I spent last Friday night's happy hour at The Elbow Room in West Hartford. It's not the best bar in the world – in fact, it's probably the 8th best bar in West Hartford Center – but it has a rooftop and it was a glorious summer afternoon. So why not enjoy a Sam Summer Ale outdoors? The girlfriend and I were having a fun time, as there weren't too many people and the people there were fine. It was shaping up to be one of those picturesque Friday afternoons that sum up the summer perfectly.
Then the kids strolled in. Five students, lucky to be drinking age or with good fake IDs , showed up in the form of three dorky, odd-looking fellas trying to impress two girls who laughed too hard and smiled too much. Normally, I wouldn't care who they were or what they were doing but they ended up taking a position right behind me. So I got to listen, against my will, to their droll stories about how hard it is to live at home. When you're 29, hearing college students bitch about their summer vacation is one of the worst things you could possibly hear. Yet it got worst.
The youngest looking of the group – he got carded every time he ordered the beer – was regaling his group with a re-enactment of a Saturday Night Live skit. Which skit may you ask? Bill Brasky. Yep, he was reciting lines from a skit that first aired when he was about six years old. And on cue, the other four in the lame party laughed as if nothing had ever been as funny. It was a brutal sight. The girlfriend and I finished our beers and departed for greener pastures. Okay, so we went down the road to Chipotle. Still, the evening left an impression on me and I haven't been able to shake the feeling since.
Is Saturday Night Live relevant anymore?
Here was a group of kids in their early 20s, the group that should be considered the absolute target audience for SNL. Yet when it came time for the young guy to impress ladies, what did he go with? A skit that is 15 years old. As I thought about what skits I would've gone with, I kept thinking of skits from another time. Whether it was a Belushi bit, a Murphy bit, a Carvey bit or a Ferrell bit. Those were the ones popping in my head. I tried to think of a recent SNL skit that I could bust out and people would be entertained by.
I couldn't think of one.
It's amazing, really, that Saturday Night Live has existed for so long since its niche is now no longer a niche. The absurd comedy that is SNL can be found everywhere. Hell, there is an entire network (Comedy Central) devoted to such antics and cable networks (like FX) seekngi out the type of far-out comedy that was rarely seen as few as five years ago. I remember watching It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia and being blown away. Now, it seems like there's a show like that popping up on my cable every hour.
But as I thought about SNL's relevancy, two things dawned on me. First, the show is being crippled by its past. Think about Fred Armisen and his brutal Barack Obama – and yes, we all know Jay Pharoh should be doing Obama. It's not so much that Armisen is doing a poor job, it's that we've seen so many incredible Presidential impersonations in the past. Do you think Armisen will be taking his Obama to Broadway for a one-man show in 2017?
The second thing that came crashing through my mind is how formulaic and stale SNL has become. This was a show that loves to pat itself on the back for being live, spontaneous and fostering an atmosphere of 'you never know what could happen.' However, I know exactly what's going to happen week after week. The cold open is a political sketch or a topical one. Then the monologue happens. Then there's a fake commercial. Then there's the first sketch, which they think is their best. Then there's a digital short. There's another sketch. There's Weekend Update. There's music. There's filler. There's more music. There's the credits. Lather, rinse, repeat, week after week and call it a season.
What happened to the spontaneity? What happened to the surprises? What happened to thinking outside of the box? When did SNL become the Tonight Show with Jay Leno, where guests are selected based on what movie or television show they want to promote? What happened to having comedians like Andy Kaufman show up just because they were funny? Or having John Goodman or George Wendt seemingly on standby because it made a bit funnier?
Even as I'm writing this, I know I sound like an angry, bitter old man and, well, I am. I'm angry and bitter that one of my favorite shows, a show that provided the world with so much comedic talent, has been reduced to rubble. When college students can't think of a skit to quote that happened in the past decade, something is wrong. When the show hasn't created anything memorable and quotable, other than a few Andy Samberg digital shorts, in the past five years, it's time to blow it up.
And that, my friends, is the root of my pain. I want Saturday Night Live to return to its past glory. But there's only one way to do that – blow up the formula. Maybe every guest host doesn't need to do a monologue. Maybe there doesn't need to be a cold open. Maybe “Live from New York....” doesn't need to start every episode. Maybe a show can start with music. Maybe a comedian can just do some standup. Something, anything, everything has to change.
Nowhere is that more apparent than in the sad state of affairs that is Weekend Update. I don't need to rehash the complaints – that the segment is a poor man's Daily Show or that Steven Colbert does the bit better every weeknight. I don't need to state that Seth Meyers is a genuinely funny guy stuck in a bit that has long outlived its usefulness. The point is that everyone knows this....and Weekend Update remains. Sure, Weekend Update can be funny. But so can a lot of things. The characters presented on Weekend Update can be used elsewhere.
Weekend Update is a relic. Unfortunately, Saturday Night Live has turned into one too.
Follow me on Twitter