‘Steve and Marty’ Revealed SNL’s Weaknesses

Even two comedy legends couldn’t help the show.

Steve Martin and Martin Short on 'SNL.'
Will Heath / NBC

The plan was relatively straightforward: Take two comedic legends, each with a rich history on Saturday Night Live and a working partnership spanning decades, and invite them to co-host. Steve Martin and Martin Short had even previously shared the SNL stage in 1986, when they hosted alongside Chevy Chase to promote their film Three Amigos. Last night’s episode, therefore, had every reason to be not just funny but riotous—the kind of impish return Will Forte delivered last season.

Instead, it landed with a clunk. Martin and Short felt like veteran substitute teachers called in to steady a school where most of the experienced faculty had left. Yet the episode hampered their efforts, placing the consummate vaudevillians in sketch after sketch that restricted their talents. As a result, even “Steve and Marty” couldn’t save SNL from the struggles that continue to impact what the executive producer Lorne Michaels has called a “transition year.”

A spoof about a fictional PBS series called Science Room inhibited Martin and Short by making them play straight men to the clueless junior volunteers they were there to educate. The children (played by Cecily Strong and Mikey Day) stole the spotlight—as they tend to do in the recurring sketch—while Martin and Short were left to deliver setups and an increasing level of exasperation. Later, in a sketch built more specifically for his talent, Short tapped his seemingly limitless energy playing the cantankerously feisty Sprinkles the Elf, who refused to put up with children and their endless wishes for Martin’s Santa. It was a flash of what might have been had more sketches played to their strengths.

The hosts gamely tried to keep the energy going, but even they couldn’t overcome a season where so much is in flux. The mass exodus ahead of SNL’s 48th season was a flurry following a period of relative (and unusual) stability for the show, and a new order has yet to materialize. Short may remember a similar problem from his brief stint on SNL’s cast: In 1984, he joined the series for one season. Dick Ebersol had taken over for Michaels and tried to stuff the cast with bankable stars after the original cast left en masse. Absent the cast’s talents—and popularity—the show’s future felt uncertain. “[T]here was a tremendous concern that the show had become a star vehicle, and that without stars, the show would falter,” Short said in the 2002 book Live From New York.

Today, Michaels isn’t packing the cast with stars. But he seems to be leaning heavily on big names, such as Amy Schumer and Dave Chappelle, to host this season, trusting that their talent might make up for the shortcomings elsewhere. Still, that tactic doesn’t always pay off.

So much of the show depends on a comedic energy that stems from the chemistry both among cast members and between comedians and the audience. But that takes time and trust. Last night, the cast’s vibrancy felt blunted: Even the cold open, addressing the mounting exhaustion people feel from the world’s never-ending problems in yet another way, felt tepid and repetitive. The episode also missed the chance to showcase what Martin and Short—friends for 36 years—do so beautifully: play. During their extended monologue, the pair traded jabs, ending their time on SNL’s main stage by reading eulogies they’d written for each other’s future funeral. “I learned so much from Steve,” Short gleefully said. “For example, he taught me that you don’t need to restrict a urinal to just No. 1.”

One of the biggest pitfalls of the night was the choice to forego Short’s immense character wheelhouse. Those possibilities lay by the wayside until the final sketch, when he appeared as Franck from the Father of the Bride franchise. He reprised the role on the imagined Father of the Bride 8, which largely made fun of Martin’s character, George Banks, who complained about having to pay for “an eighth Nancy Meyers–style wedding” for his beloved daughter. It was a sweet nod to Martin and Short’s lasting comedic partnership, especially because newer viewers may now know them mostly for Only Murders in the Building. But it came too late to ring as a success after a long series of thuds.