Did you watch the SNL 40th Anniversary retrospective Sunday night? I certainly didn’t. Because Saturday Night Live is terrible. Unbelievably terrible. So terrible that to smother the cast with a pillow would be seen as a universal act of mercy on par with Jerry Lewis refusing to release his Holocaust dramedy The Tears of the Clown.
And we all know this. If you were on Twitter or Facebook during #SNL40 all anyone was posting about was how unfunny the show had become, how stale, how lazy, how much like the sketch comedy show parody “TGS” from 30 Rock.
What happened? There was a time in America when Saturday Night Live was the cutting edge of television comedy, when the great comedians of their eras – Bill Murray, Steve Martin, Tina Fey, Eddie Murphy, Amy Poehler – all cut their teeth and plied their trade on its stage. How did such a gleaming institution fall into such complete degradation?
I think I have an answer.
Saturday Night Live has forgotten how sketch comedy works.
Because SNL guards even its oldest clips with a jealousy that would make even Disney’s lawyers ashamed, we’re going to have to start with a sketch from one of its competitors, The Richard Pryor Show.
This bit of political satire is hardly a masterpiece of the genre (Pryor, for example, mumbles some of his early lines pretty badly), but it’s solid. Solid enough, in fact, that nearly four decades later it’s still funny and smart.
Jokes work by subverting your expectations. Someone says, Knock knock. You say, Who’s there? They say, Billy. You say, Billy who? You think they’ll say, Smith, but instead they say, I’m going to kill you with an axe! And everyone laughs and laughs.
The reason Pryor’s sketch is funny is because it takes that same subversion of expectations and repeats it half a dozen times throughout the course of the sketch—the sketch isn’t one joke, but half a dozen jokes all based on the same premise of there being a “First Black President.”
Let’s look at a few ways the sketch subverts itself:
Subversion 1: You enter into what is obviously the White House briefing room where everyone is waiting for the President, but because every President in American history has been white, you expect the President who emerges to be white, but he isn’t, HE’S BLACK!
Subversion 2: Because the President is black, you suddenly expect all of your expectations to be thrown off. Suddenly, this is some crazy, insane world where a black man (perish the thought!) can be the leader of the free world. But then, it turns out, nothing has actually changed at all. Pryor’s first couple answers are the same political gobbledygook that you would expect from any “satirical” president. The joke is now that the first black President isn’t actually any different from the umpteenth white President.
Subversion 3: Once we get a grasp on the joke that there is no difference between a black president and a white president, Pryor then subverts us again by showing us that there is a difference with the President’s answer about the space program—that it’s about time we put some black people into space. Now the joke is about how inclusion of black people into our society changes the way we have to represent that society—that the canon of our culture has to shift—that Miles Davis now has to be counted with Brahms.
Subversion 4: Even after the space answer, Pryor’s President is still a pretty liberal approximation of what a black president would be—an advocate, if you will, for not much more than equality. With the question about FBI Director Huey Newton that all changes. Now he’s a joke about what white people fear a black president would do—turn the FBI over to the leader of the Black Panthers. It’s the same joke as when Jon Stewart once asked Barack Obama if he was planning to staff his cabinet with the members of the Wu-Tang Clan.
We are now only half way through the sketch and it already flipped or twisted its premise 4 times. It’s not just making a joke about there being a black president, its making twenty jokes about there being a black president, each using the previous joke’s punchline as the next joke’s premise, each joke creating a transformation of the very context in which the sketch is happening.
Throughout the course of the entire sketch, Pryor goes from a bland politician, to a righteous advocate for equality, to a black nationalist, to a black tyrant who tells southerners to sit down and shut up, to a stereotypical “black hooligan” attacking somebody up for making a joke about his “dear mama.” He has not only subverted our expectations, but given us new expectations, subverted them, and then subverted even his own subversion by fulfilling our expectations. Everything Pryor does surprises you because you never know exactly what it is Pryor is trying to do. You never grasp the narrative arc. You never predict the next step.
Now compare that sketch with one from SNL:
What is the one SNL political satire sketch that anyone has cared about in the last couple years? That song about shutting down the government where Miley Cyrus pretends to be Michelle Bachman and grabs her crotch over and over again while some indistinguishable white guy pretending to be John Boehner mugs gluttonously for the camera.
That video is probably the best thing SNL has done in years – and yet it’s not a tenth as smart, or funny, or entertaining as the Richard Pryor sketch. Why? Because it only has one joke. “Miley Cyrus made a song/music video about not stopping, the government stopped…Why don’t we put them together!”
And that’s it.
The joke at the beginning of the “We Did Stop” video is the same as the joke at the end. There’s no variation, no transformation, no exploding of its own premise. Yep, this is the exact same video as that Miley Cyrus video but with some people pretending to be Republicans and slightly changed lyrics. At 30 seconds it is the same video. At 1:30 it continues to be the same video. At 3:00 it is still the same goddamn video. Nothing changes. Nothing grows. That’s boring as fuck.
The Sad Fact of the Matter
The sad fact of the matter is that SNL has become the FoxNews of comedy – in the sense that it just tells you what you already think is funny is funny. That “We Did Stop” video’s only political point is that the government shutdown was ridiculous. In all of America there are maybe fifty people who would dare disagree with that assessment, and they’re all in the US House of Representatives.
The “We Did Stop” video is just one sketch out of the hundreds and hundreds SNL has done over the last few years, but its problems are repeated it almost every SNL sketch. They’re no longer even sketches, but references, references to ideas we already hold in our head. Look at this image from the “We Did Stop” video:
During the video you can hear the studio audience laughing at this image, but why? Do they really appreciate the quality of the pun? No, they’re laughing because the show has referenced a thing that they already think is funny. Twerking! It’s so kooky! HAHAHA!
Instead of a sketch comedy show, SNL has become an endless repetition of that horrible moment in every stand-up comedy special where the comedian shouts something like, I sure do love New York City! in New York City and then all of the people in New York City cheer because they miraculously don’t hate the place where they live.
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