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.

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.

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.