Sunday, October 6, 2013

What's Wrong with Saturday Night Live

Saturday Night Live has always been one of my favourite shows. I’ve watched it ever since I was 11 years old. Back in Grade 7, it felt like a rite of passage into adulthood.

I remember it felt so exhilarating to stay up "late" and watch SNL. Yes, late being midnight on a Saturday.

In fact, I used to tape the episodes on my parents VCR, watch it over and over on Sunday, and then recite the punchlines from the best sketches for my classmates the following Monday.

To me, that was the “Golden Era” of Saturday Night Live. The Will Ferrell, Molly Shannon, Tim Meadows, Darrell Hammond era … that was the Saturday Night Live I grew up with. So keeping this in mind, that is the benchmark that I hold all subsequent SNL eras against.

The current incarnation of Saturday Night Live simply doesn’t hold a candle to the old casts and writing teams. That’s one topic that could open an entirely new can of worms, but I decided I would focus on what’s wrong with Saturday Night Live today.

The problem is impressions.
Right now, SNL relies way too heavily on impressions for their laughs. Take for example last night's episode; four of the first five sketches had some sort of celebrity impression. The "50 Shades of Grey" had a laundry list or rapid fire impressions, none of them that particularly funny.

And if you look at the bulk of the recurring sketches of SNL, most of them are based on celebrity impressions.

It amazes me how someone like Jay Pharoh has the exact tone and speech pattern down pat on so many celebrities. I can appreciate that certain cast members can mimic celebrities’ voices and mannerisms to a “t”.

While his impressions are almost always dead on, the problem is ... within the context of the sketch, the impression isn't all that funny.

When I look back at the SNL “Golden Era” the sketch that sticks out in my mind for celebrity impressions was Celebrity Jeopardy. Often times that particular week’s host would be tasked with a celebrity impression, but for the most part that sketch was dominated by the conflict between Alex Trebek and Sean Connery or Burt Reynolds.

What made that sketch funny wasn’t that the impressions themselves weren’t necessarily all that accurate, it’s that those cast members transformed those celebrities into caricatures. The focus of the Celebrity Jeopardy sketch was about the cat and mouse between Trebek and the contestants, not even necessarily creating an accurate impression.

In fact, Norm McDonald’s interpretation of Burt Reynolds seems almost nothing like what he’d be in real life. But Norm McDonald created a caricature out of Burt Reynolds and made him one of the most memorable characters on Saturday Night Live.

I guess a large part of that has to do with the writing. If the writing of the sketch isn’t particularly strong, then the impression itself has to carry the load. And aside from the initial laughs, I think an impression on its own wears off pretty fast … let alone into a four or five minute sketch.

From the writer’s perspective, I can understand why they would write a sketch anchored by a cast member doing a celebrity impression; the viewers can easily latch onto it, and the impression is typically very recognizable out of the gate.

The audience can adopt celebrity impressions very quickly, whereas they have to warm up to entirely new characters. A sketch like the “Spartans” isn’t going to gain notoriety right out of the gate. It has to start at the back end of the show and slowly gain traction and work its way into that coveted spot within the first 30 minutes of the show.

With the departure of Kristen Wiig, the show suffered a huge blow in the way of original characters. While some will say many of Wiig’s characters were just rehashing of one another, at least she provided something different than just a gambit of impressions.

The other issue I have with SNL’s recurring sketches at the moment is they really don’t offer anything new from week to week.

For example, just look at “The Californians”; while the first few occurrences of this sketch were new and original, it’s now basically the exact same rehashed jokes told over and over again. To be honest, it's probably one of the unfunniest recurring sketches on the show.

At least with Craig and Arianna aka the “Spartans”, they had a new cheer and dance routine every time they performed. Sure, the tone and style of the sketch was essentially the same from week to week, but at least the jokes were varied.

With a sketch like “What’s Up With That”, it’s gotten to the point where it’s simply a copy/paste job from episode to episode. There is no originality in it whatsoever anymore.

"Whats Up With That" should have been a one-and-done sketch, instead it jumped the shark long ago.

Again, I think part of the blame here lies on the writers for not branching out, but it also goes to the very top with Lorne Michaels. In many instances, Lorne is guilty of casting “impressionists” rather than “performers”.

For example, I am very much in awe of Jay Pharoh’s abilities as an impressionist, but I have yet to connect with an original character of his on the show. I love Pharoh’s impressions of Denzel Washington, but without context, it just isn’t all that funny.

I think what it all boils down to is I want to start to see more original sketches on Saturday Night Live. To me, sketches that are based on impressions are just a rehashing of something that’s already happened or already been said. It doesn't lend itself to being funny beyond the first one or two laughs.

When sketches on SNL are dominated by celebrity impressions, there is no surprise whatsoever. Give me something I haven’t seen before; give me a new character in a new situation in which I don’t know how it’s going to end or where I can't predict what the character is going to say.

To me, that's what makes a sketch funny … not that fact that somebody can act like Denzel Washington.