Every Saturday night for 39 years, at 11:35 pm EST, in a studio in New York City, a voice can be heard yelling “Live from New York…it’s Saturday Night!” As the longest-running sketch comedy on US television, Saturday Night Live is a big part of American culture. Characters like the Blues Brothers, Matt Foley, Wayne Campbell and Garth Algar, Stefon, the Festrunk Brothers, and the Church Lady have all made an indelible mark on American culture, not to mention the effects of the sketch comedy’s portrayals of real figures such as Sarah Palin, George Bush (H.W. and W.), Gerald Ford, and Barbara Walters, to name a few.
Saturday Night Live (SNL) was created to fill a slot on the NBC programming schedule in an attempt to avoid more than two reruns per week of “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.” Starting with a buildup like that, it isn’t surprising that when the Not Ready for Prime Time Players made their appearance on 11 October 1975, it was to bland reviews. However, in no time at all, the sketch comedy that drew inspiration from “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” 1940s radio shows, and vaudeville became a cultural phenomenon.
It hasn’t all been rave reviews since then, however. Like every long-running show, there have been ups and downs. There were seasons where the show was in danger of being cancelled (the 1985-1986 season in particular), serious allegations of sexism in the 1980s and 1990s, and at present, SNL is being highly criticized for its lack of cast diversity across gender, race, and sexuality demographics (Dunham, 2014). For all its flaws, Saturday Night Live has stayed at the forefront of American comedy since its premiere.
Many of its alumni go on to careers in Hollywood or on primetime television. It’s shockingly easy to name at least ten former cast members who went on to do so, spreading the ethos of Studio 8H in their work. Part of its success is the tried-and-true format that the show has stuck with over the years. Every show starts with a “cold open” sketch, the host’s monologue, then skits punctuated with two performances from the night’s musical guest, and a mock news segment. As Robert Becker said in his book Saturday Night Live and American Television, “‘Saturday Night Live’ changed by staying the same.”
Saturday Night Live serves as a window into pop culture, particularly with its heavy use of experimental comedy. The flexibility afforded by this comedic style makes SNL the perfect proving ground for what America wants to watch. In the beginning, under head writer Mike O’Donoghue, SNL was much darker and more violent: a reflection of the struggles of the nation and the city at the time of the late 1970s, it could be said. O’Donoghue’s exit coincided with the stability and prosperity of the 1980s, and between the changing writers and the changing cultural climate, Saturday Night Live adopted the lighter, less intense style of comedy we are more familiar with today. Since then, there has been less of a stylistic change and more of a content change when it comes to the last 30 years of SNL.
As a late-night show, it pushed boundaries when it comes to language and sexuality on the airwaves. When Tina Fey, an alumnus of seasons 23-29 became head writer for the show, she ushered in a far more raw comedy (Heffernan, 2003).
Political satire has been heavily explored on the show from day one. While it took time for the show’s writers and producers to hone the order and format of the rest of show, the political humor seen in the “Weekend Update” segment was a staple from the very first Saturday night. Interestingly—and I think perhaps also telling—was the experimental and unusual nature of the political satire on television at the time of Saturday Night Live’s premiere. Previous to the Not Ready for Prime Time Players taking the stage, political satire in comedy was generally limited to a few casual one-liners on the “Late Show” and the “Tonight Show” (Becker, 2013).
1975 was not the most settled time in American history where politics were concerned. Vietnam had just ended, and Watergate had been the year before. In an era of distrust and free thought, it seems fitting that political satire would come out of its position on the fringe and become a force to be reckoned with. In fact, Saturday Night Live has done such an impressive job at providing political commentary through its satire that the 2008 election was turned on its head by the sketch comedy. Tina Fey’s famous “I can see Russia from my house!” is still attributed by many to Sarah Palin, an example of the power of political comedy. In a shocking statistic, it was reported that about 10% of voters (out of 60% who reported watching the show) were swayed to vote the way they did due to what they saw on Saturday Night Live (Reuters, 2008).
In the newest incarnation of experimental comedy used on Saturday Night Live, SNL has become the first mainstream television show to engage the internet and the digital age with their use of Andy Samberg and Lonely Island’s digital shorts. Within the last decade, television viewership has dropped, and the emphasis has instead shifted to online videos. Teens and young adults have always composed the main demographic of Saturday Night Live viewership, so when viewership dropped down to 1.1 from the already low 2.6 in 2005, the producers began to panic (Becker, 2013). But new cast member Andy Samberg and his group Lonely Island (Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schiffer) stepped in with the new comedy format of the digital short. The very first one, premiering in December 2005, went wildly viral. During Samberg’s seven years on the show, Saturday Night Live engaged the internet-savvy population with Lonely Island’s nonsensical, offbeat Digital Shorts. Their brand of comedy was unlike the traditional humor found in the rest of the show. The shorts are all odd and different, but simply put: many are musical, several are uncomfortably awkward, many are profane, and each and every short is downright strange.
Lonely Island’s videos are rife with irony and oddball humor that would make Monty Python proud. And the 15-25 year-olds love it. Even though Andy Samberg no longer works as an SNL cast member, the writers and actors have continued Samberg’s off-the-wall work with skits such as “Sloppy Swish” and “Wooden Spoon.”
In this age of hipsterism, viewers don’t want the normal or the benign. They want an ironic fusion of the old and new with a punchline that may not be obvious, if there is one at all. Samberg’s Digital Shorts deliver, and aren’t afraid to mock the very people they’re delivering to.
There is a lack of timelessness to be found in much of SNL’s body of work. There will always be the classic sketches—Matt Foley, Celebrity Jeopardy, the Festrunk Brothers, et cetera—but the show as a whole is such a reflection of the world around it that the difficulty to understand old shows can be seen as a testament to its value as a cultural text. The writers and actors speak to the moment they are in, and not further. Yet the show has enjoyed a consistent run for nearly forty years.
What we see on the show now is a reflection of how people are reacting to the present. For example, 2014’s Saturday’s season finale contained the segment “Waking up with Kimye,” a morning talk show parodying Kim Kardashian and Kanye West. The actors seem to get a genuine delight out of skewering some celebrities, and “Kimye” is one of them. Kim Kardashian’s vacuous demeanor and Kanye West’s megalomaniac attitude are given top billing in the skit. These two people may well be forgotten figures two decades from now, but the way the cast lampoons America’s most famous will still be the same.
Saturday Night Live has never had the most favorable reception from conservative Christians. Most people found Dana Carvey’s Church Lady and Don Novello’s Father Guido Sarducci to be amusing, but in recent times, there has been a show of outrage by Christians directed toward Saturday Night Live. The sketch “DJesus Unchained” from February 2013 is the primary culprit for this anger. I bring this subject up because of some very challenging words from a blogging Episcopal priest. The sketch portrays Jesus as a revenge-fueled Quentin Tarantino character, shooting up most of the Roman world with the cross still strapped to his back. Personally, when I first saw the episode, I found it very hard to watch. There was a massive backlash from the Christian community about the sketch’s portrayal of Jesus Christ that is still reverberating a year later.
What David Henson has to say about the situation, however, is a beautiful example of what exegeting culture is all about. He calls out the syncretism of the American church and the preference we seem to have for the Jesus of Revelation rather than the Jesus of the Gospels.
“We have tried to arm him with our military-industrial complex, drape him with our xenophobia, outfit him with our weapons, and adorn him with our nationalism. We’ve turned the cross into a flagpole for the Stars and Stripes. We have no need for Tarantino to reimagine the story of Jesus into a fantasy of violent revenge. We’ve done it for him. We’ve already uncrossed him, transforming him from a servant into a triumphalist who holds the causes and interests of our country on his back rather than brutal execution” (Henson, 2013).
What Saturday Night Live did, Henson proposes, was only to mock what it saw of Christian culture. I am not condoning the portrayal of Jesus in the sketch by any means, and I do not fully agree with everything Henson says. It is undeniable, however, that he has a point. Perhaps the American church should take a long, hard look at itself before it gets angry at the way pop culture sees it.
Theater was originally begun as a form of worship to the Greek god Dionysius, so perhaps we should not be surprised by the resemblance it bears to a house of worship today (Brown, 2001). Live theater revolves around a set time and place, an eager audience, and charismatic, entertaining leaders. As one of the few live shows on television today, Saturday Night Live is a prime example of the parallels between church and theater. The cast and crew of the show are a close-knit group. They spend nearly every day working together toward the climax of their week at 11:30 pm on Saturday night, where they go onstage and perform for their faithful viewers, both in the building and across the world. They bring their commentary on current events, have sections focusing on musical performance, and there is even a monologue by the central party of the show each week. The parallels are obvious. The way the church should examine and address it is not quite so simple.
Many churches find that the literal theater environment is non-threatening and informal, and hold their services in movie and stage theaters. Others build themselves up around a charismatic minister or a highly talented band. I’m not writing off all charismatic pastors or gifted worship teams, but I do not believe that turning the church into a show is the best way to reach out to the media-focused generation I am a part of.
What appeals to people about Saturday Night Live is the boldness of their attacks on things perceived as wrong, the way the cast stands together with their guests and crew at the end of the show in one family-like huddle, the treatment of the audience as if they’re all in on a big joke together, and the way the show hasn’t tried to become a cultural chameleon. These are the lessons that the church can learn from Saturday Night Live.
We don’t need to become a sketch show. What we do need is to know how to engage our audience without changing our faith. Why should a sketch comedy make viewers hundreds of miles away feel more welcome than the church? It shouldn’t.
I never grew up watching Saturday Night Live. My parents didn’t think it was suitable consumption for my brother and I as kids, and as an adult, I guarantee they weren’t wrong. But I still remember the first-ever sketch I saw. I was in junior high, and the sketch was the Christmas Song, as performed by Horatio Sanz, Jimmy Fallon, Chris Kattan, and Tracy Morgan. I couldn’t stop laughing, and I knew I wanted to see more. Since then, Saturday Night Live has made itself a regular part of my viewing repertoire. For someone who wasn’t raised in the mainstream of pop culture, SNL provides an interesting commentary on how a significant number of American 18-25 year-olds think.
The nature of the show that has created a long-lasting appeal also provides immediate reactions that represent a large demographic of Americans. Being able to look at the content of this legendary sketch comedy and dissect it to read between the lines is a valuable skill. Just as interpersonal communication requires feedback to see if what was said was also what was heard, the church needs to look at honest feedback on what America has heard from it, and Saturday Night Live is a source that we should get some of our feedback from.
Becker, R., Marx, N., and Sienkiewitz, M. (2013). Saturday Night Live and American Television. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
Brown, J.R. (2001). The Oxford Illustrated History of Theater, Oxford Illustrated History Series. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Dunham, T. (2014). “38 Years of SNL’s Diversity Problem, All in One Chart.” Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/01/17/snl-diversity-problem_n_4611546.html. Accessed 15 May 2014.
Heffernan, V. (2003). “Anchor woman: Tina Fey rewrites late-night comedy.” The NewYorker. http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2003/11/03/031103fa_fact?currentPage=all. Accessed 15 May 2014.
Henson, D. R. (2013). “DJesus Uncrossed: Tarantino, Driscoll, and the Violent Remaking of Jesus in America.” http://www.patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson/2013/02/djesus-uncrossed-tarantino-driscoll-and-the-violent-remaking-of-jesus-in-america/. Accessed 15 May 2014.
Reuters. (2008). “The SNL Effect: ‘Saturday Night Live’ Political Skits Make Real Impact on Voters.” http://www.reuters.com/article/2008/11/05/idUS255618+05-Nov-2008+PRN20081105. Accessed 15 May 2014.