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Monday, May 20, 2024

Larry David, Maya Rudolph and Will Ferrell are amongst the star-studded lineup that appear often on SNL.

SNL's Identity Crisis

For as long as I was able to stay up past my bedtime, I’ve watched Saturday Night Live.  When I was younger, Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig and Andy Samberg were my comedic idols.  My parents would show me old SNL skits from the heyday of Steve Martin, Gilda Radner and Billy Crystal.  Obviously a comedy sketch show that is over 40 years-old is going to go through its highs and lows but recently I came to the realization that SNL doesn’t seem to know what it is anymore.

I began to notice a change as the era of Seth Meyers ended and Colin Jost took the head writer seat.  This was also at a time when a lot of popular cast members (Bill Hader, Fred Armisen, Kristen Wiig, Andy Samberg, Jason Sudeikis) had also left the show, which is why I thought what I found to be an initial decline in quality might be a temporary slump.

And then Donald Trump was elected. Trump’s election, coinciding with what might have been a weaker cast that season and head writer fresh in the captain’s chair was a perfect storm for SNL to lose sight of what it was and it responded to these problems in just the wrong way: by falling back on gimmicky celebrity cameos and former cast members.

The impression of the president is an old and coveted position. It goes all the way back to Chevy Chase’s bumbling Gerald Ford and was masterfully continued by the likes of Darrell Hammond, Will Ferrell, and Jay Pharaoh.  But when Donald Trump became a presidential contender, in the absence of a solid cast member’s impression, SNL brought on Alec Baldwin to fill the role. 

Now SNL has an important recurring role being played by a Hollywood star and not a cast member.  This seemed like a minor exception, at first, and then it became more common.  Suddenly the show is constantly filled with non-cast members and former cast members.  Fred Armisen plays Michael Bloomberg, Larry David plays Bernie Sanders, Maya Rudolph plays Kamala Harris all in the same sketch.

SNL has always been a fun forum for celebrities to cut loose and show they don't take themselves too seriously but almost always as the host for the week with maybe the occasional special guest.  

With the barrage of celebrity cameos and former cast members every week, the show is fundamentally different.  It’s no longer an incubator of up-and-coming writers, comics and actors, but an open-house celebrities and SNL alumni.  

These non-stop guests have become a crutch that only makes the regular cast weaker while also depriving them of opportunities to stand out and advance their careers.  It's no longer a cohesive cast that makes one another stronger and plays off one another, but a few big-name cast members with most blending into the background.

This is the heart of SNL’s identity crisis and it puts the show at a crossroads.  Will it devolve further into a playground for any celebrity who just so happens to be free that week or will it return to its roots as a group of young and rising comedians skewering the news and culture of the week?

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