- The original cast of SNL circa 1975
Has anyone noticed how the cast and producers of Saturday Night Live have taken over comedy programming at NBC? Now, every night is a Saturday Night Live, except for SNL itself, which ain't so great these days.
With the recent occurrence of Jimmy Fallon taking over for Jay Leno as host of The Tonight Show and Seth Meyers moving into Fallon's old late-night spot, with SNL alumnus Fred Armisen as his bandleader, former cast members of the durable sketch-comedy program can be seen on TV virtually every night of the week.
Now in its 39th season, Saturday Night Live has been shepherded (except for four years) by Lorne Michaels, who has been called the "Kingmaker of Comedy." Michaels has the golden touch when it comes to discovering and promoting new comedy talent. The list of legends who have served under Michaels' tutelage is jaw dropping: Belushi and Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, Tina Fey, Will Ferrell, and ad infinitum.
And if a cast member managed to create a successful recurring character, Michaels might back you in a movie deal. Without Lorne Michaels, we would never have had such classic films like Wayne's World, Coneheads, A Night at the Roxbury, and MacGruber. There's no questioning Michaels' comic empire, so my question is, how did SNL go from being an edgy, satiric, and sardonic show into what's now considered prime-time network programming?
It seemingly began when head writer and "Weekend Update" anchor Tina Fey quit the show to write and star in a prime-time program called 30 Rock, produced by Michaels, which was basically a parody of SNL, including a character based on Michaels, played by Alec Baldwin. Then came Parks and Recreation, produced by Michaels and starring Amy Poehler. NBC even made room for Chevy Chase in the cult comedy Community. Michaels has recently produced the movies Mean Girls and Baby Mama and the bizarre TV show Portlandia, starring Fred Armisen. Fey and Poehler co-hosted this year's Golden Globe Awards on, guess which network? And please put your answer in the form of a question.
During last week's edition of SNL, there was even an ad for American Express featuring Tina Fey. They're everywhere, like The Walking Dead. In addition to the sitcoms, movies, and SNL, Michaels will also produce the Tonight and Late Night shows. On Sundays, he'll conduct the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. For a 69-year-old man, that's a lot of stress. I trust Michaels' blood pressure is steady enough to prevent him from pulling an Elvis and doing a header into the shag carpet of the executive men's restroom at 30 Rockefeller Center.
Of the 139 cast members who appeared on SNL, many have gone on to film and television careers. Of note, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, the current star of the HBO program Veep, also was a featured player in, oh ... what was his name? You remember, that obsessive-compulsive comedian who had a show about nothing? Conan O'Brien was plucked from obscurity by Michaels, who put him in late-night and produced his show for four years. If you're counting, that's three current nighttime talk-show hosts coming from Michaels' stable.
The Tonight Show moved from Los Angeles back to New York because of Michaels. And, of course, there's always Senator Al Franken. If you ever find yourself missing former cast members, just check your local TV listings. There's Conan on TBS, Andy Samberg in Brooklyn Nine-Nine on Fox, Tim Meadows in Bob's Burgers, Kevin Nealon in Weeds, Kristen Wiig and Will Ferrell in The Spoils of Babylon on IFC, and Memphis' own Chris Parnell with Ana Gasteyer on Suburgatory on ABC. The familiar thing about these actors is that they all played recurring characters on SNL. The problem with the current cast of SNL is that there are so many of them, no one's character has much of a chance to reoccur.
All those late-night talk shows need writers and staff, editorial directors, floor managers, and the like. Judging from last week's SNL starring Seth Rogan, it would seem that the best of them packed their joke-bags to join Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers. Rogan is mildly humorous, but I outgrew fart jokes in junior high. The current cast has 17 members, including six newcomers, in contrast with the original seven in 1975. It's like getting transferred to a different prison. It takes time to learn everyone's name.
Also, I am not as enamored of Jimmy Fallon as others seem to be. Like Leno before him, I think Fallon tries a little too hard, and his bromance with Justin Timberlake has become disturbing. I was always a David Letterman kind of guy, and his announced retirement might have been more sorrowful had it not been for the news of who will be replacing him. Stephen Colbert has, for the past nine years, had the most subversive show on television in The Colbert Report. Assuming the role of a self-described "well intentioned, poorly informed, high-status idiot," Colbert has taken his outrageous character all the way to the White House Correspondents' Dinner, where he had the balls to skewer an oblivious George Bush to his face. Colbert has said that he will drop the character for the late-night gig, so I'll be tuning in to find out who he actually is. It will be something new, and that beats dumbed-down, repackaged, and recycled sketches from Saturday Night Live every time.
Randy Haspel writes the "Born-Again Hippies" blog, where a version of this column first appeared.