SNL Is Hopelessly Stuck in the Past

For all the talk-show parodies aired on SNL this season, none matched the caustic wit of Zach Galifianakis's Between Two Ferns, a chat fest that ridicules both the lo-fi production values of many web series and the empty questions often lobbed at celebrities in televised interviews. The aggressively amateur, self-aware vibe of Between Two Ferns feels more in-step with today's wired, do-it-yourself culture than the polished, mechanized nature of SNL sketches. After all, despite the playfulness of "Bein' Quirky With Zooey Deschanel," the host remains trapped within the decidedly unquirky and restricted confines of daytime television, all but guaranteeing that recurring episodes of the show will deliver more of the same. It would make more sense for a pixie like Deschanel, who values handmade crafts and vintage artifacts, to pop up in a homespun, free-form web series broadcast from strange locations—say, a tree house or an igloo. This format would keep the sketch from growing stale by giving the indie darling more outlandish scenarios in which to operate, even if the show's production budget might suffer as a result.

But for however much it ignores the online world, SNL's greater sin of late has been that in the way it ignores the real one. Throughout this season, the show has largely shied away from formats driven largely by relationships or even plot. Of the 64 sketches that were not television parodies, 20 served as vehicles for recurring characters and 11 focused on celebrities or the media. That left only 33 sketches that unfolded in domestic settings, most of which ran in the last 30 minutes of the show, where the idea-oriented material often lands.

The previous week's cold open showed the potential SNL has when it strays from TV parodies. In it, Joe Biden (cartoonishly played by Jason Sudeikis) pouts about not having received credit for pushing Barack Obama to endorse gay marriage. After Fred Armisen's paternalistic Obama fails to console him, George W. Bush (Will Ferrell) emerges from Biden's closet, and they wallow in teenage self-pity about being misunderstood by their respective running mates. This behind-the-scenes framework expertly melds a political headline with an absurd premise (George W. Bush lives in Joe Biden's closet after having chased a butterfly there on the last day of his presidential term), but the sketch ultimately works because of the amusing relationships established among the three characters. It's the opposite of how political skits normally proceed on SNL, where the candidates deliver stiff monologues directly to the camera and interact with each other only in the most contrived televised scenarios.

It wasn't always this way. The very first sketch aired on Saturday Night Live featured John Belushi as an immigrant struggling to learn English from an ESL-teacher whose unusual lesson plans kept circling back to the word "wolverines." It's the type of reserved, writerly skit that now would struggle to advance beyond the table read. But occasionally, a few absurd conceptual pieces make their way onto the show. The concluding skit of the Katy Perry-hosted episode from mid-December opens with the host searching for her soul mate in a jazz bar. She finds him in the form of an English professor (Bobby Moynihan) who specializes in the poetry of Jewel, whose likeness Perry has tattooed on her chest. They get married on the spot, but as they're leaving the bar, Perry falls to her death down the elevator shaft. Moynihan screams in terror, but then quickly shrugs off the incident as bad luck and politely asks the staff to "take a look at that elevator." While not laugh-out-loud funny, the sketch maintains a low-key charm and builds gradually to the concluding punch line—a welcome contrast to the ramped-up mugging and telegraphed jokes that too frequently characterize the show's television spoofs.

So here's hoping that next season SNL writers seek more inspiration beyond the remote. Fire up an iPad and surf through user-generated content with a less jaundiced eye. Or better yet, hop the subway to one of New York City's outer boroughs. After all, there's never been a better time to reacquaint immigrants with the wonders of wolverines.

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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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