“Saturday Night Dead,” a headline as old as the show itself. 41 seasons in, Saturday Night Live has faced constant criticism for failing to deliver upon its comedic promise. Its mammoth cultural significance is matched only by its ability to attract almost constant criticism by critics and audiences alike, both hearkening back to the “old days,” when their favorite cast members played their favorite characters — before being replaced by new actors and writers with new voices.
It’s the stylistic and tonal changes of SNL that make the show evergreen—and the constant butt of critics’ jokes. The audience warms up to the players and grows fond of their familiar comedic rhythms. Once a player abandons the show, their role is not assumed with by another carbon-copy comic; rather, these holes in the cast are filled with new, fresh voices who gradually command the show, even if the audience is at first reluctant to hand over the reins.
The show goes through periods ruled by particular comedic styles, enforced by the primary players who perform them. The first cycle—the show’s “golden years”—made stars out of Gilda Radner, Chevy Chase, John Belushi, and their peers. Five years after the show’s first season, the original cast left to capitalize upon their stardom, thereby setting the standard of the cyclical recast and retool period that has kept SNL alive since 1975.
Following the departure of the original cast (and initially, creator Lorne Michaels), the show fell into its first creative pitfall as it struggled to reclaim its voice. Producer Jean Doumanian, SNL’s first and only female showrunner, was fired after ten months. Her successor Dick Ebersol found his star in Eddie Murphy, but once Murphy completed his tenure on the show, Ebersol started from scratch, hiring established comics like Billy Crystal and Martin Short. That, too, came to an end, and the show’s recast cycle continued, and with it, introduced Phil Hartman, Chris Farley, Molly Shannon, Will Ferrell, Amy Poehler, Kristen Wiig, and countless others who have become synonymous with SNL’s success.
Saturday Night Live is rarely appreciated in its present form, but regularly lauded for what it once was. Tina Fey, now consider one of the show’s best cast members, worked mostly behind the scenes when she wasn’t a Weekend Update co-anchor. It was only once she left the show that she was recognized as such a seminal player. While there are always exceptions, like the incessant praise of Will Ferrell or the tendency for digital shorts to go viral, SNL as it exists today seldom receives the praise saved for seasons past.
The most common criticism SNL has faced since its inception is that the show has “lost its teeth” and replaced its edge with inoffensive gloss. The first few seasons, featuring the work of future U.S. Senator Al Franken, actor and filmmaker Albert Brooks, and idiosyncratic performer Andy Kaufman, were rougher—the show was unafraid to cover darker territory or even target at the network executives who wanted it dead.
Now, SNL finds hosts in athletes and pop stars, features a musical monologue several times a season (usually performed by non-singers), and panders mostly to a younger crowd instead of its stalwarts. But these sharp shifts in the show’s structure reflect casts, culture, and experience that haven’t remained the same since 1975. If the show didn’t constantly reinvent itself, then it would no longer exist. Saturday Night Live refuses to be a relic. It will continue to shapeshift and absorb what its audiences like and what its writers and actors create, factors which won’t stay the same for very long. And for all the changes the show will undergo, the barbs will continue right alongside them. I venture that, as long as it remains a topic of critical contention, SNL’s perpetuity on television is ensured.
Illustration by Ziqi Wang