Sunday, 18 October 2015





I have recently read "Live From New York," an oral history of "Saturday Night Live," filled with anecdotes on how to make, and almost ruin, a TV show that has become a cultural institution in the United States. "SNL" is not shown in the UK, outside of sections now officially posted on YouTube - yet, like so many references in American comedy films that are expected to be shown, around the world, everyone is almost expected to know what it is. 

"SNL" is a ninety-minute mix of comedy sketches, stand-up, and music, aired on NBC since 1975. The first episode had only about five sketches, and the second had just one, but the quality of the performance and writing meant the other "variety" elements, which included short films and the Muppets, were edged out in favour of the "Not Ready for Prime-Time Players," initially Dan Ackroyd, John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Gilda Radner, Jane Curtin, and later Bill Murray. 

They starred in what has since been characterised as a "comedy college," crafting their future stardom. They were expected to help write their sketches, perform them live, and put in the hours, notoriously in an overnight rewrite of the show into every Wednesday morning that requires even the guest host to attend, regardless of whether you are Alec Baldwin, Tom Hanks or John Goodman - I mention these three as they have presented sixteen, eight and thirteen times each, so it must be worthwhile.

As the original stars left, the new class comes in: Harry Shearer, Eddie Murphy, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Jon Lovitz, Robert Downey Jr. (yes, for a year from 1985), Damon Wayans, Mike Myers, Ben Stiller, Rob Schneider, Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell, Jimmy Fallon, Seth Myers, Chris Farley, David Spade, Chris Rock, Sarah Silverman, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and so on. All of American comedy over the last forty years, particularly those coming from comedy groups like The National Lampoon, Second City, The Groundlings and the Upright Citizens Brigade, has six degrees of separation to "SNL" like no show in the UK has managed, unless you count appearing on "Have I Got News for You."

However, the above people have only achieved greater fame after leaving "SNL," prompting a constant raid for new talent. From a business point of view, taking your old characters with you as well - "The Blues Brothers," "Wayne's World," "Coneheads" - is even worse for NBC, and when you are a TV network that no longer has the likes of "Friends," "Will & Grace" and "The Office," you need all the help you can get. The comedy college needs to start its own degree programme.

Reportedly, from 1999, contracts for new "SNL" actors, usually up to five or six years anyway, state they can be taken out of the show by NBC at any point after their second year, and be put into a pilot for a NBC sitcom - the actor can refuse the first two pilots, but must accept the third, all while putting themselves up for up to three roles in films produced as spin-offs to "SNL". So far, so very draconian-sounding indeed.

What has come from this? In terms of what we have seen in this country, it is the 2004 film "Mean Girls," produced by "SNL" creator Lorne Michaels, and written by the show's former head writer, Tina Fey, and "30 Rock," a sitcom written by and starring Fey as the host of a show like the show she left, named after the building in which her old show is based - that it was also well done was purely down to talent, including Alec Baldwin again.

The rest has stayed mostly in the US - "MacGruber," a 2010 parody of "MacGyver" starring Will Forte, now starring in the sitcom "The Last Man on Earth," the expansion of producer Michaels into weekdays with "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon" and "Late Night with Seth Myers," and numerous other things that are due to come out, or were previously abandoned.

Looking at the earlier list of alumni, one of them (Eddie Murphy) never returned even to be a guest, having hated the show by his end on it; Adam Sandler and Sarah Silverman were fired; and Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Robert Downey Jr. were not given enough to do, and only became the stars they are when they left the "SNL" college. Furthermore, they all had contracts that allowed them to choose what they did next, for good or worse.

Many of the sketches from "Saturday Night Live" are worth watching on YouTube, although the live nature, and inevitable corpsing from some actors, leaves you hankering for something tightly edited, and carefully put together, putting the show against thousands of people, working in their spare time from home - NBC might want to have a chat with some of them, and see what comes from it...

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