Saturday Night Live debuted on NBC on October 11, 1975… the day after my 28th birthday. The 1970s cast included future comedy legends: John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase, Eddie Murphy, Bill Murray. In those halcyon early days, SNL was the freshest breeze to hit the airwaves since Monty Python's Flying Circus. And it was equally offbeat.
Of the five super-stars listed above, my favorite was - and still is - the late, great John Belushi. Less than two years younger than me, he was the son of an Albanian immigrant and grew up outside Chicago. In '71 he joined Chi-town's Second City comedy troupe. Less than a year later he landed in an Off-Broadway show, moved to New York, and the rest - as they say - is history.
Belushi's comedic versatility was astonishing. A collection of SNL clips, a Christmas gift, reminded me of this. In his four years on SNL he was the news commentator who always flipped out and fell from his chair; the Samurai warrior who ran a deli; the aging Liz Taylor coughing up a chicken bone during an on-air interview; a cardboard Roy Orbison falling backwards at the end of his song; and, with Aykroyd, the co-owner of a Greek diner that lampooned the dozens that dotted New Jersey and New York.
Before Belushi ended his short career at the end of a needle in 1982, he made two classic comedy films, "Animal House" and "The Blues Brothers," where he was again teamed with Aykroyd. Chase, Murray and Murphy also teamed up in some terrific major motion pictures. "Caddy Shack" and "Trading Places" stand out in my mind.
These five SNL giants were succeeded by other outstanding stars in the firmament of Funny: Mike Myers (aka Austin Powers); Will Ferrell; Tina Fey (aka Sarah Palin); Larry David; Al Franken (aka the junior senator from Minnesota), and Adam Sandler. I'm a fan of them all.
Down the decades, I've slipped away from SNL, or maybe it's slipped away from me. Tina Fey as Sarah Palin brought me briefly back into the fold during the '08 election. Otherwise, I've been an apostate. I'm not sure if that's because SNL just ain't all that funny anymore, or because it speaks to the younger generations, and consequently I just don't get the jokes.
I have to admit that I've never been a habitual SNL-watcher, and therefore it's difficult for me to pinpoint when things began going downhill. All of the "golden years" seemed to have already passed by the time I was old enough to watch, and by then the show had long since stopped being mandatory water-cooler conversation. SNL was barely on my radar until Tina Fey created her pitch-perfect impersonation of Sarah Palin, at which point I became an addict - to the first five minutes of every episode. Those first five minutes in which the cast lampooned the GOP (and, less often, poked fun at Joe Biden) were pure heaven for me, someone who was growing increasingly invested in the upcoming election. It was cathartic to see everything I was feeling summed up in those neat little skits, to know that I was laughing along with millions of other people who felt exactly the same way.
After a certain point, though, it just started to get sad.
Take the re-enactment of Sarah Palin's interview with Katie Couric, for example. It was a little too on the nose, wasn't it? In fact, I don't think the writers on SNL changed a thing between the real interview and the skit. The fact that Palin couldn't name a single newspaper, the fact that she cited Alaska's proximity to Russia as foreign-policy experience (and then couldn't even begin to explain why) - all of that really happened. The skits simply wrote themselves after that.
And they were hilarious, if you didn't think about it too much.
The other skits that have garnered attention in the last few years - and they are few and far between - have consisted of similar mixes of humor and uncomfortable truth. Like the time Mark Zuckerberg appeared on stage during the opening monologue of the night's host, Jesse Eisenberg. Eisenberg had recently played Zuckerberg in the less-than-flattering, but also Oscar-winning film "The Social Network," which portrayed the Facebook creator as a greedy, awkward, antisocial smarty-pants. Zuckerberg called out the actor on the harsh portrayal, all the while laughing nervously and drenched in sweat. It was supposed to be humorous, but the discomfort of both Zuckerberg and his doppelganger was palpable. It was a memorable moment, but funny? Maybe in a schadenfreude sort of way.
Then there was the Real Housewives of Disney skit, a parody of Bravo's Real Housewives franchise. Snow White was an alcoholic, Cinderella was a slut, and Rapunzel had her own line of hair extensions (or something). Again, it was amusing, but far too accurate to be laugh-out-loud funny. After all, Bravo is currently making a huge profit by taping the lives and catfights of petty, delusional women who are not quite "all there." Like I said, real life writes its own skits now.
Finally, there's the music. What was once a platform for artists like Patti Smith and Tom Petty has now become a transparent ploy to attract more viewers. Instead of Paul Simon, we have Justin Bieber. In lieu of Sinead O'Connor we get Lana Del Rey blankly crooning her hit YouTube song, or Ashlee Simpson pulling a Milli Vanilli on us. These musical performances are often more comical than the skits preceding them.
But can SNL be blamed for these failures? I'm not so sure. They're simply trying to appeal to a younger crowd, while the fact of the matter is that for the younger crowd, life is already morbidly hilarious.