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Athens, Ohio, United States
"Art and love are the same thing. It's the process of seeing yourself in things that are not you."

Monday, October 20, 2008

Old Dogs, New Tricks

34 seasons. 640 episodes. 11 films based on sketches. Over seventy full time cast members.

Saturday Night Live is REALLY old. 

When it first aired almost 35 years ago, Nixon was still President, the Watergate Scandal was reaching its climax and young Americans were still dying in Vietnam. SNL is the very definition of "old media". Every week a handful of funny and talented people decided to put on a funny, almost vaudevillian but completely current show for an audience...and it just so happened that cameras were there to show the rest of the world the spectacle. The show was a quaint and classic show with an edge to it. That was 33 years ago, however, and this is now. 

My contemporaries and I have only have known two presidents: "Bush or Clinton", the only "gate" we know is "Spygate" and instead of fighting in the orient, we fight in the Middle East. We couldn't be more different from our parents's culture in the way we think, act and speak. But I still watch Saturday Night Live. I watch it frequently and I enjoy it. And as far as I can tell, the rest of America still watches it too. More people watched Saturday Night Live this week than any other show not named CSI or Dancing with the stars. The Josh Brolin hosted episode that featured a cameo appearance from a certain bespectacled Alaskan governor achieved the show's best Nielsen Ratings in 14 years.

33 years in, Saturday Night Live may not be the cultural phenomenon it once was, but it still exists and at times it still thrives. Anyone that has any knowledge of the way the television business works has to have an appreciation for the 33 year old show. It is very difficult to maintain creative energy over a season, it is extremely difficult to do it over a few seasons and once the amount of seasons hits double digits: forget about it, the show is just regurgitating old ideas for the six people who still have the guts to watch it. But 34 seasons. THIRTY FOUR. 3-4...that is just impossible. But they do it and the way they did it is shockingly simple.

They changed. 

I know their are many people out there who are sick of Saturday Night Live and are rolling their eyes as they read this. "They still do the same crap!" "The jokes are lame!" "The hosts suck" "Andy Samberg looks like a more smug Adam Sandler." And to that I decry: "you're right...sometimes." Yes, the basic format is still the same: Host, Fake Commercial, Sketches, Musical Act, Sketches, but within that format, the producers and writers have found ways to keep the shows fresh. 

The cast is an ever-revolving stable of the best comedic talent available. Saturday Night Live producers scout young, talented professionals like the Red Sox scout the Caribbean for kids with a natural swing and a 98 mph fastball. They do a good job too. If someone asked you to name ten of your favorite comedians...or simply ten comedians you know off the top of your head: I would be willing to bet that 7 or 8 of them would be current or former cast SNL cast members.

They have successfully satirized and poked fun at current events for 3o years. Every sitting president since Gerald Ford has a exaggerated caricature of himself in the public's eye thanks to Saturday Night Live. SNL has managed to define election seasons better than any of their contemporaries save for maybe the Stewart/Colbert tag team that exists today. At the conclusion of every debate or press conference, talking heads and political analysts judge the politician's performance by how much material they gave the folks at 30 Rockerfeller Center to use against them. 

Lorne Michaels and company are now finding ways to incorporate new ideas and new technology into the show. Case in point: the SNL Digital Short. I defy you to find someone who doesn't love at least three SNL Digital Shorts. Even people who hate SNL altogether and have given up on it completely have to acknowledge that the Digital Shorts are hilarious. And the Digital Shorts are a by-product of some good old fashioned progressive thinking. Wouldn't it be great if an old variety show starting integrating digital skits and pieces to reflect this new online, viral culture? Well, SNL did and the answer is: yes, it would be awesome. Lorne and friends found a trio of genuinely funny amateur online filmmakers in California called "The Lonely Island." Andy Samberg became a full-time cast member, Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer became writers and they are all solely responsible for the phenomenon of the SNL Digital Short

(In case anyone is interested, I will include a list of the Top Ten best SNL Digital Shorts ever. My list is very similar to this Tenspotting user's, although it includes more current Shorts.)
10. Laser Cats: The Trilogy
9. Grandkids in the Movies
7.Natalie Portman Rap
6. Young Chuck Norris
5. Doppleganger
4. Iran So Far
3. Dear Sister
2. Lazy Sunday
1. Dick in a Box

Change is good. It is a cliche to write and a cliche to say and we all feel like we already know that. But for a corporate media entity, knowing that change is good and actually changing your ways of presenting information or entertaining are usually two different things. It is hard for companies and for producers of creative material to change the format of what works. And unfortunately that is what usually needs to be done.

If a show older than the Internet can do it, you can too.


Woozie said...

And the only one of those I, someone who never watches SNL, have seen is Dick in a Box. Their Digital Shorts aren't *that* viral.

Big Ben said...

I Tivo the show and watch it when I can. It still has some pretty funny stuff. I actually laughed really hard at the "Fart Face" sketch this weekend.

I was a big fan of the show when I was 13 and 14 with Mike Myers, Phil Hartman, Adam Sandler, Chris Rock, Chris Farley, Dana Carvey. I watched the show religiously.