i Need Media
Live and Let Live: Why Saturday Night Live still matters
By Matthew Singer 12/13/2012
In the ephemeral world of television, there are two constants: Saturday Night Live and complaints about Saturday Night Live. Ever since the show debuted in 1975 and changed televised sketch comedy — if not comedy in general — forever, it’s been going downhill. At least, that’s the consensus. Each subsequent generation of cast members is worse than the last. The current incarnation already has us pining for the glory days of Andy Samberg music videos and Kristen Wiig speaking in wacky voices; and surely, once this group has moved on, the next batch will conjure fond memories of Kenan Thompson and that heavyset curly-haired guy. What’s weird is, everyone knows this, because everyone still watches Saturday Night Live.
In this age where everything that’s ever aired is viewable across multiple platforms whenever we want to view it, people are so oversaturated with choice when it comes to entertainment that they have taken to regularly watching shows they don’t even really want to watch. It’s been dubbed “hate watching.” Vulture recently surveyed the Year in Hate-Watching, profiling such notable, delightfully disdainful programs as Smash, The Killing and my personal favorite least-favorite, The Newsroom.
But people were hate watching Saturday Night Live long before the advent of Hulu, DVR or even the Internet. Pretty much from the moment the last remaining original cast member left, viewers have seemingly watched SNL only to track its declining quality. I’m guilty of it myself. Just this past Saturday, I got home early, sat on the couch and watched nearly all 90 minutes of the most recent episode. The first sketch after the monologue was based around Jamie Foxx repeatedly calling three game show contestants “bitches.” I thought, “Why am I watching this again?” But then I stuck around all the way until the infamous post-12:30 dead zone, which actually featured the best sketch of the night: another game show parody, this one called Dermot Mulroney or Dylan McDermott? It was just absurd enough to work for me, but I doubt the rest of the viewership has a sense of humor bizarre enough to find the repetition of those two names funny.
What is the pull of SNL? Why does everyone complain about how terrible it’s gotten, yet keep tuning in? The easy answer is that it’s an American cultural institution, and there’s a certain comfort in engaging with something that’s so deeply woven into the fabric of the country that it transcends considerations of quality. But I think it’s because, on increasingly rare occasions, SNL gives us something that normally only comes from major sporting events: Those moments that can only be fully experienced live, as they happen. I was reminded of this when watching the SNL Christmas Special on Friday, and remembered being doubled over in tears the first time I saw the “Dick in a Box” digital short. Those kind of bits, which ripple through the culture and become universally shared, happen so rarely; but when they do occur, you want to be there, and you want to be the one who tells your friends about it. In a prerecorded culture, SNL remains live. We hate watch because we love.
I Need Media is a biweekly media column. Matthew Singer watches everything from PBS documentaries to Community and Showtime’s Gigolos, but mostly he’s just happy Breaking Bad is back. Follow him on Twitter@mpsinger.