SNL Is Hopelessly Stuck in the Past

Its sketches lampoon decades-old talk shows while barely acknowledging the Internet's existence.

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Mick Jagger hosted the finale of Saturday Night Live last weekend, and despite the offbeat paths the show could have followed—maybe an Exile on Main Street parody set in a puke-stained mansion along the French Riviera?—it stuck mostly to satirizing this season's preferred target: television.

Of the 152 live sketches aired this season, a whopping 58 percent (88 sketches) were television parodies of some sort, whether political debates, game shows, or fake newscasts. Of course, SNL has skewered television since its inception. As "Baba Wawa," Gilda Radner gleefully lampooned the popular broadcast journalist's speech impediment; Dana Carvey's Church Lady hosted a Tonight Show for the devout; Wayne's World poked fun at amateurish cable access fodder; and even dimwitted Hans and Franz somehow landed an exercise show in which they mainly flexed and chastised their girlie-man viewers. But the world has changed since the days of Baba Wawa, and SNL's present-day devotion to mocking its own medium feels anachronistic, a lazy holdover that prevents the show from fully satirizing society as it exists today.

SNL spent more airtime this season skewering 1960s-era TV than the medium that more and more people now turn to for entertainment: the Internet.

The most frequent format for sketches by far this season was the talk show, with 32 such sketches spread out over 22 episodes. It's easy to understand why. The cramped sets in Studio 8H lend themselves to the static frameworks of daytime television and cable news shows. What's more, talk shows feature limited casts, roles for that week's host (usually the first guest), and, most importantly, a readymade structure. Two of the most difficult aspects of sketch comedy—the comedic set-up and conclusion—are built into the format: Talk shows almost invariably open with theme music, proceed with brief introductions and the usual banter between the host and guests, and then conclude with the pat line: "Well, that's our show for this week." They offer seemingly irresistible shortcuts for bleary-eyed writers scrambling to cobble together enough material for SNL's notoriously merciless Wednesday-afternoon table readings.

This isn't to say that the faux talk shows from this season have been uniformly formulaic and lazy. "J-Pop America Fun Time Now," hosted by two Michigan State students with seriously misguided notions of Japanese popular culture, nicely balances the hyperactive obliviousness of the hosts with the baffled dismay of their Japanese-studies professor, played by a straight-faced Jason Sudeikis. And despite its thin premise, "What's Up With That?", a panel discussion that periodically morphs into a makeshift disco, won me over with its infectious energy and the escalating ridiculousness of its costumed dancers.

Too often, however, these televised spoofs serve to prop up undercooked concepts and provide venues for broad celebrity impersonations. This season alone featured four celebrity-hosted talk shows: "The Best of Both Worlds With Hugh Jackman," "Getting Freaky With Cee-Lo Green," "Bein' Quirky With Zooey Deschanel," and "The Miley Cyrus Show." As evident by their titles, these shows revolve around one-joke premises—Hugh Jackman is both manly and sensitive, Cee-Lo Green enjoys sex, Zooey Deschanel is a hipster, Miley Cyrus is, well, Miley Cyrus—stretched out to sketch length by the rituals of the genre. For example, with its ukulele-heavy theme song and awkward exchanges between the wide-eyed host and her sidekick, a castrated Michael Cera (played by Taran Killam with his best Mickey Mouse voice), "Bein' Quirky with Zooey Deschanel" goes through the motions of a talk show while still giving Abby Elliott's Deschanel room to flaunt her collection of vintage typewriters and proficiency in popsicle-stick art. By swapping Billy Ray Cyrus for Michael Cera, and changing the host's attitude from whimsical to clueless, you've essentially laid the blueprint for "The Miley Cyrus Show."

The attention that SNL lavished on television shows this season seems stranger given the show's indifference to the Internet. The only two recent sketches that engaged with cyberspace took the form of, yes, televised talk shows. "The Comments Section" shamed and then physically assaulted three stereotypically pompous basement-dwellers for their inane online musings, while "You Can Do Anything!" lampooned the delusional aspirations of the so-called YouTube generation. There's a telling exchange between the two hosts, a photoblogger (Vanessa Bayer) and independent filmmaker (Bill Hader), and their third guest, an Irish-dancing calligrapher named Brad (Daniel Radcliffe):

Bill Hader: Brad, backstage you were confused and upset because our producers didn't know who you were.

Daniel Radcliffe: Oh, correct. You see, I posted a video of myself online, and 1,000 people have watched it. Therefore, I assume everyone knows my name and admires my work.

Vannessa Bayer: It's almost as though you consider yourself a star, even though you're shockingly unfamous.

Daniel Radcliffe: And untalented.

While amusing, the underlying message is that if Radcliffe's talents were commensurate with his self-regard, his work would appear on television, not merely on the Internet. This dismissive attitude toward user-generated online content helps explain why Saturday Night Live spent more airtime skewering 1960s-era television shows—three instances of the Password-inspired game show "Secret Word," and two instances of "The Lawrence Welk Show"—than the medium that more and more people now turn to for entertainment. To be fair, the loopy digital shorts stitched together by Andy Samberg's comedy troupe, The Lonely Island, aspire for viral-video status, and SNL's website has unlocked a wealth of material from the show's decades-long run. But by and large, SNL sketches continue to exist in a pre-wireless world where network television is still king.

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Luke Epplin is a freelance writer. His work has appeared in The Daily Beast, the New Yorker Page-Turner, and n+1

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