2019 was the year SNL finally turned things around
Saturday Night Live is a strange, antiquated TV show. People love to hate it. Give “SNL is…” a quick Google search and it’ll likely auto-complete with “trash” or “garbage” or “when did SNL get so terrible?” The results bring up Reddit threads and think pieces, and shady tweets. The SNL writers sometimes work self-deprecating jokes about how bad the show is into sketches, but the effect isn’t funny, just cringe-inducing.
Chevy Chase, an original cast member, told The Washington Post last year that he doesn’t think the show has been good since 1977 — and that’s doing a disservice to young people. “A whole generation of shitheads laughs at the worst fucking humor in the world,” he said. “How could you dare give that generation worse shit than they already have in their lives? It just drives me nuts.” Harsh words, especially considering there are plenty of SNL alternatives on TV and the internet.
The fact is that audiences keep coming back to SNL, no matter how bad it supposedly is these days. Not a ton of people watch it live (the telecast consistently falls behind whatever football game is airing), but lots view the sketches and musical performances online later. Videos from the November 23 episode of SNL, hosted by Will Ferrell, amassed 75 million views, and it was the #1 most-viewed entertainment program on YouTube the week after the show aired, according to ListenFirst. That’s a growing trend the show is capitalizing on, by making entire episodes (interrupted with ads, of course) available on YouTube almost immediately.
I tend to watch SNL on YouTube on Sunday mornings over coffee, partly to stay on top of the cultural discourse, but I’ve also been genuinely delighted by countless moments this season. Chloe Fineman, Bowen Yang, and SNL writer Julio Torres definitely have a lot to do with that. They’re the young comedians behind much of the straight-up weird humor this season, and I’m incredibly here for it.
It’s also been consistently fun watching the show’s senior female cast members — Kate McKinnon, Aidy Bryant, and Cecily Strong — just lording it up together in sketches, like a comedic coven. There was the apple picking ad in the season premiere, with McKinnon and Bryant playing spinster sisters in upstate New York. And the Rosie the Riveter sketch with Kristen Stewart, where they out-butch an army captain. I could watch all three actresses and Phoebe Waller-Bridge do bad hillbilly accents together forever. Ditto with the Wisconsin Women sketch. McKinnon, and JLo may not know what people from Wisconsin sound like, but it’s fun hanging out in their female-run hardware store.
The hosts have been top-notch so far this season, too. A nice mix of established and emerging talent. The contrast between hosts like Woody Harrelson and Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Will Farrell and Chance the Rapper, and Jennifer Lopez and Harry Styles has let the show lean into each celebrity’s strengths in different ways, giving SNL more of a variety show feel than I remember in years past. That said, Scarlett Johansson, fresh off the premiere of her Oscar vehicle Marriage Story, is hosting this weekend, and I’m already bracing for impact. The actress has a lot to address and atone for, like her support of Woody Allen and a string of appropriative movie roles. It seems inevitable she’ll address the controversies, and it’s bound to be awkward.
But back to the SNL appreciation blog. I think a lot of people forget how quickly the show gets slapped together — in a matter of days, even when it’s coming back from a long hiatus. SNL is destined to be uneven every week, thanks to its compressed production schedule, but its existence is an impressive feat. Considering how much faster culture moves in the digital age than it did in 1975, when SNL premiered, it means the writers are digesting the news and spitting out sketches at warp speed.
I’ve noticed improvements this season, though, which I think bodes well for SNL as an institution. The show still has a long, long way to go in terms of diversity. It needs to take more risks on weird, fresh ideas. And the cast seriously, seriously needs to learn how to say, “Live from New York…” in unison during the cold open. Why is that consistently the messiest part of the show? It’s bizarre.
Nevertheless, changes will continue happening in increments, as Lorne Michaels and his team throw things at our television and computer screens to see what sticks. I happen to like a lot of the stuff SNL has been throwing out, and I hope it continues getting weirder in 2020.