Since its inception, “Saturday Night Live” has been by far the most popular and most discussed sketch comedy show ever to grace the television screen. Beginning with its 1975 debut, fans and writers have found plenty to laugh about and plenty more to decry.
Allegiance to the show has ebbed and flowed throughout its continuous 45-year run, and depth of talent among the cast and writers’ room has never been static. Most fans attribute their favorite seasons and casts of SNL to a time close to their teenage years when pop culture was a prominent fixture in life and lampooning it was the most fun. There is likely some validity to this assumption, although I believe the quality of the show is more objective than that.
Of course, when assessing the best and worst of a show that has been on the air as long as SNL, there is the nostalgia curve to consider. People who were young in the show’s early days likely look back on many sketches through rose-colored glasses. Likewise, young people today haven’t been as hung up on disappointment and bitterness about the more recent eras of the show as older generations.
All of that said, however, the 2010s were by far and away the worst ten-year time span SNL ever strung together. Yet a recent article by media magazine Decider contended that the just-closed decade was far from the lowest point for the show and cast once dubbed as the “Not Ready for Primetime Players.”
Every Decade Except This One Has Its Memories
In a thorough review of the best of each decade, it is clear that each has left fans of all ages with memories of iconic characters and sketches to quote and share for years and even generations. That is, each decade but this one.
For those not old enough to remember watching television in the ‘70s, which I am betting is quite a few of us, this inaugural decade birthed the legendary “Coneheads,” “CHEESEBORGAH CHEESEBORGAH CHEESEBORGAH CHEESEBORGAH FOUR PEPSI TWO CHIP,” “Landshark,” and of course Weekend Update’s famous segment, “Point / Counterpoint.”
While the 1970s era of SNL only covered five years of late-night comedy, it sparked the careers of many comedy heavyweights, including Dan Aykroyd, Jane Curtain, Bill Murray, John Belushi, and Chevy Chase.
The Decider article author Jason Nummer suggested the 2010s should be exempted as the worst time in the show’s history because, in part, the 1980s saw the temporary exit of creator and head writer Lorne Michaels, who briefly exited the show in 1980 to pursue other endeavors. During this time, Nummer measured, the show hit its lowest point and teetered on the verge of cancellation.
Yes, the ratings were low in the first season of the decade, as NBC scrambled to replace Michaels. The new writers brought in a whole new cast and were critically panned as the audience yearned for the early years of “Super Bass-o-matic ‘76,” and “Rosanne Rosannadanna.” After the rocky 1980-1981 season, however, break-out stars Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo breathed new life into the show and attracted a new generation of viewers.
The decade produced legendary sketches like “Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood,” “Buckwheat,” “Who Shot C.R.?” and Chevy Chase’s unforgettable turn as the host of Weekend Update. The decade also launched the careers of Julia Louise-Dreyfus, Jim Belushi, Martin Short, Christopher Guest, and Billy Crystal.
Nummer goes on to point out foibles and inconsistencies in the next two decades that qualify them as potential low points for the comedy show. In defense of the 2010s, he writes, “It survived cast shakeups much better than the 1990s which saw the show nearly hit a breaking point due to overpopulation.”
Like all decades, sure, the 1990s had highs and lows. But the highs included Phil Hartman as the Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer, Chris Farley as motivational speaker Matt Foley, and Will Ferrell as “Celebrity Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek. By “overpopulation,” I assume he means the saturation of talented cast members like Adam Sandler, David Spade, Darrell Hammond, Dana Carvey, Mike Meyers, Chris Rock, and Kevin Nealon. Complaining that there are too many good performers is a bit of an unusual gripe about a popular comedy program.
As the show transitioned into the modern era at the turn of the century, it would be a fair assessment to note that quality began to slide. However, the show opened the new millennium with sketches like “More Cowbell,” and the iconic, Jim Downey-penned George W. Bush versus Al Gore debate.
The 2000s also ushered in the era of mind-numbing repeaters like the “Spartan” cheerleader sketches with Ferrell and Cheri Oteri, as well as the bizarrely unfunny church singing duo played by Ferrell and Ana Gasteyer. It’s also probably fair to say that no one ever wants to see Mary Katherine Gallagher smell her armpits again or suffer through Kristen Wiig’s annoying Target Lady as she struggles to perform her very basic job.
However, there was also gold to be found in the 2000s, including the introduction of viral SNL short films like “Lazy Sunday” and “Natalie Raps,” featuring the buttoned-up actress as a destructive gangster rapper. We also still cherish our Mom Jeans, our time with Debbie Downer, and still find ourselves trying to remember whether Tina Fey or Sarah Palin said, “I can see Russia from my house!”
Then the Show Got Woke
The last decade of SNL, however, has left us with few fond memories of belly-busting laughter and a bitter taste of acrimonious political sniping directed exclusively at conservatives. The 2010s also showed a departure from content that stood the test of time and leaned heavily on pop references that evaporated in minutes.
This sad list from BuzzFeed, titled “42 Of the Best Saturday Night Live Sketches from This Decade,” more than proves my point about the lack of iconic sketches. An attempt at rehashing the magic of “Natalie Raps” in 2018 even managed to fall flat without the shock value of the original.
It also seemed that every episode of the decade relied heavily on drop-ins from random celebrity guests, who were neither hosting nor members of the cast, to play various political figures in the cold open and guest spots in the monologue. While this tactic elicited applause from the audience, it seemed to express a lack of faith in the cast members not considered for these roles.
It wouldn’t be fair, however, to call the entire decade laugh-free. Melissa McCarthy as a Segway-riding Sean Spicer wasn’t bad. “The Californians” was funny the first time it aired. Jason Sudeikis, Bill Hader, and Fred Armisen all proved to be comedy heavyweights and are reaping the benefits of a post-SNL career as a result. But as the tide turned toward social justice activism in the early 2010s, SNL was not spared the wrath of suddenly political comedy critics demanding more identity politics and “wokeness.”
Bending to the mob, SNL morphed into a show that chose performers based on sex and race instead of talent. The sketches were all tailored to an audience of city-dwelling leftists and purposely left the rest of the viewing audience in the cold.
Choosing political identity and virtue signaling as a value greater than “make the funniest TV possible” is not what has kept the show on for almost half a century. It now leans on its legacy as the greatest (and really, only) sketch comedy show with a significant audience, and uses its built-in support to project political ideology and call it “comedy,” mixed in with a few half-baked and overly long sketches.
Cold opens, once a signature of SNL, have become 7- to 10-minute slogs through a tiresome sketch with Alec Baldwin as President Trump and Kate McKinnon and Bryant badly portraying every male conservative the staff have deemed guilty of badthink.
As for breakout stars to watch following the departure of Hader, Sudeikis, and Armisen, it’s uncertain whether there are any. McKinnon seems to have been crowned the MVP of the cast, but her major film releases have failed to stick with audiences.
Hopefully, 2020 means new life for the show, but there is no question that the past decade was the worst in SNL history. We do at least have this gem from Melissa McCarthy as a woman with a vision board bent on avenging her father’s death.