Wednesday, September 12, 2012

SNL has always been this funny

Since the early 1980's, the common refrain about Saturday Night Live has been that it's not as funny as when the 'Not Ready for Prime-Time Players' were tromping around Studio 8H. Oh, those were the days of cutting-edge, daring, and renegade comedy that pushed the envelope live, from New York, on Saturday Night. The days of Coneheads, Wild and Crazy Guys, Blues Brothers, and even some sketches that didn't involve Dan Akroyd. When Lorne Michaels offered The Beatles $3,000 to reunite and Steve Martin waxed poetic about King Tut.

Ever since then, and we've been hearing it for quite some time, SNL is just not funny anymore; it's lost its edge and is a sad, pale imitation of what it used to be. How can people even watch that program anymore, because even the most casual eye can see that it is a black hole where comedy goes to die? Why can't this show get back to the golden days when it was the funniest thing on the planet?

And then they released the original seasons, uncut on DVD, and we got to see for ourselves the glory and majesty of those original seasons. And that's when we all realized something: SNL was always this level of funny.

More to the point, SNL has always been this level of "unfunny" that everyone accuses the later seasons of. Even among the famed cast of Chevy Chase, John Belushi, Jane Curtin, Laraine Newman, Gilda Radner, Dan Aykroyd, and Garrett Morris, sketches fell flat and were boring. In some episodes the laughs were few and far between. Every complaint you might have about the current incarnation of this show was just as valid back then. Skits were unimaginative and ran on for too long. Cast members blew jokes, depended too much on cue cards, and had long ,awkward pauses that killed the sketch. In short, it was everything then it is now.

But why do we remember SNL back then as being more funny and revolutionary than what it is now? A lot of it is selective perception. When the old episodes are re-run, they are often cut down to an hour, or even a half hour. Thus, our impression of that era is based on remembering only the best sketches and pretending like the duds never happened. Retrospectives of the old days are even more selective, picking and choosing the funniest moments, giving the false impression that it was all golden.

We can also be falling victim to confirmation bias, in which we look at SNL today and ignore the funny parts and focus on the unfunny. When we watch an episode and assume it's going to be terrible, then we also invoke self-fulfilling prophesy, because we are so focused on finding fault that we can't enjoy it. The reason we don't find it funny is that we don't let ourselves enjoy it.

Likewise, just as SNL has always had its share of bad sketches, it's never stopped being brilliant. In the past ten years, we've seen some amazing, funny moments. Take the 2008 run of Tina Fey as Sarah Palin. Her stints at the former governor of Alaska were right up there with Chevy Chase as Gerald Ford. The weekend updates were never stronger with the tag teams of Tina Fey and Jimmy Fallon, Tina Fey and Amy Pohler, and Any Pohler and Seth Meyers. Those duos were just as sharp as the original pair of Jane Curtin and Dan Akroyd.

SNL has always featured pre-filmed segments in additions to live performances. The last few seasons gave us the Digital Shorts, including the so-bad-they're-good laser cats, Lazy Sunday, and the world-famous (and infamously bleeped) D*ck in a Box. These videos quickly became viral sensations and can't miss segments of the show.

If you're looking for an episode that goes toe-to-toe with anything the not-ready-for-primtetime-players gave us, it's the May 8, 2010 Episode hosted by Betty White. Not only did it prove that Betty White is still incredibly funny, it showcased the talents of many of SNL's women, past and present. Her "Delicious Dish" sketch became an instant classic, right up there with the other famous dish sketch, "schweddy balls."

Not only to the episodes hold up, but the cast members are equally as talented as their 70's counterparts. Just as many of the original cast members went on to have memorable movie and television careers, the same is true of the modern casts. We wouldn't have movies like Anchorman and Talledega Nights without Will Ferrell, and 30 Rock wouldn't be a television sensation without Tina Fey. Even master of ruining sketches by cracking up Jimmy Fallon has gone on to have one of the best late-night talk shows on right now.

So while critics enjoy trashing SNL for no longer measuring up to the "good old days," as they've been doing since the Reagan administration, they are missing out on the big picture. While the show has its ups and downs, good episodes and downs, stronger casts and weaker casts, it's still just as funny, satirical, snarky, revulutionary, dangerous, and crazy as it's always been. So either that means SNL is better than we give it credit for, or it's never been that funny. Your call.

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