I still do it, and so does my wife – almost every Saturday night. That’s right, we still watch Saturday Night Live.
Created in 1975 by Toronto’s Lorne Michaels (nee Lipowitz), the long-running series has been the most potent force in North American comedy over the past 43 years. The show has had more ups and downs than a roller-coaster, but since the ascent of U.S. President Donald Trump, it has been enjoying some of the best reviews in a long time.
In 1975, nobody expected much from the scrappy late-night show, but by the end of its first season, it had made stars of Chevy Chase, Dan Ackroyd, John Belushi, Gilda Radner and Bill Murray. After a half dozen years of the original, brilliant cast, the show entered one of its periodic slumps, even replacing Michaels with a series of lesser producers. When he was brought back a few years later, it became clear that he was the master of the most important aspect of comedy: casting.
The list of stars spawned from the show is staggering. From the 1980s: Eddie Murphy, Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman, Jon Lovitz, Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, Dennis Miller. The ’90s contributed cast members Chris Farley, David Spade, Adam Sandler, Norm MacDonald, Chris Rock, Tracy Morgan and Mike Myers. In the new millennium, SNL made household names out of Tina Fey, Kristen Wiig, Amy Poehler, Bill Hader, Seth Meyers and Jimmy Fallon.
All of these people have since gone on to major film and TV careers. Many of the 153 cast members over the years have not. And some soon-to-be famous cast members languished on the show, lasting only a single season, such as Sarah Silverman and Gilbert Gottfried.
Gottfried was once asked if he thought the show was having a good season. “Saturday Night Live is neither a good show nor a bad show,” he replied. “It’s a restaurant in a good location.” Ouch.
But there is no better way of predicting tomorrow’s comedy stars than SNL. The question is: who among the present cast is most likely to succeed?
One criticism levelled against SNL over the years has been its lack of
commitment to female comics. But since the Tina Fey years, that has no longer been true. So it comes as no surprise that the MVP in the current cast is Kate McKinnon. As glamorous as any movie star, she can play trailer trash – or Jeff Sessions – with the best of them. Her line readings and characters are top form. If there’s a breakout star in the current cast, it’s her.
Kenan Thompson, a rotund black clutch player, has an infectious grin that screams likability. He’s the most senior member of the cast, with a record-breaking 16 seasons under his belt. I always wondered when he would make the jump to bigger things. As it turns out, he has a major voice role in the new Grinch movie.
Beck Bennett is another, newer member of the cast who I enjoy. Whether he’s playing a perfect U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence, or any of the white-collar snooty characters that are his specialty, Bennett has leading man written all over him.
Another strong woman in the cast is Cecily Strong, who gets stronger every year. And watch out for Heidi Gardner, whose portrayal of self-obsessed millennials is nothing short of breathtaking.
This brings us to Weekend Update, the one part of the show I never miss. This satirical news segment has spawned countless imitators, such as the Onion and Canada’s own Beaverton. A lot of great comics have held the anchor seat, including Norm MacDonald, Dennis Miller, Tina Fey and Seth Meyers, but I like the current duo of Colin Jost and Michael Che. They play off each other beautifully, know exactly when to laugh at their own jokes and their good-natured jousting with racial overtones adds an extra dimension.
My only quibble, and I hate to bring this up, is how few Jewish comics have been part of the company over the years (about 10, by my count). Comedy, as I’ve said before, ad nauseam, is our tribe’s forte, and it seems bizarre to be so under-represented on such a landmark show.
Nevertheless, it’s still a show that’s worth watching every week. You might want to PVR it, because there are a whack of commercials after every sketch.
You want to know how the show has stayed on the air since 1975? There’s your answer.