I do not understand Saturday Night Live.
It has long been accepted that SNL was never really funny (or, rather, that it stopped being funny a few years after you personally started watching, which is basically the same thing). At best, it’s a simulacrum of funny – something that skates on the edge and is so close that sometimes you mistake it for funny, even though that’s probably just the Stockholm Syndrome talking.
I’m not a regular viewer of SNL, because, well, see above re: not funny. But I caught last night’s Mick Jagger episode, and I have to say, it was just as awful as I always imagined sitting through an entire SNL would be. The sketches largely suffer from the “the Onion” problem – namely, an amusing premise that nobody can take any further (the name of this problem, which I probably made up, comes from the fact that Onion headlines are always clever and are then followed by an obligatory article that nobody thought through because they were so proud of the headline). Mick Jagger as a gay 1960s action movie star? Funny. An entire sketch based off that premise? Interminable. And it could be that last night’s episode was particularly horrible, but from the bits and pieces I’ve caught over the years, that seems to be the rule as opposed to exception.
Moreover, SNL tends to fall back on dinosaur jokes (which is an insult to dinosaur comedians, who probably would have still used them ironically). I mean, gosh, a celebrity who loses their own celebrity impersonation contest? Hilarious!!!!! No one in the history of ever has thought of that joke!!!!! And when they do these jokes, they still suffer from the Onion problem, but it’s more noticeable, because it’s not even a semi-original premise. I understand the crunch of putting together an hour and a half long show to be performed live week after week, but the total lack of originality is depressing and a little insulting.
Look, SNL does occasionally manage to be funny, though I get the sense that those times are largely by accident. Celebrity Jeopardy has been known to find a few laughs under the couch cushions. Christmastime for the Jews is my favorite December song. I could watch Tina Fey as Sarah Palin for, literally, ever. And, to be completely fair, even godawful episodes like the one last night manage to squeeze a few chuckles from me here and there (though it’s possible that was just lowered standards and desperation). I mean, the show is run by talented, funny people, and some of that spark is going to come out no matter how much they try to cover it up.
But SNL is mostly painful, and I have to say that I really do not understand why it still exists. Everything about it just seems tired – the jokes are frayed, the acting derives largely from the “forced” school, and the celebrity guests always look vaguely embarrassed that they still have to do this. I’m not saying that there isn’t a place on television for a Saturday night sketch show, because it’s a comforting way to end the week, but why in God’s name must it be so bad? Take Tina Fey – her years as head writer were terrible (like most of the show), but 30 Rock is magnificent, and it makes no sense.
I’m pretty sure it’s SNL, that something about it – the format, the schedule, the expected style – just kills off funny’s will to live. I’ve never been quite able to figure out whether people watch it out of obligation or because they actually enjoy it. Again, and I cannot stress this enough, I don’t watch it at all, so I have literally no stake in it whatsoever. I just can’t wrap my head around the fact that people who I like so much in other projects can do such an abysmal job on this one. Personally, I think the only solution is to bury the decaying corpse of this show and start fresh, but I guess it’s hard to fault people for wanting comfort food TV late on a Saturday night. SNL is doomed to be one of those things that exists forever without anybody understanding why, like phone books or canned soup or Ron Paul. There are worse things that have happened to television, but I will never grasp why people continue to put themselves through this.