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How To Improve “SNL” At The Drop Of A Letter

October 2, 2010

This is an open letter to the executive producer of NBC’s “Saturday Night Live.”

Dear Lorne Michaels,

First I want to congratulate you on the premiere of your Thirty-Sixth season of the program last week, certainly one of the longest running entertainment shows (or more accurately, shows that label themselves as “entertainment”) in television history!

However, as I’m sure you must know, there have been problems throughout this series and, as this first episode of the new season suggests, these problems have not gone away. Let’s take this piece by piece and try to root out the source of the issue.

SNL has launched a lot of “catchphrases” into the US vernacular.  From “We are two wild and crazy guys!” to “we just wanna pump (*CLAP*) you up!” to “What up wit that?” among a seemingly endless list. Frankly, the phrases that the series has made famous over the years were often fun to say, but, they were also pretty meaningless in the grand scheme. And that holds true for the one catchphrase that has been said at the start of every episode since the program began:

“Live, From New York, It’s Saturday Night!”

Mr. Michaels, let’s be honest. At this point in the show’s history, this is perhaps the most meaningless of all of the catchphrases utilized by any of the cast members or hosts. Yes, it’s technically accurate, in that the program is being broadcast live (at least in the Eastern and Central time zones), from midtown Manhattan, and, at the moment that the phrase is uttered, it is before Midnight, so it is Saturday night, by everybody’s standards. But the point is the real meaning of what that phrase represented is now completely lost.

The show has been entirely on cue cards and rehearsed as much as possible for decades, so the “live” quality of it really doesn’t have a lot of value for a viewer. We may be watching it as it happens, but that only means that it might not go exactly as planned. It’s like tuning in to NASCAR to watch for the 11 car pileup. Yes, you get the occasional cast member dropping an “F” bomb during the broadcast, or the incorrect tune played for your lip synching musical guest, but we’re not here to see failure; we want to enjoy!

The program is coming from 30 Rockefeller Plaza, the iconic GE Building. But that fact rarely matters. It could be Peoria for all the use you are making of the NYC setting. True, the “Digital Shorts” do take things outside the Studio 8H setting, but even these feel a bit forced at this point.

And the fact that it’s Saturday Night merely suggests that maybe we should all be doing something other than watching television as the program goes on air!

Compare that experience with the first season: the “Not Ready For Primetime Players” were not just a bunch of comedians out to make names for themselves. They were people with a particular mission in mind: they wanted to push the limits. It was about racing towards the precipice of a cliff and seeing how close they could get before stopping. It was the very definition of cutting edge comedy! Really it seemed like that original cast (and YOU, Mr. Michaels!) were intent on seeing just how much you could get away with before getting tossed off the air! Now THAT was dangerous! That was worth watching!

Today, the “live” quality of the program can only justify the fact that the sketches performed are falling flat and this is the excuse for such a poor track record when it comes to the laughs. So, the most obvious way to fix this program is to film it and show the edited version as the program everyone sees at 11:30pm.

Before you start freaking out about the thought that your program might not be telecast live, let’s remember that it’s only live to two of the six United States time zones, so you’re not really losing a lot if you tape. For all its “topical” qualities and potential for “up to the minute” references, the material could easily be taped earlier in the day, or throughout the week. And really, we need some quality control! Stuff that wouldn’t be funny as a homemade sketch on a youtube video is being broadcast here. This needs to stop. That’s why you need to tape and edit.

Here’s a quick comparison to three other shows that were in the same vain as this one: “SCTV” (a.k.a. “Second City Television”), “In Living Color” and “MadTV.” These three programs were all filmed, all had similar style sketches with running characters and and were all funnier than what we’ve been getting on your show for approximately three seasons out of every four.

I suppose your comeback argument is that those shows are all gone now, and “SNL” continues to roll on, season after season. My response would be “SNL” didn’t have any competition. Yes, “MadTV” aired for a half hour opposite “SNL,” but it was the opening half hour of the show, typically the strongest part of the broadcast, then your program had no other real challengers for the remaining sixty minutes.

Mr. Michaels, even you must admit, you are pitching a “comedy free” comedy show. Take your premiere for example. The most comical thing in the entire episode was the walk on appearance of New York’s lame duck Governor, David Patterson, paired with his impersonator Fred Armisen. If the funniest person of the evening was a politician and not a pro comic, that’s a red flag. And if, after having a whole summer off, the first week back was this unamusing? It doesn’t bode well for the rest of the season.

This isn’t new! This situation has been going on for years. So I have to ask, who finds these sketches funny? Do the writers actually think this material works? Do you laugh when you see this show? If so, why? If not, why aren’t you firing people?!

Oh, but wait. With no competition, there’s no need to do anything. Just sit back, kick it to auto-pilot, and just ride that wave of ineptitude because it doesn’t matter that “SNL” isn’t funny. It’ll be “funny enough,” because if you’re watching broadcast TV, it’s this or infomercials, so if you don’t like it, just drink more or smoke more; that will make the show as funny to the audience as it does to the writers!

In the immortal words of Emily Littella, “Never mind!”

28 Comments leave one →
  1. October 2, 2010 12:27 pm

    I don’t know, even drinking and smoking doesn’t really make it much funnier, I’ve tried! I watched the Betty White episode last spring, and I was trying really hard the whole time to be amused, because I wanted it to be awesome, but the show ended and I was exhausted from all that pretending.

    I think you’re suggestion to drop the “live” would make it better, but I wish they would just rehearse more so that there wasn’t so much obvious cue card reading.

  2. October 2, 2010 12:30 pm

    Here’s a quick comparison to three other shows that were in the same vain as this one: “SCTV” (a.k.a. “Second City Television”), “In Living Color” and “MadTV.” These three programs were all filmed, all had similar style sketches with running characters and and were all funnier than what we’ve been getting on your show for approximately three seasons out of every four.

    I’d trade SNL for all those shows. Bring them all back and take away SNL.

    @Raymond, you’ve just described every recent experience I’ve had with SNL save “D*ck in a Box”, which was the only hilarious thing on that show in decades. Well since Cawfee Tawk.

  3. October 2, 2010 1:00 pm

    For me, there are two quick routes to making SNL funnier. The first, oft-repeated, always true, is to make it more diverse. Having more than three women in the cast (the years when we had Fey, Dratch, Poehler, Shannon, Gasteyer & Rudolph all overlapping were pretty daggone good years) would be a start. More than three people of color — any color — would be nice, too. It would also go a long way to improving things if cast diversity ended the long reigns of terror of blackface Fred Armisen and Kenan Thompson in drag.

    The other side of it is the writing, or more specifically, remarrying the performers to the words. A lot of people idealize those first few seasons with the original NRFPTP, and even the second wave cast. But if you go back and watch those shows in their entirety, rather than just the highlights of the most successful and iconic sketches that show up in the “Best Of” specials, you actually find that the majority of each broadcast wasn’t all that funny. A lot of the sketches had no punchline, had no conclusion, they were semi-comedic existentialist musings put together by a bunch of pot-smoking improvisational (but not writing) geniuses.

    Now we have improvisational geniuses performing the words of “comedy writers” only one of whom (Seth Meyers) actually performs. (Andy Samberg gets a writing credit but explicitly because of the live shorts he does mostly with his Lonely Island guys.) The cast pitches ideas but they’re so far removed from the originating cast member by airtime that even when a cast member invents a character, they get no recognition for that at all. There’s a middle ground to be had there. The process as it currently stands makes SNL the equivalent of a bunch of very very short sitcoms, only a few of which resonate with the audience and get to return again at some nebulous future point. (And many of which return even though the audience doesn’t like them much at all, see: Fred Armisen in blackface.)

  4. October 2, 2010 1:30 pm

    They establish the premise in the first minute and beat it into the ground for the remaining 8. The best SNL sketch of all time was on the Simpsons, when Krusty the Klown was brandishing a Q-Tip in a sketch called ‘The Big Ear Family’ which “went on for another 12 minutes”.

    Kids in the Hall was much more self-aware and In Living Color/Mad TV way more gutsy. When Mark McKinney (of Kids) was on SNL he was completely ham-strung and his talents were wasted. Unfortunately, this has happened a lot.

    SNL can’t write sketches that don’t involve parody/TV, where the other shows had sketches that more often than not didn’t involve parody/TV references.

  5. evmaroon permalink
    October 2, 2010 1:32 pm

    I think it’s kind of you to care enough to even write a letter, Penpusher! And yet I fear you have wasted your time. The only thing that would make SNL funny to me is if we could grind up DVDs of the show over on Does It Blend?

  6. October 2, 2010 1:52 pm

    Yeah, the funniest thing would probably be to see the show get Le Boot. And watch all those unfunny comedians carry their props and costumes out of the studio in cardboard boxes. I don’t mean to sound harsh, but every time I watch recent shows I can’t believe how unfunny it has become.

  7. October 2, 2010 6:40 pm

    @raymondj Betty White’s episode really should have been fantastic, but in the end, it turned out to be sort of okay, which, by the show’s track record, was fantastic!

    The problem is that the level that the show has set as its “standard” is so incredibly low, people really believe that if it’s ever funny, it’s great!

    What should happen is CBS or ABC should put up a competing show, or maybe even TBS could do it, now that Conan is arriving in a few weeks. Then we’d see just how lackluster the reaction would be!

  8. October 2, 2010 6:43 pm

    @SnarkysMachine I would trade SNL for any ONE of those shows… or maybe even reruns of “In Living Color!”

    Seriously, why has “SNL” been given a free pass all these years? Someone needs to put up a real challenge show against it.

  9. evmaroon permalink
    October 2, 2010 6:48 pm

    Isn’t part of the problem that SNL is alive only because of the cache of Lorne Michaels and some mistaken belief that it’s a tradition for NBC? What do people think will happen now that Zucker is leaving? I don’t think the other networks want to have to deal with a high-budget show like SNL, so they’re content to rerun old Snuggie commercials in that time slot, or whatever.

  10. October 2, 2010 7:05 pm

    @Amadi you raise a lot of great points, and I agree with them all. I have heard the stories about these writing sessions, the “pecking order” and how the women and minority castmembers get the shortest of shrift (Janeane Garafolo and Tracy Morgan are two of the first names that come to mind when discussing this issue) but it’s pretty much true for just about anyone who isn’t a white male that has ever appeared on the program.

    You would think that by now, we would have a much more diverse SNL. Why we don’t lies squarely with Michaels, in my opinion.

  11. evmaroon permalink
    October 2, 2010 7:10 pm

    “You would think that by now, we would have a much more diverse SNL. Why we don’t lies squarely with Michaels, in my opinion.”
    Agreed, wholeheartedly.

  12. October 2, 2010 7:19 pm

    @sharkguy SNL CAN write sketches that don’t parody TV or film, but there’s a reason they don’t.

    Years ago, I applied to be a writer for Mad Magazine. When I submitted my request, I was told to send off some samples, but they would not accept any TV or film parody material. That’s because that’s what all their lazy-ass staffers did! Parody is the easiest comedy form. You’re just taking someone else’s work and making fun of it. It’s just more proof of how lame this show has become.

  13. October 2, 2010 7:36 pm

    @evmaroon… I don’t know how much of a budget issue producing a show like this would be, especially if you’re putting it on video, and not producing it live. Yes, it would cost something, but More the problem would be the local affiliates agreeing to give up that time back to the network and giving up their local revenue stream of infomercials and/or reruns of programs.

    On a slightly related topic, there used to be a replacement program, about every month or so, called “Weekend” (It used The Rolling Stones’ opening riffs of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” as its theme) which was a kind of a “younger generation” style “60 Minutes” series, hosted by Lloyd Dobbins and Linda Ellerbee. Their deadpan delivery and their selection of stories really made a brilliant and intelligent counterpoint to the stuff that aired on Saturday Night Live.

    If SNL would relinquish some time from all of their reruns to produce something like this, I think that would actually force the show to step up its game… Though I guess Michaels more or less “owns” this time slot, so he’d have to approve anything that went into it… And that, to me, is a major part of the problem with everything to do with SNL.

  14. Q.V. permalink
    October 2, 2010 8:05 pm

    There was a time when we people who had no cable–even if we could afford it, the cable company saw no percentage in extending the line for several miles per house–would anxiously await an invitation to sleep over in town on the weekend, where we could watch SNL. When we couldn’t do that, we rented the “Best Of” videos, and watched them over and over again at parties.

    Even when the guest was a horrible entertainer (Wayne Gretzky couldn’t act his way out of a fart in an elevator, watching him was like watching my Dad perform in a skit at a church wedding reception), it was still the most exciting thing on all week. Even more exciting than that other cable-candy sweetness, MuchMusic, back when it really showed music videos all the time.

    Then we got Kids in the Hall. It not only aired on one of the two channels we got with the antenna, it also inspired the gayest years that high school had ever seen. (This was easily surpassed, however, by the time my youngest sister got there, and I learned that my elementary librarian and the grade 1 teacher were lesbians the whole time!)

    SNL didn’t really inspire anything, except the vague sense that we, in the country, were not and would never be as cool as Americans in the city. Once we actually got cable ourselves, in the city, as adults, we understood why our town friends would roll their eyes when the country people wanted to watch it. It’s more boring than SunRype apple juice.

  15. October 2, 2010 8:15 pm

    The good old days…

  16. October 2, 2010 11:33 pm

    I’ll trade everything for Jane Curtain!

  17. October 3, 2010 3:57 pm

    Ok… I just watched the Kanye performances from last night and WOW… they don’t look anythng like SNL. He has his own set. No SNL band in the background. It looks like a video, and it was AWESOME. Let’s just let Kanye take SNL over…

  18. October 3, 2010 7:29 pm

    @Q.V. the “Live” element of the show really is the only cache it has, and I know saying that they get rid of it is a futile suggestion, primarily because that’s a part of what the show is about. In theory, a live telecast is always more exciting and promising, and I like live television shows just because there is that sense of immediacy that makes it seem like you could be watching history as it happens (also why sporting events on TV are so popular as well).

    Kids in the Hall was a landmark show, but the bottom line for me, just like SNL was it didn’t make me laugh! I really wanted to find it funny, but it never worked for me.

  19. October 3, 2010 7:33 pm

    @poplife Yes! that was an amazing transformation they did of the SNL set into what clearly was a music video I guess green screen effect, or something.

    Another method of improving the show would be to give the musical guest a third song, or to open the show with a song or to have nothing but musical performances with just the weekend update segment and one or two sketches.

  20. IrishUp permalink
    October 4, 2010 9:44 am

    “Another method of improving the show would be to give the musical guest a third song, or to open the show with a song or to have nothing but musical performances with just the weekend update segment and one or two sketches”

    Wouldn’t that just be resurrecting “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert”? Not that that would be a bad thing AT ALL!

    The only musical guest I can remember doing a 3rd song was Neil Young, who, IIRC did “Damage Done”, then just sort of kept on going into a BLISTERING “Keep On Rocking in the Free World”, which left him with two unbroken strings and no unbloodied fingers. I can’t even recall if any of the SNL skits were funny, but I think you’re on to something here, as I still at least remember watching this one!

    Lorne must bear blame for what SNL has become. He left behind letting innovative new comics push the limit with NRFPTPs, then he left behind good writers. The second wave of SNL had a period of pointed and funny political commentary, as well really good stabs & jabs at Nice White People. This absolutely evaporated with Al Franken leaving. Michels has done very little of use since. The conspiracty theorist in me wonders how much this also has to do with GEs acquisition of NBC in 1986. Their corporate creative restraints on the late night shows was one of the major reasons Letterman wound up being so unhappy @ NBC. Has Michels just been going along to get along? (Not that that would make me think better of him … )

  21. amygee permalink
    October 4, 2010 9:58 am

    I haven’t watched a whole show thru in over ten years. I catch viral stuff online, but the show doesn’t air where I live. Has it really gotten so bad? Sigh.

  22. Sandra C. Muñoz permalink
    October 4, 2010 11:13 am

    I usually zip through my tivoed SNL in about 30 minutes, 45 minutes top. Most of the skits are so painful. Maybe they should have Jon Hamm and Justin Timberlake host more often?

  23. October 6, 2010 12:38 pm

    @Irish Up It would be like Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, without Don. There’s no law that says this show can’t break away from the “comedy” at times to do something like this. And U2 did three songs, and I think they opened the show with a song.

    You raise an interesting point about the GE/NBC questions, however, I can’t agree that the show would remain unfunny despite all this, unless they’re doing that to spite GE? And that doesn’t explain the number of white guys in the cast, in relation to everybody else there.

  24. October 6, 2010 12:42 pm

    @amygee where do you live? I may consider moving to avoid SNL! Seriously, the viral stuff is always the very best material, though I don’t know what the most recent one was. And it’s almost always the “Digital Short” segment: D*ck In A Box and Natalie Portman Rap were likely their most successful.

  25. October 6, 2010 12:48 pm

    @Sandra C. Muñoz painful is the word. If we know it, why don’t they?

  26. Rachel permalink
    December 6, 2010 1:05 pm

    Can somebody please just tell them “What’s Up with That” sucks? Actually just Kenan Thompson in general. I’m sorry. Somebody needed to say something.

  27. December 18, 2010 4:14 am

    In Living Color is legendary, and MadTV was alright, but no matter how bad SNL can be, I still watch, hoping the one and only funny man on there- Andy Samberg- can bring it back. He’s succeeded by adding digital shorts, replacing “Saturday TV FunHouse” by Robert Smigel. I’ll give SNL another season, but I still believe Justin Timberlake would easily save it by becoming a cast member, or a writer.

  28. December 18, 2010 9:46 pm

    Hey KT… the one thing that’s for sure is that it takes more than one funny guy to make SNL worthwhile. Timberlake is definitely creative and has proven his willingness to do whatever it takes for the joke, but I can’t imagine him actually wanting to be a regular on the show. It’s definitely a grind!

    My ultimate suggestion would be to have two teams of SNL: one in NYC and the other in LA, and have them alternate weeks. I’m sure Lorne could use some more frequent flyer miles.

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