Saturday, October 28, 2017

Oh my god, I've been watching SNL wrong my whole life.

David Koechner and Mark McKinney as the Fops on Saturday Night Live

The cast of SNL in the early 1980s. Eddie Murphy in foreground.
My parents weren't lenient about everything, but they were very understanding about letting me stay up late and watch TV as long as I didn't have school the next day. In the summers during my elementary school years, for instance, I got to watch The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and even Late Night With David Letterman. I had the same privilege on Friday nights during the school year, so it really bothered me that Dave's show originally only ran from Monday to Thursday, ceding its place on the NBC schedule to Friday Night Videos once a week. But I still saw plenty of after-hours talk shows back then. By junior high, I was already writing my own Top 10 lists. So thanks for that, Mom and Dad.

As near as I can figure, I must have started watching Saturday Night Live when I was 8 or 9. It was the early 1980s. Dick Ebersole was running the show then, and Eddie Murphy was the star attraction. I've been a faithful SNL viewer ever since, regardless of the show's quality. Whether it's good, bad, or (most likely) mediocre, I'm there for every new episode. I'll keep watching SNL until either it expires or I do.

So what? Well, I've come to realize that my way of watching SNL is actually all wrong and directly in opposition to the wishes of the show's creator, Lorne Michaels. Except on those rare nights when the cast and crew are firing on all cylinders, Saturday Night Live  can be a chore to watch. With commercials, it's 90 minutes long -- almost the length of a feature film -- and most weeks, you can feel every minute of that. The musical guests are often of little interest to me, so I wind up muting them. When the show isn't hosted by a comedian, the opening monologue is often torturous, too.

Even the sketches -- the jewels in the show's crown -- can be painful. We've all heard the stories about how cast members and writers compete ferociously to get their sketches on the air, and yet SNL often feels like it's desperately filling up time with any material it has available. Many sketches follow a pattern I call "ever-escalating variations." This means that the performers do different versions of the same basic joke over and over for five minutes, only making the central joke slightly more intense with each repetition. SNL studio audiences have become so familiar with this formula that, occasionally, they won't laugh at a joke until it's repeated. They're waiting for the pattern to emerge. Over four decades, essentially, the show has trained them how to watch sketches.

This problem is more noticeable in the sketches that involve recurring characters. From the Coneheads to Stefon, SNL has had many, many, many, many such characters over the years. They're the lifeblood of the series. And each of these characters generally has his or her own catchphrases and signature routines that become well-known to viewers. A classic SNL recurring character typically does the same exact things in the same exact order in each appearance. Even if you love the character, it can get a bit boring for the every-episode viewer like myself because you can predict exactly what this person is going to do well in advance.

But here is where I've been screwing up. Check out this 2013 interview with comedian Mark McKinney, who served as a writer on SNL in the 1980s and came back as a cast member in the 1990s. This guy knows what he's talking about from an insider's perspective. And here's what he says about Lorne Michaels and recurring characters:
"Lorne pointed out, and I think this is absolutely true, that even if you have big fans who are really into your show, they'll probably only see every second one. Or sometimes every third one. So that's the logic, at least on SNL I know, about why they sort of repeat characters."
So there you have it, folks. Straight from the source. I've been watching SNL incorrectly for decades. Lorne wants you to watch every second or third episode. Maybe you're not even supposed to watch all 90 minutes each week. I've noticed that, the Sunday after a new episode airs, there are highlight videos all over YouTube and the rest of the internet. And, generally, it's only two or three sketches that get any real attention out of any given show.

SNL usually is well-served by judicious editing, i.e. cutting away all the filler and getting to the handful of funny sketches. The earliest episodes of the show -- with Belushi, Aykroyd, etc. -- were just a little bit before my time, but I saw highlights from this era through a half-hour syndicated series (called, I believe, The Best of Saturday Night and masterminded by Lorne himself) that played both on a local affiliate and, later, on Nick at Nite. I loved it. It wasn't until years later that I finally saw full-length episodes with the original cast. I thought it would be even better, but I realized I greatly preferred the condensed half-hour editions. Even "classic" SNL had a lot of dead time.

The weird thing is, I probably won't change the way I watch SNL, even if it prevents me from fully enjoying the show. I'll still be there for every new episode, and I'll still watch from beginning to end each time. Sorry, Lorne.

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