There’s a simple reason why everyone laments that Saturday Night Live (SNL) was funnier in the past, when blank actor was on it: while TV comedy has become more daring, wittier and irreverent over the last 20 years, SNL has changed little.
The rest of TV has gone through seismic changes, but everything about SNL has remained the same: it’s tone, style, format, etc.
First, consider how far TV comedy shows have come.
With few exceptions, pre-1990s comedy shows were multi-camera shoots with all of the action occurring in several indoor locations. It was painfully obvious that the shows were shot in a TV studio (the sets were basically 2-dimensional backdrops), and there was always a laugh track.
While shows like All in the Family, M*A*S*H, Maude, etc. did deal with serious issues from time-to-time, the content was pretty much always family friendly — sexuality, for example, was not a topic of conversation.
This was an era when a brand-new show called The Simpsons was considered so subversive for its non-traditional depiction of the American family that it was denounced by then-President H.W. Bush.
I remember that even my father, a fairly liberal guy, thought it and similar shows like Married With Children were simply vulgar.
TV comedy is night-and-day different today.
There’s a proliferation of single camera shot shows with no laugh track, pretty much no topic is off limits (casual sex, masturbation, recreational drug use, etc.), there’s a sub-genre of “dramedy,” and the tone is more mean spirited and bitter.
SNL has simply not kept pace. It’s extremely rare that any of its skits cause controversy. And it’s no coincidence that when they do it almost always involves a comedian guest host known for pushing the limits, like Chris Rock. So the blame lies with the in-house writing staff.
There’s rarely anything that happens on the show that parents would disapprove of an 11 year-old watching. SNL is as family friendly as something like Home Improvement or Family Ties.
The subject matter of its sketches is even limited by this. That’s why it relies so heavily on celebrity impressions and does so many skits with the actors playing children and teenagers.
Let me put it this way: SNL rarely does anything as provocative as Seinfeld’s “The Contest” — an episode devoted to masturbation — which today seems tame because relies heavily on the use of euphemisms.
Now I’m not arguing that SNL needs to be dirtier and offensive for the sake of it, but comedy should reflect the human condition — examine and make fun of issues we all deal with in life.
What should SNL sketches look like? Something like Inside Amy Schumer. From style to content it’s a sketch comedy show made for adults. It’s wonderfully dirty and insightful.
The other major reason we all say that SNL was funnier in the past is that the format of the show and its segments remain virtually unchanged — they’ve been stale for a decade or two.
Consider Weekend Update.
The original premise of The Daily Show was a 30-minute version of it. Jon Stewart then elevated it to a whole new level. Colbert upped the ante, and John Oliver has reinvented it all over again.
It’s not that Weekend Update needs to be more political or partisan like these show, but after 40 years it’s time to innovate. There is no reason why the segment couldn’t have injected itself into the news it mocks, such as how Colbert created his own Super PAC, or called on viewers to take to social media to troll the people and organizations it lampoons, a la John Oliver.
The success of these shows is/was not just that they’re extremely funny, but they’re constantly surprising you with what they’ll do next.
And that leads to my final point — there’s just nothing unpredictable about SNL. Comedy should never be predictable.
In the rare instances when SNL has an actual comedian guest host who comes in with their own ideas, you get glimpse of how much better things could be. It’s a breath of fresh air when the opening monologue is standup comedy (rather than one of the three or four hackneyed routines: musical number, other celebrity crashes the monologue, question from the audience, etc.), or have a skit that plays out in multiple parts across an episode.
And the reason viewership is always up when comedians like Chris Rock, Louis C.K. and Zach Galifianakis is because people know they’re going to do something original.
After 40 years, it’s time to change everything.