I did something positively retro last week: I watched Saturday Night Live.
This is not a normal ritual. But the sudden outpouring of buzz over Saturday Night Live (it was good again, the Internet raved) inspired me to tune in. What I saw was one absolutely brilliant sketch (a riff on Punk’d with Maya Angelou), a few solid sketches (Barack Obama as Bill Cosby, a Sports Panel highlighting the double-standard over racist comments about Jeremy Lin, and the always-decent Weekend Update) and the rest was typically sorta-cringy Saturday Night Live comedy.
But for this show, that’s awesome. That’s the very best we can hope for. We tend to view SNL through a lens of Best-of-Cast-Member video nostalgia. But take almost any era of the show, and — guaranteed — a lot of the average episode is crap. A decade from now, surely, we’ll be remembering the good old days of “Jack Sparrow” and “that one sketch about Maya Angelou.”
The constraints of the format almost always churn out mostly mediocrity.
Yet, it also finds great comic talent — the minds behind the best talk shows, behind 30 Rock, stars of Parks and Recreation. Saturday Night Live gave us The Three Amigos, and for that, we are eternally in its debt.
Yet, I think, with a few changes, the show itself could be more consistently decent.
1. Slash the total runtime. Maybe “90 minutes” is so inherent to the Saturday Night Live formula that it could never be changed. But this requirement — write 90 minutes' worth of material — seems to be the biggest millstone weighing down the show. There’s a reason most television comedy is 30 minutes. There’s a reason the two best talk shows — The Daily Show and Colbert — are only a half-hour.
Pacing. Saturday Night Live often has two or three decent sketches and then ends the night with the leftovers. There’s no reason not to trim the show length; just trim the worst sketches.
2. Shorter, sweeter sketches. It’s long been the complaint about Saturday Night Live: There are very few reasons to have a 10-minute sketch around one premise. Yet, the long drags of sketches continue. Maybe it’s because of the investment in sets and makeup. But if a sketch doesn’t constantly have twists or new points of comedy — if it’s just a variation on the same joke — the length actually hurts it.
4. More pre-taped sketches. Of course, to provide time for set changes and make-up changes between shorter live sketches, pre-taped sketches could fill the void. Nearly every great recent Saturday Night Live sketch has been pre-taped. Today’s audience has grown up familiar with YouTube, Funny or Die, and movie-style comedies on TV, instead of live studio-audience comedy. There’s not much Saturday Night Live actually gains from being live, except the nod to nostalgia.
5. Outsource pre-taped sketches. Similarly, just as Letterman brings on up-and-coming comics, SNL should hire some of the best YouTube sketch comics (like Barats and Bereta) to submit exclusive sketches for the show. It would continue the tradition of SNL being a place that uplifts some of the best comic minds.
6. Kill the “party quirks” sketches. It worked because it was not just “Here’s an impression of Cornel West at a party.” It was “here are clever impressions on top of a delightfully absurd contrast of a premise.” Many SNL sketches seem to create a character, and then just put them on a talk show or at a party. That premise is done, somehow without any preparation, much better by the Whose Line is it Anyways guys. They’re characters hanging out together at a party or giving a newscast. It’s amusing on Who’s Line for three to five minutes.
But for an actual, prepared sketch show, putting zany characters together is just the foundation of the sketch. It’s the first step. You’ve created the characters, given them impressions — now have them do something. Give them some sort of action. (Greeting each other and catching up does not count.)
It’s a big problem with most Saturday Night Live sketches. There’s a lot of time, a lot of dialogue, a lot of character impressions. But there’s not much actually happening. And movement, whether from editing, jokes, twists or sketch length, is perhaps the most foundational element of good sketch comedy.