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This month former Saturday Night Live writer Bob Odenkirk stars in one of the most anticipated American dramas of recent years ‘Better Call Saul’.
Nowadays (thanks to the proliferation of online streaming and torrent platforms) the whole world can share TV events like this as a community. Commentators often cite the onset of Cable, satellite and subsequently digital TV as the death of water-cooler or shared cultural moments. But rest assured that, from huts selling phone credit in Port-au-Prince to the cafés of Istanbul, people are watching this TV program together.
What I find interesting is not the proliferation of American TV per se, rather the proliferation of one TV show in particular: Saturday Night Live.
Often referred to as Comedy College or a post-graduate in comedy, Saturday Night Live (‘SNL’) is a one-of-a-kind institution that has simultaneously kept the razzmatazz of ‘show-biz’ alive while constantly evolving and agitating. It has left its mark on culture and society for four decades, its stars, writers and producers have gone on to influence generations of global audiences.
Of the late night TV chat shows, three (Seth Myers, Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Fallon) are hosted by ex SNL alumni. One of the most popular podcasts in the world is the superb interview program ‘WTF’ hosted by Marc Maron. Maron was auditioned for SNL and didn’t get the job. That rejection has, he admits, left an indelible mark on him and on his career.
This week SNL turns 40, and you’ll be hearing lots about Chevy Chase, John Belushi, Mike Myers and Tina Fey. How great Chris Farley was, and hey did you know that Joan Cusack, Randy Quaid and Robert Downey Jr were all cast members on SNL? Was Eddie Murphy or Will Ferrell the greatest cast member of all time, you know he kept the show on the air right? You may even hear about the Second City or Groundlings improv troupes or the writing standards at the Harvard Lampoon (all are feeder organisations into SNL –the writing and acting talent is cherry picked every couple of years for the show).
But what of the backstage talent? Former SNL head writer Adam Mackay is the co-founder of the seminal online comedy platform ‘Funny or Die’, as well as writing and directing the Anchorman films. Writers from the 17th floor of Rockefeller Centre have moved from SNL to create and shape shows such as the Office and the Simpsons as well. Larry David didn’t make it on SNL as a writer. But he did meet Julia Louis Dreyfus and created the role of Elaine in Seinfeld for her. After that, he created ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ collaborating with former SNL writer Alan Zweibel. Outside of writing, award-wining set designer Eugene Lee moved on from his early days, (creating the set and logistics for SNL from day one) to create masterpieces in the West End and Broadway such as the recent hit musical ‘Wicked’. SNL has a legacy, and its legacy is vast. Even the developing rules regarding take-down notices for online video, and the vitality of video sharing platforms such as YouTube (or their network-based alternatives such as Hulu) were hugely helped by SNL’s ubiquity (search online for the history and fallout of the ‘lazy Sunday’ and ‘D*ck in a box’ videos).
Comedy, like sports is not inherently important. It isn’t brick and mortar, bolts or rivets. It doesn’t necessarily represent a technological and intellectual evolution on a large scale that will disrupt and/or progress mankind. But it gives context for our lives. For those of us that are trying to do our best by our friends and our family it provides relief from grief, strife or tedium. It gives us something to think about, laugh, complain and talk about. The situationists were right: people need to be shaken out of their day-to-day stupor, and sometimes comedy can do that. SNL is unique in that has done that for 40 years.
Saturday Night Live is many things, juvenile, high-brow, stupid and niche. It is a fanfare of American Cultural Imperialism and a comedic skew of the fourth estate. It is the birthplace of comedic and dramatic careers that have shaped and influence many, many people’s lives around the world. And, in case it wasn’t clear? I love it. Happy Birthday, Saturday Night Live.