Wednesday, April 21, 2010

SNL in the 00s: A Cultural Examination

Every few months or so, somebody somewhere writes up an article about how SNL isn't funny anymore and titles it "Saturday Night Dead." It gets old pretty quickly, and frankly, it's usually untrue.

I am unconvinced that the show premiered with amazingness in 1975 and has slowly deteriorated into toilet paper material. In truth, it's had its high points and low points and it will continue to as long as it's on the air.

The inherent problem with the show is that a viewer will only ever think that SNL was funniest during their teenage years, whether they be the Days of Akroyd, Murphy, Farley, or Sandler. I know that I am no different. The 00s coincide pretty evenly with my teenage years, and because of that, the sketches produced in that decade will always make me a touch over-sentimental.

But I am not here to discuss exactly how funny or unfunny the show was during this particular decade. Or ever. Rather, I think it's important, and fascinating, to examine the show as a cultural institution. Comedy is inherent in our culture, and having a live televised comedy show twenty-two times a year is an excellent barometer for the zeitgeist.
What's unique about the 2000s in terms of SNL is that the show underwent several changes early in the decade that truly set the tone for the whole ten years. Most of the changes derive from one key event: the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. The premiere of SNL's 27th season was set to occur 18 days after the tragedy, and could not be postponed. The cast was forced to find ways to be funny within such a stark national mood, and like many New Yorkers, forged a unity amongst themselves in the face of grim events. Not three weeks later, Anthrax was found in 30 Rockefeller Plaza, and yet again the cast was confronted with a faceless enemy in a place where the norm was fart jokes and fat suits.

The sobering events of 2001 solidified the 00s as a time where the ensemble would rule. It wasn't going to just be Will Ferrell doing a headlining character amongst bit players. The cast had to come together not only to make the comedy work, but also to cope with despair.

Furthering the 00s' presence of ensemble was the reign of Tina Fey as head writer. Tina took the position in 2000 exactly, and in doing so, added two sensibilities to the show: that of a writer, and that of a lady. The 00s were a good time for the women of SNL, and they best exercised their power in female ensemble pieces. Remember "Kotex Classic" and "Mom Jeans"? Lady-powered ensemble sketches, both penned by Tina Fey. Alongside Amy Poehler, Rachel Dratch, Maya Rudolph, and Kristen Wiig, Tina Fey put forth a strong female presence on the show that ultimately created an "era" in SNL history. It doesn't hurt that the women in the news that decade were particularly fascinating, from Lindsay Lohan to Ann Coulter, and Tina Fey & Co. wasted no time in using their public presence as commentary on the State of Ladydom in America as a whole.

Which leads me to Tina Fey's other sensibility that enveloped the 00s: that of The Writer. Sketches in the 2000s were allowed to be more thoughtful because of the emphasis given to the writers - gone were the days of Mary Katherine Gallagher heaving herself onto breakaway furniture, and ushered in her stead were spoofs of "Hardball," impressions of Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden, and naughty word play involving a man named "Colonel Angus." Inherently, a writer-driven show gave way to a point of view, and while SNL was criticized for political and social leanings, it got people talking and kept things interesting.
It doesn't hurt that the decade saw two explosive elections, in 2000 and 2008, and in reflecting on them, SNL called a lot of political figures out on their bullshit.

Of course, not all of the 2000s are characterized by these traits. In 2006, Tina Fey left the show, taking her directives to 30 Rock, and the fallout from Sept. 11 and the Iraq War was dwindling. Dratch, Rudolph, and Poehler all vacated by 2009, and the female presence on the show now is much diminished. By 2007, Seth Meyers was head writer, and the Digital Short was king. Both figureheads still stand today.

That's not to say that the current cast isn't funny. But is the show producing quality work that's relevant to the times? Well, sometimes. It's SNL; it has its bad days and its good days, and it's much easier to look at "funny or unfunny?" in the present than it is to say, "How is this reflecting on today's current society?" Only time will tell, and in another ten years, we'll get a special about the '10s, and we'll all regale about how much we miss seeing Andy Samberg and Abby Elliott on the show and how hilarious they were.

Until then, we can look back at the 2000s and acknowledge them outside the realm of comedy alone. The show became a whole new animal in the 00s. Perhaps that decade, more than any other, saw the cast as regular people going through the same day-to-day crises as we were. They weren't comedy gods like Chris Farley or John Belushi. They were like us: working people, searching for humor in the darkest of days. Questioning our country's leadership when the state of the nation was at its most dire. Coming together as a family to cope with loss and unanswerable questions. It is this notion that truly reveals just how much SNL is embedded in the zeitgeist. And because of that, SNL is never dead.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...