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Why ‘Saturday Night Live’ Isn’t Dead (At Least Not Yet)

TV Analysis: Late-night show relies more heavily than ever on a 'shadow cast' of alumni

The last time Lorne Michaels ever really let a public comment pass about which “Saturday Night Live” cast member might not return to the program came in 1986, at the tail end of “SNL’s” ill-fated 11th season.

Many people have wiped that era from memory: After leaving “SNL” to try his hand at other projects (NBC’s “The New Show”), Michaels returned to his creation for the 1985-86 season, only to have to bring an all-new cast in front of the camera after “SNL” had gone big and broad with Billy Crystal, Christopher Guest and Martin Short. Michaels’ picks? An eclectic bunch – Robert Downey Jr., Joan Cusack, Anthony Michael Hall, Randy Quaid, plus a young Jon Lovitz and Dennis Miller – that never found its stride.

Things were so bad that in the season’s last sketch, these truly Not Ready for Prime Time Players huddled on stage, only to discover the place had been set on fire. Michaels was spotted telling Lovitz, whose mendacious Tommy Flanagan character was the main break-out that year, how to escape – leaving the rest of the crew to fend for themselves.

Michaels will probably let his show continue to do the talking as “Saturday Night Live” faces another set of question marks about its direction. In 1986, the show suffered from a cast ill-prepared, perhaps, for the demands of live comedy and satire; now, in 2013, “SNL” finds itself hemorrhaging mainstays. Jason Sudeikis is the most recent to jump ship, telling CBS’ David Letterman Wednesday – couldn’t he have saved it for NBC’s Jay Leno or Jimmy Fallon? – he is leaving the program after about eight years. He follows veterans Bill Hader and Fred Armisen out the door. And their departures take place roughly one year after Andy Samberg and Kristen Wiig bid the program farewell.

The holes in the show’s talent roster come as its ability to command viewer attention is ebbing. “SNL’s” 28th season, lasting from 2002 to 2003, won an average of 7.1 million overall viewers, according to Nielsen, and an average of about 4.5 million between the ages of 18 and 49. The show’s recently completed 38th season lured an average of 5.2 million overall viewers, and an average of about 2.4 million between 18 and 49 (Of course, many of “SNL’s” skits and short films get passed around digitally after they air).

An NBC spokesman said the network places more emphasis on the ratings of original “SNL” episodes compared with year-earlier performance, and was satisfied by that measure.

Despite the viewer declines, advertisers have put more money behind the program in recent years. In 2008, sponsors spent around $94.4 million on the show, according to Kantar Media. In 2012, “SNL” won nearly $110 million from such advertisers as AT&T, Sony Pictures, 5-Hour Energy, Amazon and Burger King, Kantar said.

Should Michaels and NBC start wringing their collective hands? You might think so. The powers-that-be have to hope up-and-comers Bobby Moynihan (he of the oddball “Drunk Uncle” sketches), Jay Pharoah (and his range of voices) and Taran Killam (who introduced us all to the Sloppy Swish and a vengeful impression of Michael Cera) break big, while newcomers Kate McKinnon (a killer Ellen DeGeneres impression) and Cecily Strong (“The Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With at a Party”) continue to gain ground.

Or they can rely even more heavily on the “shadow cast” of Not Ready for Prime Time Players Michaels has quietly assembled over the past several seasons.  Anyone who watches “SNL” regularly has to be aware of the increasing dependence the program has on alumni who pay “surprise” visits or host. It’s hard to believe Maya Rudolph and Amy Poehler have actually left the program, because it feels like they turn up every few weeks to lend a hand. Tina Fey also pops up now and again, as do Jimmy Fallon and Dan Aykroyd. Wiig’s turn as host last season suggests she may now be on board, though the show can probably do without another “Gilly” sketch.

There’s no reason to think Hader, with his many impressions,  wouldn’t do the same. And when Seth Myers departs in 2014 to start his tenure at NBC’s “Late Night,” you have to think he will want to maintain his “SNL” ties. Michaels, after all, oversees both programs, and the promotional value of a “Saturday Night Live” appearance is not to be dismissed.

If that’s the case, then perhaps “SNL” can continue its recent trend of finding hosts who are truly interesting, not looking solely to hype their latest movie or album. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who hosted the show for a second time this season, has been able to demonstrate song-and-dance chops. You wouldn’t think Mick Jagger could do comedy, but he certainly made a game try of it in the show’s 37th season. Now if only “SNL” could do away entirely with the auto-tuned one-hit wonders it has allowed to grace its stages in recent years (though recent choices, like the Alabama Shakes, the Lumineers and Paul McCartney backed by Nirvana, are encouraging), the show could reclaim more of an edge that has been worn away by longevity.

With Lorne Michaels taking oversight of a new New York-based “Tonight Show” featuring Fallon next year, this late-night impresario looks to be busier than ever. How will “SNL’s” audience know the show is no longer in transition? As in 1986, the man will speak through his creation.

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