After four decades’ worth of cold opens culminating in a rousing “live from New York, it’s Saturday night!”, late-night variety sketch show “Saturday Night Live” has more than earned the distinction of being one of the most treasured comedy institutions in American history (and arguably one of the greatest television shows of all time).
Many of the biggest players in American comedy — Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Conan O’Brien, Bill Hader, Eddie Murphy, Kristen Wiig, Andy Samberg and more — have been associated with the show in one way or another. And when “SNL” is at its best, its memorable characters, wacky premises, on-air crack-ups, uncanny celebrity impressions and clever spoofs of culture and politics have changed the tenor of American comedy and offered hilarious, much-needed insights into contemporary society.
In short, you can’t mention sketch comedy in America without paying “Saturday Night Live” and its showrunner Lorne Michaels a healthy dose of respect. This is a rule that the Primetime Emmy Awards have dutifully followed, year after year: “SNL” is the most Emmy-nominated program of all time with 252 nominations and 65 total wins over its television tenure, and the show has been nominated for Outstanding Variety Sketch Series every year since the category was created in 2015, taking home two straight wins in 2017 and 2018. It’s very likely that “SNL” will take home a win in the category again this year, earning a rare Emmys three-peat.
And, when looking at the revered presence of “SNL” in the annals of comedy history, perhaps this is earned. But looking exclusively at season 44 — the only “Saturday Night Live” content that’s technically under consideration this awards season — tells a different story.
The most recent season of “Saturday Night Live” saw the show deliver an unusually mediocre array of sketches. Sure-bet hosts such as Paul Rudd, Emma Stone and Adam Driver were squandered on rosters of so-so material. Unfunny bits like Pete Davidson’s “Chad” character were run into the ground, while an insistence on a homogenous style meant more offbeat sketches from cast member Kyle Mooney often ended up being cut for time. An episodic pattern emerged: Only one sketch would act as the stellar standout in a soup of otherwise forgettable content. With the exception of the episode hosted by John Mulaney — which largely relied on sketches fueled by the former “SNL” writer’s creative stewardship and a cameo appearance from alumnus Bill Hader — every entry in season 44 could be classified as uninspired.
Part of the justification for the show’s first Emmy win for Outstanding Variety Sketch Series in 2017 was a desire to reward its cogent, funny and sobering coverage of the 2016 election. But since that well-deserved win, the show’s political humor has been lacking; lazily written cold opens about the week’s current events failed to advance any unique or potent critiques about the state of affairs in Washington, D.C.. Most egregiously, the current iteration of “SNL” mainstay “Weekend Update,” hosted by two of the show’s current head writers Colin Jost and Michael Che, is an uncharacteristically milquetoast segment composed of jokes that pale noticeably in comparison to the sharper work of other political comedians — such as “SNL” veteran Seth Meyers or “Last Week Tonight” host John Oliver — working in late-night today.
While it may be undeniable that “Saturday Night Live” remains a cultural institution, this past season’s uneven material and general confusion about how best to utilize its cast has caused a conspicuous drop in quality. And, based on the fact that the creative team for “SNL” initially tried to hire its first Asian cast member for its next season alongside a comedian who thinks racist slurs are necessary comedic “risks,” the trajectory for season 45 is unlikely to be any better.
If Emmys are meant to be awarded in a vacuum — which, of course, they so often aren’t — this shouldn’t be the show’s third straight win for Outstanding Variety Sketch Series. The metaphorical mothership is now being outpaced by its alumni — “Documentary Now!,” the cult-favorite mockumentary series co-created by Bill Hader, Fred Armisen and Seth Meyers, is the ideal option for a well-earned upset victory.
A loss for “Saturday Night Live” this year would be a much-needed wake-up call for the stalwart series, a critical reminder that the show needs to reinvigorate its approach if it wants the upcoming season 45 to live up to its legendary legacy. A third win in a row in this category wouldn’t just be an award for a middling season of television, it would be a signal to “SNL” that its current status quo is good enough.
And that would be a disservice. Because when millions of viewers wait in anticipation for that weekly cry of “live from New York, it’s Saturday night!” they’re expecting the best. It’s time the Television Academy told “Saturday Night Live” that it has stopped delivering.
Grace Orriss is the assistant arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected].