Turning 30, 'SNL' struggles to keep its place in pantheon

A correction was made to this article on June 27, 2004.

Does anyone seriously think that “Saturday Night Live” is consistently funny anymore?

Up until recently it was usually good for five minutes, when Darrell Hammond clued us in to Bill Clinton’s shifty egomania and Will Ferrell caught George Dubya’s stiff, beady effort to gut out yet another pesky challenge to his stupefaction.

Tart celebrity satire became a little harder once the ’90s celebrity mill went into permanent overdrive and its product became iconic, like plaster Mary and Jesus dolls — and instantly self-parodying. Still, you saw an occasional Barbara WaWa or Courtney Love sketch that delivered us from the self-importance and excesses of people other people fawn over.

Now Ferrell is gone, Hammond looks like someone who’s lost his job but can’t leave the building, and despite some notable work from Amy Poehler, Rachel Dratch and especially Maya Rudolph, the occasional five good minutes have been swallowed up in the other dreary 85. So if you’re still stuck in front of the tube sodden and weary at the end of the show, you wonder if you’ve nodded out and missed something.

Those who do catch the closing credits can count themselves as part of a diminishing fan base. According to Nielsen Media Research, on average, 7.6 million people have watched the show in 2003-04, part of a steady four-year slide, matching the poorest ratings the show has ever experienced. Its high over the past 16 years, as far back as NBC and Nielsen could supply numbers, was the ’92-93 season, when 11.9 million regularly tuned in.

To be fair, “SNL” dominates its time period among the coveted target demo of 18- to 49-year-olds, drawing a 3.6 rating among such viewers (each ratings point equals 1.29 million viewers) — a demo rating that is greater than any primetime series on Saturday — and an audience of 7.62 million overall.

By comparison, “Mad TV” on Fox averages 4.6 million viewers overall and a 2.1 rating in adults 18-49. At the same time, fewer viewers watch primetime programming on Saturdays — and are more inclined to tune in later than earlier — than any other night of the week.

“SNL” has always had its detractors and gloomy prognosticators — some from inside the show itself. And it’s been rescued from death’s door before, largely by the efforts of exec producer Lorne Michaels, who co-conceived the show in 1975 (with NBC’s Dick Ebersol). But it remains to be seen if “SNL,” so locked into formula bits, slack execution and general cluelessness, can pull a Dubya and successfully stay the course — or succumb at last to Michaels’ credo, “Comedy should not be left to professionals.”

Head writer Tina Fey’s recent canonization in the New Yorker notwithstanding, the show has always confused amateurism with zest. When “SNL” first aired, a generation had come of age through war, political disgrace, assassination, riot, racial and sexual anger and suspicion. (Does anyone remember the cry “Don’t trust anyone over 30″?) Somebody had got us into this mess, the flower children cried. It was the suits, the Pentagon, Detroit, the gray corporate world of disapproving, sexually uptight adults.

In the meantime, NBC needed something more than Johnny Carson reruns to shore up its third-place showing in the latenight Saturday slot; the anarchic energies of the cast assembled by the then-29-year-old Canadian Michaels, who’d written for “Laugh-In,” made a perfect fit. John Belushi’s samurai hotelier, the Killer Bees, the Blues Brothers, Chevy Chase’s smug and self-infatuated News Update anchor — all radiated the pleasure of discovery, the oil gusher of a generation finding its voice. Since then, a who’s who of American comedic talent has moved from Studio 8H at 30 Rock into the mainstream of movies and television.

‘Mostly makeup and attitude’

But amateurism remained the show’s hallmark — as well as its inflexible format. “Danger and freedom,” said the late Michael O’Donoghue, one of the show’s original writers during the halcyon days of 1975-78, “that was the fun of it in the beginning. Now any man in the street could write the show; it’s locked in. Cold opening. The guest host. The ad. The first sketch. … The people are milking the cash flow instead of holding up a mirror to our times.”

“Most of the show is sophomoric,” says Larry Gelbart, dean of American comedy writers. “It’s sloppily written and performed. The audience indulges that sloppiness instead of punishing it. There’s very little comment in the political humor. It’s mostly makeup and attitude.”

“They’ve done brilliant stuff, but they never seem to know when to stop,” says Pulitzer Prize-winning TV critic Howard Rosenberg. “It’s always been embarrassing to watch them put guest hosts in sketch comedy they’re not good at performing.”

But now that the amateur is in vogue — as we see in “American Idol” and the so-called reality shows — perhaps we should praise the show instead of burying it. Current events are so ripe for satire that a network newscaster recently said of a development, “That’s something you’d see on ‘Saturday Night Live.'”

Thirty years later, it may be mirroring its time after all.

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