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.Read More
Other people are probably going to write more extensively about tonight's SNL 40th Anniversary special, so I'll leave it to them, but I'll say my piece about a few things:
Most of the show was entertaining; the clip montages were well-chosen and edited, and it was good to see the lesser-celebrated Doumanian and Ebersol years get more "deep cuts" covered in the highlight reels, as opposed to the same Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo clips they normally rely on.
The music performances weren't bad; nothing on par with Prince doing "Electric Chair" at the 15th anniversary or the Eurythmics and Al Green medleys at the 25th. Miley Cyrus doing "50 Ways To Leave Your Lover" was surprisingly good, though.
Jane Curtin doing Weekend Update with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler was a highlight, and she killed it with her Fox News joke. She was always the secret weapon of the original years, or at least the one hidden in plain sight.
The biggest misstep of the night was the Californians sketch, which didn't seem to play too well in studio. Despite the participation of Laraine Newman and cameos from Bradley Cooper, Kerry Washington, Taylor Swift and Betty White, the sketch dragged. David Spade posted a close-up of the script on Instagram earlier, which revealed this was the handiwork of James Anderson and Kent Sublette; for all I know they may be wonderful people, but this was all too typical of their other work on the show*. The same could be said for Garth and Kat, which ground the pacing of the "salute to musical sketches" segment to a halt.
The "In Memoriam" montage was well-done, but I noticed a few glaring omissions:
- Joe Bodolai (writer, 1981-82)
- Nelson Lyon (writer, 1981-82)
- Mark O'Donnell (writer, 1981-82)
- Terry Southern (writer, 1981-82)
- Alan P. Rubin (band, 1975-83)
- Drake Sather (writer, 1994-95)
- Mauricio Smith (band, 1975-79)
They may have kept to a "more than one season" rule for writers, but I found it odd they didn't count the other band members who have passed. I believe there were also a few other crew and staff members that had been memorialized beforehand but not here. That said, it was nice to see some others get their due. I was most concerned that Charles Rocket, Danitra Vance, Michael O'Donoghue and Tom Davis would get short shrift, and was pleased to see they were counted. The same goes for Don Pardo, Dave Wilson and Audrey Peart Dickman (from many accounts, she was the engine that kept the show running, production-wise).
Other than those issues, the special served its purpose: it reminded the audience why this show (and it's history) is special, and it was good to see a lot of familiar faces again. I hope everyone there had a good time (even Anderson and Sublette).
*A partial list of other Anderlette sketches this season: "Forgotten Television Gems", "Women In The Workplace", "Campfire Song", "Nest-presso", "Amy Adams Monologue", "Singing Sisters", "Soap Opera Reunion", "The Journey", "Casablanca".
Brooks Wheelan, Noel Wells and John Milheiser 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...Read More
I've been watching SNL regularly for about 20 years. I still have my original tapes from when I first started recording the show back in March 1994; in fact, I can tell you that the first episode I taped was a rerun of the show with John Malkovich and Billy Joel. I've stuck with the show through that horrible season with Janeane Garofalo. I've seen the historically bad years that almost got the show cancelled. I've sat through that godawful 10 minute sketch with the sub at the bottom of the ocean. None of these low points has made me want to give up on the show as much as this current season has.
Last month, I wrote that I mainly watch the show out of a routine I can no longer justify to myself. I was originally going to pack it in at that point, but held out hope that the next four shows would show some flicker of life that's been noticeably absent this year. That would not be the case.
Josh Hutcherson was dull. Paul Rudd had cameos and a Bill Brasky sketch, but weak writing pretty much everywhere else. John Goodman's long-overdue return to SNL had more tepid writing, plus a sketch starring Sylvester Stallone and Robert DeNiro that felt like a rejected script from a bad Bob Hope special; the kind of sketch that SNL would make fun of when it spoofed bad variety shows.
The Jimmy Fallon show that aired last night was a bit more fun than the show's been in a while: Fallon has come a long way since he was the messy-haired new kid 15 years ago, and his collaborations with Justin Timberlake guaranteed several fan favorites would be trotted out. That said, so much of the show felt like pandering: Paula Pell's Dancing Mascot sketches doesn't do much for me (it just feels too by-the-numbers and obligatory), and the cameos by Paul McCartney, Madonna, Barry Gibb and Michael Bloomberg felt like they were intended to distract from how lifeless the writing is on the show. The episode came off as self-congratulatory towards Lorne Michaels' takeover of NBC late night.; an extended commercial for The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, if you will.
It's not that the show is actually terrible: a truly bad year would at least be interesting. Yet, more than ever this season, it feels like the show's on auto-pilot. There's no need for the show to try anymore; it's one of the few relative successes NBC has left, so there's no impending cancellation to force the show to correct course.
Sketch comedy shows by their very nature are uneven, and even SNL's best seasons have had their dud shows. This season feels different; I don't think "mediocre" is the right word, though, because even something mediocre can have an appreciable effort behind it. The six new faces added to the show in the wake of the recent departures of Bill Hader, Fred Armisen and Jason Sudeikis just feel purely cosmetic; only a mask to cover stagnant and lazy writing.
The cast has too much potential that's not being used properly. Taran Killam and Kate McKinnon are in a class by themselves on the show, and could potentially carry a new era of the show, but they're weighed down by so many people who have overstayed their welcome. The move to make Kenan Thompson the cast anchor (a la Hader or Sudeikis) is baffling; Thompson doesn't have the range to pull off that role in the cast, and he's already demonstrated everything he's capable of as a performer years ago.
The real dead weight is in the writers' room. There are 23 writers on staff this year, including Lorne Michaels, who always gets a credit. Steve Higgins and Paula Pell have been with the show since the last big changeover in 1995 (Pell is part-time); their tenure with the show is longer than those of the original writers who were still with the show before Michaels cleaned house. James Anderson has been around since 2000; he and frequent collaborator Kent Sublette seem to be the writing staff's equivalent of Kenan Thompson, in that they recycle their bag of tricks and that their output tends to annoy more than amuse. There are a handful of prolific and talented newer writers (Zach Kanin, Sarah Schneider and Chris Kelly) and a fair bit of turnover in the staff over the last five years: the only trouble with this is that it's the newer writers that leave, while the veterans stick around and churn out the same old material.
I need a break from the show. I've come to the conclusion that I'm getting too frustrated by SNL this season to justify watching live anymore; until some non-superficial changes are made to the creative side of the show, I'm not going to be tuning in. Whatever's worth checking out will be on the internet the next day (unless it has a music clearance issue).
My original plan was to finish the 1982-83 season reviews, but I think I'm going to take a break from those as well. I'll try to resume those in a few months.