‘Saturday Night Live’ Tests New Ways to Build Its Famous Characters

Analysis: The humor factory behind everything from The Coneheads to The Californians may be testing new techniques as technology allows for new viewing behaviors

colin jost saturday night live
Courtesy of Dana Edelson/NBC

Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have each paid a visit to “Saturday Night Live” this season. Last week, the show played host to a personage who can be just as tough to get: Dick Patterson.

Who?  This oddball businessman has the body and reflexes of a baby, and he is played by “SNL” cast member Beck Bennett. Despite the character’s appeal, he has surfaced just four times over the course of two seasons. In contrast, the popular “Californians,” a group of vapid West Coasters obsessed with L.A.  highway travel, appeared four times in the course of the show’s 38th cycle. When Taran Killam and Vanessa Bayer struck a chord with “J Pop America Fun Time Now,” a fake campus TV show about Japanese pop culture, the show ran it three times in a single season.

Recurring characters are one of the mainstays of this venerable NBC late-night institution, but in recent years, “SNL” seems to have started working with them in a new way – suggesting the staff has grown more aware of how younger viewers interact with the program. Gone are the days when viewers could expect to see regular, multiple appearances by Kristen Wiig’s “Target Lady,” Rob Schneider’s “Copy Guy” or Cheri Oteri’s and Will Ferrell’s “Spartan Cheerleaders.” In their place: more sketches that seize upon the week’s headlines and set pieces that play up never-before-seen concepts.

Canteen Boy and the Coneheads served an era in which the 18-to-49 demographic TV networks court most heavily watched TV, not video clips hours or days later on a smartphone. “The old single-screen ‘SNL’ formula for success was to create characters that would develop and become fan favorites, and consequently draw return viewership,” said Carlo Gennarelli, an associate professor in Hofstra University’s Department of Radio, Television and Film. “However, in a world where only one eye may or may not be on the original broadcast, I think a more successful paradigm will be to offer the timely and unexpected, in the hope of drawing instant attention.”

Indeed, “SNL” has run a bevy of sketches in recent seasons that could have been expanded into multiple appearances. Consider “Dyke & Fats,” the spoof of a 1970s-era sitcom about two female cops played by Kate McKinnon and Aidy Bryant; “The Millennials,” a sketch from this season featuring Miley Cyrus and cast members portraying a workforce of demanding twenty-somethings; or Kyle Mooney’s Trevor, an effeminate bar bully who lashes out at host “Cryin’ Ryan Gosling.” None of them have returned.

The show is not abandoning the practice, and viewers can probably expect to see something familiar tonight when the show wraps its 41st season on air. Yet more signature characters are showing up during “Weekend Update,” which has given rise to Bobby Moynihan’s offbeat Riblet; Vanessa Bayer’s kid news-reader Laura Parsons; and McKinnon’s desperate Russian peasant Olya Povlatsky. To be sure, characters continue to appear during the course of the program, like McKinnon’s barfly Sheila Sauvage or her alien-kidnap victim Ms. Rafferty. Dana Carvey even turned up recently to revive his 1980s-era hit, the Church Lady.  And there continue to be plenty of celebrity impressions.

“New characters are the lifeblood of the show, and that’s been true since the beginning,” noted Rick Ludwin, the former NBC executive who supervised the network’s’ late-night schedule for decades.

It’s easy to pin the subtle shift on politics. How can “Saturday Night Live” ignore the insanity of the current race for U.S. President? Many of this season’s episodes have opened with Killam or Darrell Hammond playing Donald Trump, or appearances by Larry David playing Bernie Sanders. “If there were fewer recurring character-driven sketches in the show this year, it is because of that political cycle,” said Ludwin. “Out of necessity, you have to cover that. That’s what people are talking about.”

Others think “SNL” could be switching gears to accommodate the viewing behaviors of its next generation of fans. This group is more likely to check out a few video clips of the show the following day or week rather than watch the whole 90-minute spectacle from start to finish, said Lisa Swain, a professor of cinema and media arts at Biola University. When that’s the case, she said, “your reason for watching changes.”

These viewers don’t watch “SNL” for another look at a famous character, but rather for something that plays off headlines and popular culture. “The currency comes more from the show’s connection with current events,” she said. While past viewers may have enjoyed the sixth appearance of Jason Sudeikis and Will Forte as sportscasters Pete Twinkle and Greg Stink or John Belushi in multiple sketches as an out-of-place samurai, the modern fan craves surprise or connection.

There’s also the cast. Behind the scenes at the show these days, there’s a sense the current crew has come together after a transitional period and the departures of Sudeikis, Wiig, Andy Samberg, Fred Armisen and Bill Hader. McKinnon creates new personalities each week. Bennett and Mooney work in absurdist humor. And Leslie Jones has become a force unto herself in various sketches. With that sort of activity in house, there may be little reason to milk the same concept ad infinitum.

In an earlier era , some “SNL” players didn’t always love the idea of doing characters over and over again. “I refused to do it because I wanted to, you know, dazzle everybody with my versatility,” said Laraine Newman, a member of the show’s first cast, in the oral history “Live From New York, The Complete Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live.” Character work, she noted,”keeps you more anonymous than people who play themselves.”

When “SNL” launches its 42nd season in the fall, it will do so under a different structure. NBC has said it will cut two ad breaks, or 30% of the commercials, from the program in an effort to keep fans who have come to expect fewer ads when they watch TV shows via streaming video. With that in mind, viewers can probably expect more character-building exercises in the near future.