As a boy, one phrase meant more to me than anything else in my pop culture world: “Live from New York. . . it’s Saturday Night!”
Today, that phrase has an entirely new meaning—the corruption of a once-beloved franchise. That’s how far the increasingly partisan Saturday Night Live has fallen for this lifelong fan. And, like most cultural wounds, it’s purely self-inflicted.
As a ten-year-old kid growing up on Long Island, Saturday Night Live was the proverbial forbidden fruit. It was edgy, dangerous even. I’m sure the innuendo and inappropriate jokes in the skits sailed over my head, but I instinctively understood the show’s rebellious nature all the same. The classic cast introductions, laced with cool images from the Big Apple, made me fall even harder for the Not Ready for Prime Time Players.
I simply had to see it each week. Actually watching SNL, though, wasn’t easy.
Before DVRs ruled our landscape, viewers had to (gulp) sit by their Cathode ray TVs until their favorite shows came on. That 11:30 PM start time was a killer for me. I went to bed at 9 PM most nights, but my parents stretched the rules one night a week.
That meant begging my Mom to wake me if I fell asleep before what’s now known as the “cold open.”
Most times I didn’t make it. I’d bark at my mother the next morning, and she would swear she woke me but I just fell back to sleep. I suspect she saw a sleeping child and left me in dreamland. As a parent now, I’d probably do the same thing.
Those nights I did stay up were everything a lad like me wanted. Mr. Bill was my favorite. He’s the clay figurine who endures endless punishment in each sketch, which always ended with him screaming, “Oh, noooo!”
I stuck with the show during my teen years. As a movie lover, I watched the cast’s brightest stars segue seamlessly to the big screen: Eddie Murphy, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Adam Sandler.
SNL’s political sketches proved the most memorable to me as a young adult. Dana Carvey’s Bush the Elder (“Not gonna dah aht!”), Darrell Hammond’s rapacious Bill Clinton and even Will Ferrell’s dumbstruck Dubya were hilariously entertaining, even though as I got older I found myself embracing more conservative politics.
I didn’t mind the shots SNL took at my own party. That’s just what SNL did—poke fun at the president. The cast didn’t pull a single punch during Clinton’s Lewinsky scandal. How could I object to Ferrell’s Bushisms?
I also cheered Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin impression. It was spot on.
Then along came President Barack Obama. How would this irreverent show tackle the first black president? Simple. The writers essentially gave him a pass.
For eight years.
Suddenly, the show I loved for decades had let me, and many of its fans, down. Were they afraid of being labeled racist? The show cuts its teeth on irreverent humor. That couldn’t be the case.
Something else was in play. The show’s executives realized the impact Fey’s Palin impression had on the news cycle. In our media-saturated age, a single sketch could be magnified twenty-fold by the right blogs and social media shares. Suddenly, august news outlets covered SNL skits like they were real news. Comedy mattered, and the show’s writers acted accordingly. SNL chose politics over punch lines. My heart sank.
Then along came presidential candidate Donald Trump.
The brash reality show star gave SNL scribes all the material they could ever desire. My affection for the show had waned, but I understood why Trump became SNL’s shiny new toy. Yet, though the show incessantly mocked Trump, SNL was still pulling its punches—at least when it came to Hillary Clinton. It wasn’t enough to attack Trump. Now, the show had to reinforce Democratic talking points in the process.
When Kate McKinnon sang “Hallelujah” as an ode to Clinton’s failed campaign late last year, I stared at my flat screen, my jaw slack. The dangerous show of my youth had become yet another tired old cog in Hollywood’s liberal machinery. What was edgy about agreeing with 97 percent of the comedy world but less than half the country’s population? Nothing.
Last month I tweeted a silly prediction about SNL. I said the show would somehow fawn over President Barack Obama’s final days in the Oval Office. It was meant as a joke. It happened all the same, but even worse than I feared: SNL cast members sang (unironically!) “To Sir With Love” in appreciation of Obama. The final nail in my love for a once-great show hit solid wood.
My ten-year-old self probably wouldn’t have realized just how much partisan politics has corrupted a once-great show like Saturday Night Live. I didn’t know the first thing about politics back then. But political propagandizing masquerading as entertainment usually has one feature even children recognize, one that now, unfortunately, defines SNL: It’s dull.