SNL Season 40: A post-mortem

Cecily Strong and Dwayne Johnson in "Dinner Date", written by Strong, James Anderson and Kent Sublette.

Cecily Strong and Dwayne Johnson in "Dinner Date", written by Strong, James Anderson and Kent Sublette.

After Brooks Wheelan, Noel Wells and John Milhiser were fired from Saturday Night Live last July, I wrote a particularly visceral piece blasting Lorne Michaels and company for only making cosmetic changes to the show's makeup instead of trying to fix SNL's deep-seated problems in the writing department. The 2013-2014 season was not very good; and was the first year where I was deliberately skipping episodes. Of course, my curiosity got the better of me after checking out the fan reaction on the SNL message boards (which, admittedly, are not the kindest to the cast and writers either), but there were very few shows that felt worth the time investment of watching live. Despite talk from producers that this year would reflect some lessons learned, the big issues with last year weren't resolved at all: the show's problems only seemed to entrench themselves further. 

There were far too many sketches where the writers get laughs by having  Kenan Thompson yell "NO!" or bug his eyes out incredulously, and even more sketches, usually written by James Anderson and writing supervisor Kent Sublette, with "Cecily Strong plays an annoying character with a funny voice or accent" as its central premise .  Anderson and Sublette, usually referred to on the message boards as "Anderlette" (a portmanteau often prefaced with a verb and pronoun on the board posters' sketch reviews), seem to get a guaranteed two sketches on each show. The makers of the PostShowRecaps podcast use the term "Mad Libs Sketches" to describe repeat sketches with nearly-identical beats, and quite a few offenders are "Andelette" pieces: for example, "Dinner Date" from the Dwayne Johnson show, featuring Strong's obnoxious British wannabe singer Jemma, only seemed to have the most superficial revisions done when the character was brought back for "Couples Retreat" in the season finale with Louis C.K. 

It's not like Thompson, Anderlette or Strong's sketches are trainwrecks. Kenan Thompson is the most seasoned sketch performer in the cast, and despite his overuse and narrow range (including a tendency to mug and overreact), he's still a reliable and professional presence on the show. Likewise, Anderson and Sublette's collaborations with Cecily Strong come from a genuinely close and affectionate working relationship, and the two writers' productivity fills the show's constant requirement of "feeding the machine": they're particularly good at coming up with usable material quick, although their shortcuts tend to show themselves upon closer scrutiny. For all my problems with Strong's grating characterizations (especially in "Anderlette" sketches), she still had one of the best debut seasons of any SNL player, is often reliable in support roles, and she killed at this year's White House Correspondents' Dinner. 

For all the problems that come from being too reliant on these particular writers and performers, what's more troubling is how the show mismanages some of the talent in the cast and writers' room. Taran Killam had a disappointing season, still contributing solid utility work but rarely fulfilling the promise of earlier seasons. Vanessa Bayer seems slotted into the more thankless roles in sketches, such as the actress whose entrance music for a soap opera reunion was fart noises, or characters who solely exist to watch one of Cecily Strong's characters be wacky. The featured players that survived last summer's round of firings, Beck Bennett and Kyle Mooney, haven't made as big an impact as hoped, despite their fellow Good Neighbor members Dave McCary and Nick Rutherford being added to the writing staff. Sasheer Zamata, who was hired midway through last season following an outcry over the lack of diversity in that year's new crop of players, is mostly a non-entity on SNL aside from a handful of impressions. This year's new featured players, Leslie Jones and Pete Davidson, are stand-up comedians more than sketch performers: both are still a little rough at sketch work, yet they've been able to connect with the audience in a way that last years' hires couldn't. It's telling that Jones, who wasn't yet hired as a performer at the time, had the biggest laugh on the season premiere.

There are still some writers and performers that put in solid work. The team of Sarah Schneider and Chris Kelly still come up with good material, and their particularly fruitful collaborations with Kate McKinnon (still the cast leader by a long shot) and Aidy Bryant include the Neurotology music video. Schneider and Kelly also have a knack for pieces featuring cultural commentary ("The Dudleys", "Asian American Doll", "Totinos"), although at times, their pre-tapes feel a little calculated towards viral hits. Mike O'Brien, demoted from featured player over the summer, has found his niche by writing bittersweet short films ("Grow A Guy"), while Zach Kanin, Tim Robinson and Michael Che continue to turn in decent work (particularly their recent collaboration "Blazer"). Returning writer Mikey Day and new writers Jeremy Beiler and Streeter Seidell show promise: among some of their work includes "Morning News" (Beiler & Seidell, reworked and aired as "Orioles"), "The Office: Middle Earth" (Day & Seidell), and "Japanese Messy Boy" (Day & Seidell) but it's unclear at this time whether their time on staff will be a brief pit stop in their careers or if they will be major forces in SNL's future. 

Weekend Update has improved slightly over last year: Colin Jost eventually shook off much of the stiffness that dogged him over most of the year, while Michael Che, despite some continued problems with his joke delivery, manages to give WU some of its more edgy moments. The main issue continues to be the writing, which still seems to be hewing too closely to Seth Meyers' style instead of establishing a stronger voice for the Jost/Che edition, and the overuse of the Update Desk characters (particularly Jacob the Bar Mitzvah Boy). If Jost and Che both return to Weekend Update next year, they need to make a concerted effort to improve their chemistry.

Most of this year tended to blend together, and did not start promisingly: despite isolated highlights, the first three shows felt particularly lifeless. The next show had a great physical bit with Jim Carrey and Kate McKinnon dancing around the studio to Sia's "Chandelier" (a sketch I didn't even see the night it aired; I gave up shortly after the first half of the show), which gave me hope for the Chris Rock / Prince show to continue the momentum, but that show was bad enough to make me skip the following show (Woody Harrelson / Kendrick Lamar, which turned out to be one of the best this season; I have since watched that show). Since that point I've tuned in most weeks, although I shut off the James Franco show after that god-awful Troll sketch, and skipped the unpromising Kevin Hart and Blake Shelton shows (to date, I still have not seen most of them). Of the shows that aired after the 40th Anniversary Special in February, only Dwayne Johnson and Louis C.K. stood out as particularly strong, and even those were three stars out of five at most. Like with last year, the film bits stand out considerably more than the live sketches, and on off weeks (most recently, the Scarlett Johansson show), I find it hard to pay attention during sketches because they've telegraphed what the next five minutes will be early on.  It's especially disheartening to learn that a more promising sketch or Good Neighbor film (which are admittedly acquired tastes) was cut from air in favor of another rehash or something with a razor-thin premise, even if sometimes those cut sketches eventually get posted online.

The show has been in a slump for the last six seasons. That's longer than the period of time the original cast was on the air. For a while I thought it might be best if Lorne Michaels does another "burn down and rebuild" like he did in 1986 and 1995, but it doesn't seem likely to happen: neither Michaels or NBC seem interested in the effort and money it would take to start again from scratch. Merely being a boring show doesn't invite network intervention. 

Here's what I would like to see done for next year

  • A smaller cast. No new hires, no two-tiered "cast and featured players" setup. There are a few longer-tenured performers (Kenan Thompson and Vanessa Bayer) who don't seem to offer anything new to the show, while Sasheer Zamata may as well be a cardboard cut-out wheeled on stage. If the show keeps Beck Bennett and Kyle Mooney, the producers need to find a way to use them better.
  • Pare down the writing staff.  There are too many writers staying around for a long time, the longest-tenured being Steve Higgins (20 years), James Anderson (15 years), Erik Kenward (14 1/2 years), Colin Jost (10 years), Bryan Tucker (10 years), Rob Klein (8 years) and Kent Sublette (8 years). At the very least, give Anderson a one-way ticket to the Hudson Valley. I would also like to see Sarah Schneider and Chris Kelly replace Jost, Tucker and Klein as head writers, although I'm unsure whether they should be sent packing immediately or kept on staff, but in a reduced capacity.
  • Enough with the damn musical monologues. The writers actually register their original compositions for sketches with the music rights societies (BMI/ASCAP), so there may be an additional financial incentive to make the monologue a big production number, but the novelty of seeing the host sing and dance with the cast wears off when it happens every other show (or four shows in a row).
  • More "backstage sketches" or scenes with the cast out of character. I know there have been performers over the years who feel more comfortable "behind the mask" (Kristen Wiig in particular), but this element has been a part of the show since the 70s, and has waned noticeably in the last few years. The producers don't need to do this to the point of overkill (see: musical monologues), but the process of putting together the show amid the chaos of studio 8H is as much a part of the show's narrative as the sketches themselves. These scenes may also help some of the players connect to the audience a little better.
  • Renewed focus on the live element. Pre-taped sketches have been a part of SNL since the show began and fill an important role production-wise (they allow more time for set assembly and performers' wardrobe/makeup changes), but in the last few years, there's a gulf in quality/memorability between the live and taped material. While the films are often better than the material performed live in studio 8H, it's the live element that's been the show's core for 40 years.
  • Play with the format more by doing a running theme throughout a show, or set something up early on that pays off late in the show. There were a few instances of this two years ago (most notably, a commercial for "Z-Shirts" paying off in a seemingly unrelated funeral sketch), but the earlier seasons of the show had some pretty bold concepts, such as a show "directed" by Francis Ford Coppola, an under-rehearsed Charles Grodin seemingly screwing up every sketch he was in, or Kenneth Starr (Will Ferrell) serving subpoenas to performers, band members, and even commercial actors.
  • As well, the first 15 or 16 seasons of the show had more variation as to when music performances and news segments would be performed relative to the commercial break structure of the show. While the structure may be what the producers find runs smoothest, I would love to see them change it up every now and then.
  • Finally, one whole season without a Fred Armisen or Kristen Wiig cameo. I know they're "family", but how is the audience supposed to accept a new cast if the old guard keeps coming back to upstage them? (Also, no more Garth and Kat. Please.)

I'll probably tune into SNL until it goes off the air, but unless some of the show's longstanding issues are addressed, it's going to be harder to make it to 2 a.m (Atlantic time) each week.