Saturday Night Live’s Coordinates in Culture Celine Elliott Columbia College Chicago (2017)
On October 11th, 1975, Saturday Night Live (SNL), or Saturday Night as it was called back then, premiered on NBC as a new comedy-variety show that combined the live excitement of the early days of television with the rebellious attitude of the 1970s. Its opening phrase, “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night,” was simply an allusion to television’s beginnings as literally “live” in New York, but since then it has become an iconic sentence. Similarly, the show itself, which simply began as a filler for a Saturday late-night time slot, soon became a beloved comedic institution, making household names of its cast members. While it may seem ironic that a show so rooted in the structure of classic television would be described as groundbreaking and revolutionary, that is exactly the reputation that Saturday Night Live has achieved and owned for decades. With almost forty years under its belt, Saturday Night Live has maintained its relevance in American culture, daring to poke fun at the things others would not, even in times of tragedy. By exploring its many decades, one can find that Saturday Night Live provides a window to the times as well as a hand in shaping the culture of the society it loves to ridicule, even having such a powerful position as to influence the results of presidential elections. As the show approaches its fortieth season on a major network, it is important to examine how it has managed to stay relevant to society, how it has had such a major impact, and how it will continue to do so. The 1970s: Origins and Resonance Saturday Night Live was originally created to fill the 11:30 PM time slot on Saturday nights because Johnny Carson wanted to take his reruns usually allotted for that time and show them during the weekdays when he needed time off. NBC network president Herbert Schlosser set out to search for a new late night Saturday show and hired Lorne Michaels, known for being a writer on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, to executive produce whatever that show would be. Michaels came up with the idea to produce a satirical comedy variety show broadcast live from New York, the birthplace of TV. Schlosser accepted the program, dubbed Saturday Night Watercooler Journal
(because Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell was already taken at ABC), and Michaels hired writers and a cast (called the “Not Ready for Prime Time Players”) consisting of Chevy Chase, Gilda Radner, John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Garrett Morris, Jane Curtin, and Laraine Newman.
The show became a hit, but not just because of its unique comedic approach. Production assistant Neil Levy recalls, “It was just the times. Nixon had just resigned, the Vietnam War had just finished... and America wasn’t laughing. And this show came along and said it’s okay to laugh, even to laugh at the bad stuff” (quoted in Shales 60). Saturday Night Live certainly premiered at the right time. When people are struck with tragic events, television can help alleviate pain or fear. This was true before SNL, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. Americans were then thrust into a dark period, mourning his loss, until the American debut of the Beatles was televised on The Ed Sullivan Show. Like the upbeat music of the Beatles in the sixties, the edgy comedy of SNL was able to make many Americans forget their troubles and frustrations for at least ninety minutes each week. This ability to enliven America’s psyche not only demonstrated the influential power of television but also that of SNL, as it achieved something not many programs were able to achieve at that time.
With such a strong debut in 1975, SNL set its own standards as one of the most relevant and powerful shows on television, and it continued to prove itself as such for the rest of the decade. One thing the show influenced in its first few years was censorship on television. “Because SNL was a hit, the efforts it made to push the limits extended the standards for all of television. Language changed so that what was said on the air was more like what the people at home were saying” (Reincheld 6). It comes as a bit of a surprise that the show had such an influence on censorship, as years before SNL, The Smothers Brothers caused a censorship uproar and was taken off the air. Perhaps because Saturday Night Live was not as risqué as The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, it was able to affect change with the censors more gradually and with less controversy. Regardless, the ability to use edgier and more realistic language may have helped the show connect more with audiences and provide a voice for audiences as well.
“Each decade SNL has been on the air—from the 1970s to the present—provides a history textbook cataloging what was going on in the world at the time and how the program affected society.” In its first five years, SNL also reached and uncovered a whole new audience for future programs: those watching TV at eleven o’clock on a Saturday night. The show’s popularity even prompted viewers who would not typically stay home to watch TV on a Saturday night to do so, thus changing the way television networks regarded Saturday night programming. Before SNL, television networks showed reruns or switched over to local affiliates on Saturday nights, assuming that people would not be staying at home. Other networks also attempted to duplicate the format of the show, such as Fox’s In Living Color in the nineties. The 1980s: The Dark (Or At Least, Less Edgy) Ages The show’s popularity peak only lasted until the beginning of the 1980s when Lorne Michaels left the show after clashing with NBC executives, beginning a period of turbulence as new executive producers tried to take the reins. In the first few months of 1980, talent coordinator Jean Doumanian acted as Lorne Michaels’ replacement until she was eventually fired. Then, Watercooler Journal
Dick Ebersol, one of the network executives who helped Lorne create the show in the first place, took over as executive producer. Not only did Saturday Night Live struggle with the change of leadership in the eighties, it also struggled with maintaining relevancy as many topical subjects were considered taboo by those in charge. During the Iran hostage crisis, news programs paid rapt attention to the events unfolding in Iran; ABC even dedicated an entire program (Iran Crisis) to reporting on it. The crisis was something that was very prominent on everyone’s television screens. It is surprising that SNL, a show known for responding to current events, was not allowed to address it. Further frustrations occurred among creatives as even the new executive producer Ebersol restricted the show’s commentary on politics. Brad Hall, a writer on the show, states, “Someone’s taste did not run toward satire. And so the very thing that originally made the show popular was resisted” (quoted in Shales 290). The show’s decline in popularity during this period reflects this statement. When SNL began, people tuned in to see what public figure or current event SNL would skewer next, and when it was restricted from doing so, SNL may have lost those viewers. Although the show turned away from political humor in the beginning of the 1980s, it was still able to address significant events in entertainment, allowing it to have some success in satirizing the issues of the times. For example, after the television show Taxi was canceled, star Danny DeVito hosted and ridiculed its cancellation in an SNL cold open by “[blowing] up the ABC building and [driving] the taxi off the bridge” (Shales 302). SNL’s quick response to the news proved that it still had a grasp on what was relevant to the times, even though it wasn’t always allowed to display it. SNL sent out a message that its old attitude still remained despite being buried by new leadership. However, the show still decreased in popularity as the first half of the 1980s came to a close. Upon hearing of Saturday Night Live’s potential cancellation after the 1983-84 season, Lorne Michaels returned to save the show he had worked so hard to build. However, this plan backfired as the show continued to sink. At the end of the 1984-85 season, the show’s fate remained up in the air, as Michaels realized he had to yet again attempt to rebuild. Inspired by this ambiguity, SNL ridiculed itself in a season finale sketch that perfectly referenced pop culture while addressing a relevant issue among its own cast. Alluding to the famous “Who Shot J.R.?” Dallas cliffhanger, the show ended with the studio in flames as the question “Who will survive?” appeared on screen. In a clever touch, all the names in the closing credits had Watercooler Journal
question marks after them (Shales 329-330). Not only did this closing segment reference one of the most popular events in television history, it also brought the show back into the limelight as viewers wondered who really would remain on the show. In a sense, SNL’s cliffhanger had almost the same captivating effect as the famous cliffhanger it was parodying. The 1990s: Relevant Unpredictability At the end of the 1980s, the show was finally able to address political material under Lorne Michaels’ leadership. Cast member Dana Carvey impersonated President George Bush so effectively that the president invited him to the White House “to cheer up the troops” (Shales 366). Politicians’ embrace of their SNL impersonators further showed how influential the show could be, as it was not only able to captivate the audience with its material, but the very people it was mocking as well.
The 1990s brought a decade of controversy, political influence, and clever responses to current events to Saturday Night Live. In 1992, musical guest Sinead O’Connor created quite a stir on the SNL stage when she tore up a photo of the Catholic Pope during the live show to protest the Catholic Church. The live audience and those who worked on the show were shocked, but Watercooler Journal
ultimately, O’Connor’s protest proved that the show was as live and unpredictable as ever. With a live show, one never truly knows what to expect; this creates a heightened anticipation in viewers that brings them back week after week. Band leader Lenny Picket recalls, “It’s what everybody is secretly waiting for... when [incidents] do happen you’re aware that you were just participating in an event (quoted in Shales 393). To feel included is what television is all about, and Saturday Night Live fully embraces this by allowing people to say they were a part of something that happened in real time.
One moment in 1995 showed the magnitude of SNL’s ability to influence the opinions of its audience. After O.J. Simpson was acquitted of murder, SNL produced an opening sketch that reflected what some people were really thinking about the verdict. SNL writer Andy Breckman remembers the reaction that occurred as cast member Tim Meadows playing Simpson (complete with one black glove on his left hand) spelled out “I did it” while marking football plays on Monday Night Football: “I’ve never heard a reaction in my life like that... it was just a release... and thank God somebody said it out loud” (quoted in Shales 458-59). Many times throughout its history, SNL has been known as the program that dares to address what a lot of people are thinking but do not know how to say aloud. The response to Simpson’s acquittal Watercooler Journal
seemed especially daring, as much of the nation differed in opinion. Reincheld claims that SNL has had “a more important impact on public perception than any advertisement” (6). Therefore, those who were fans of the show could have adopted its “opinions” simply based on the fact that their favorite show had said opinions.
Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update” segment also maintained a sense of relevancy to the times as it effectively satirized the way news coverage had changed in the nineties. Cast member Norm Macdonald acted as anchor and had a “flippant attitude toward current events” that, in a way, mirrored the “transformation of news content” (Day 7). At this point in history, news programs had shifted to focusing more on the entertainment aspect of news, dubbed as “infotainment.” Infotainment was especially popular in the decade of scandal that was the nineties, from the “Long Island Lolita” story to the highly televised O.J. Simpson trial. Norm Macdonald’s reign over “Weekend Update” allowed the show to have a more subtle and satirical hold on how television approached certain events. Watercooler Journal
The 2000s: “Why Start Now?” The new millennium started off with many changes for Saturday Night Live, as Tina Fey became the first female head writer in 1999, and cast members Tim Meadows and Colin Quinn left the show. While the 2000-2001 season gave the show a wealth of election material, tragedy marked the 2001-2002 season premiere. Premiering just a few weeks after the September 11th terrorist attacks, SNL opened with New York City firefighters, police officers, and New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani on stage. As seen in the television documentary, SNL in the 2000s: Time and Again, SNL creator/producer Lorne Michaels asks the mayor if they were allowed to be funny. Giuliani playfully replies, “Why start now?” This exchange between Michaels and the mayor let viewers know that SNL was going to continue doing what it had always done despite the 9/11 tragedy. SNL’s resilience after 9/11 was quite surprising and different from other television programs’ reactions in the past. For example, the tragedy of JFK’s assassination in the 1960s strongly affected television programming. For four days, nothing but coverage of the assassination played, and some comedy shows avoided topical and political humor altogether. SNL’s respectful but resilient attitude sent a message to the nation that they would not stop producing comedy in the wake of a tragedy.
While SNL dealt with politics and tragedy at the beginning of the 2000s era, it also experienced many changes that allowed the show to remain relevant and revolutionary. After Watercooler Journal
Jimmy Fallon left the show in 2004, cast member Amy Poehler replaced Fallon at the “Weekend Update” desk alongside Tina Fey. The partnership of Poehler and Fey at the “Update” desk marked the first time in the show’s history that two women presided over the “Weekend Update” segment. For a show that has a history of being so groundbreaking and bold, it was surprising to discover that the establishment of a two-woman “Update” team happened almost thirty years after the show began. As Poehler and Fey’s teamwork continued into the 2005-2006 season, so did SNL’s journey for relevancy. Andy Samberg joined the cast and brought along his group, The Lonely Island, who produced a new feature for the show: “Digital Shorts.” These were short, pre-taped segments, usually involving songs or absurd situations, like being on a boat with T-Pain or lamenting on a neighborhood stoop while eating lettuce. Samberg’s shorts became popular on the Internet, and soon, the show itself gained increasing relevancy through views on sites like YouTube.
Before SNL finished its first decade in the 2000s, there was one last election to cover in 2008. In sketches that featured Tina Fey as vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, writers often took actual phrases Palin had said and placed them in their sketches. Some critics believe this created a “seamless blending of reality and parody” and caused viewers to have a negative view of Palin (Flowers 16). Fey’s spot-on impression of Palin drew viewers to SNL and caused Watercooler Journal
the show to gain extremely high ratings. The increase in ratings, coupled with Fey’s performance, is believed to have had a great impact on the loss of McCain and Palin in the election, as her impression and the show’s dialogue cast Palin in an “unsophisticated” light (Flowers 16). Because of exaggerated characteristics and a close resemblance between Fey and Palin, viewers may have referred to SNL sketches rather than actual appearances by Palin in their perception of her.
The 2010s Now in the 2010s, SNL has continued to change while maintaining a handle on pop culture and the comedy world. In 2013, responding to controversy over a lack of diversity on the show, Saturday Night Live hired its first female African American cast member in six years. This incident once again indicates the show’s dedication to maintaining relevancy.
Although the show has had its highs and lows, it has never failed to provide its take on current events, even during times it was discouraged from doing so. SNL illustrates a perfect demonstration of media literacy, as it weaves cultural references with its own self-awareness. Each decade SNL has been on the air—from the 1970s to the present—provides a history textbook cataloging what was going on in the world at the time and how the program affected society. Examining SNL betters our understanding of television in that it shows just how powerful—and at times ridiculous—it can be. Saturday Night Live is not only a show that reflects the world around it, but also the world inside it. It illustrates nostalgia for the old style of TV while looking ahead at what technology is to come. Like television, Saturday Night Live is constantly changing and responding to the world.
works cited Day, Amber and Ethan Thompson. “Live From New York, It's the Fake News! Saturday Night Live and the (Non)Politics of Parody.” Popular Communication 10.1/2 (2012): 170-82. Communication & Mass Media Complete, EBSCOhost. Web. 10 May 2014. Flowers, Arhlene A. and Cory L. Young. “Parodying Palin: How Tina Fey’s Visual and Verbal Impersonations Revived a Comedy Show and Impacted the 2008 Election.” Journal of Visual Literacy 29.1 (2010): 47-67. Communication & Mass Media Complete, EBSCOhost. Web. 10 May 2014. Reincheld, Aaron. “Saturday Night Live and Weekend Update.” Journalism History 3.4 (2006): 190-97. Communication & Mass Media Complete, EBSCOhost. Web. 10 May 2014. Shales, Tom and James Andrew Miller. Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live. USA: Little Brown and Company, 2002. Print. “SNL in the 2000s: Time and Again.” Saturday Night Live. NBC. WMAQ, Chicago. 15 Apr. 2010. Television.
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