Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Saturday Night Live, Then and Now

I've recently decided to watch the first three seasons of Saturday Night Live. I have noticed many things, but the most notable of these is why it was such a sensation to audiences of the period. Before it became a TV institution, what was originally known as Saturday Night was in many ways a cheaply produced experiment. The set itself, in those early days, could not be more barebones. The glossy look evident now is instead grainy and inexpensive. Driving the show are the sketches, the material, but more importantly, the personalities. Though not every sketch is a winner, the successes are memorable and now legendary.

Each actor or actress has a distinct personality and style, which is why audiences of the time so closely identified with all of them. The show gives off a deep sense of authenticity, one not present now. It’s easy to understand why it became a hit. There’s rebelliousness present, from the daring subject material to the cocky swagger of Chevy Chase during the first season. Gilda Radner quickly branches out and showcases the memorable characters for which she is still beloved. John Belushi’s manic acting style won him his fair share of critical and audience acclaim. Jane Curtain’s deadpan monologues endeared her well to fans. The Not Ready for Primetime Players, as they were dubbed, were more character actor than matinee idol. Each looks so ordinary, which was much of the reason for the appeal. The everyman and everywoman appeal of every cast member only increased the indie cred of the vehicle.

What eventually became abbreviated as SNL served as a launching pad for the film careers of many. To some extent, this is unfortunate because certain actors with greater ambitions were unable to keep their egos in check, creating friction within the cast. Once the show has caught fire, one can observe the strutting and preening present among the young and up-and-coming cast, more so with some than with others. In time, as each episode progresses, the newly confident players realize that they have a huge hit on their hands. Having the benefit of knowing how it all ends up, we know what is coming. SNL often suffered mightily from a lack of consistency because actors and actresses both used it as a stepping stone for greater exposure. Most often, however, it could be said that these instant stars might have been better sticking with television. A very small minority of any cast, then or now, has ever been able to translate small screen success to big screen consistency.

There was much more to the show than the characters played in front of the cameras. The petty rivalries and constant backstage drama make it easy to understand the source material of Tina Fey’s 30 Rock series. What Fey herself must have witnessed over time can be easily supplemented by an exhaustive history of prima donnas and petulant behavior. During Season One, guest star Louise Lasser of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman fame locked herself in her dressing room prior to airtime. Shortly before the show was to air, she emerged just in time to perform the opening monologue, but refused to participate in live skits, forcing the producers to rely on segments taped earlier. For this, she was banned for life from ever appearing again. This is not the only example.

Chevy Chase was a mainstay of the 1975-76 first season, but left at its conclusion to focus full time on film. Arguably the most popular member of the cast at that time, the adulation clearly went to Chase’s head. Like Tina Fey, he anchored Weekend Update during his one and only season, and established a precedent of sarcastic and topical one-liners. But upon his return to guest star two years later, however, Chase’s conduct was now utterly insufferable. Behaving like a little boy throwing a tantrum, he came to blows with new cast member Bill Murray shortly before the show started. Then at the peak of his fame, Chevy Chase would prove to have a lackluster, up and down film career. Not one especially inclined for humility, one could easily make a case that this privileged child of New York City society had only himself to blame for it.

In a massive understatement, the show itself has seen brighter days. Criticizing SNL for its lackluster material and minimally talented cast has become something of a sport in recent days. The original players stayed intact for close to five years, then left at roughly the same time, creating to a downturn in quality during the mid to late 1980’s. A few notable cast members like Eddie Murphy produced memorable material at that stage in SNL's lifespan, but the show suffered as no show ever really stood out as a complete entity from start to finish. Its early to mid 1990’s rebirth made the show momentarily hip again, but then the bottom dropped out when popular cast members like Mike Myers, Dana Carvey, and Phil Hartman left the show. It has never gotten its act together since then.

What is really to blame is that the show no longer has anything to prove. Nearing its fortieth year in existence, it has become a fixture and an institution, when before it was a cheap little exercise in sketch comedy with a pack of talented unknowns. This cycle is far from unique, but the freshness of a previous time may have been lost forever. Perhaps she should expect that this aspect is an inevitability of a sort. The need for a replacement might be seen as a necessity and a culmination of both good ideas and new blood. So long as we don’t take it personally when our own cultural traditions grow stale and ineffectual, we might point the way to others. Reinventing the wheel is unnecessary, but breathing life into old styles could not be more essential today.

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