was in question in 1986 and 1995, Michaels took a more direct role in righting the show’s course.  Those seasons demonstrated that his instincts were mostly sharp, but Michaels will be turning 70 in November; even if he has still has the energy, drive and desire to try again, he would have to concede that his carefully cultivated line of succession may have been the biggest blow to the show’s quality in years.