I just sat through an entire Saturday Night Live. It was pretty much 90 minutes of mental torture. Why, you may ask, if I thought it was so bad, did I stay with it?
This was an archive broadcast owing to the continuing writers' strike. They aired a program dating from around Christmas of '95 or '96. Steve Martin was the host. Despite his presence, the show stunk. I watched the whole thing because the musical guest was James Taylor, who provided the only highlights of the show with two performances from his New Moon Shine album, what was then his most recent release, and a solo performance of his old standard, "Sweet Baby James." But, the comedy wasn't, well, comical. The writing was ghastly, exceeded only in awfulness by the performances, the kind of awfulness that makes you squirm in your seat.
About a year ago my wife and I sat through another SNL at the behest of my younger son, again owing to the musical guests, Arcade Fire. My son is a college chum of one of the members of AF. While what they do is not quite my cup of tea, they were, nevertheless, pretty entertaining. However, as above, the show was awful.
The same can be said for the SNL which featured Peyton Manning several months ago. Since we live in Indy and are at least nominal Colts fans, we felt it our duty to watch. Most of the material for Manning was bad, and some just embarrassing. Manning should hold on to his day job.
Now, I'd like to believe that the first years of SNL were great. I must admit to having been a fan of the show early on. But having watched a few early shows on DVD recently, I have to say that it was just as bad back then as it is now. The only thing the early shows had going for them was the shock value, the outrageousness. That, of course, is the key to most of what has passed for comedy for some time now - being outrageous, being gross, being tasteless, being insulting, being crude, being stupid. SNL more or less pioneered that type of humor, for network television at any rate. It was shocking and gross and stupid and tasteless and the rest, and I loved it back then. The irreverence fit the times. It was new and an absolute hoot to see that kind of thing on the tube. But was it, upon reflection, truly funny? Not really. There was and is little that is clever, or witty, or even droll about the show.
What I've seen in recent years has been, if anything even less inspired. The life, the energy, the surprise that the original shows had going for them is long gone. The lengths it now takes to shock an audience make it a labor not worth the finished product. Again, the writing is at best tepid, much of it is wretched. Some sketches may squeeze out one or two funny moments. Many manage none.
The performances are uncomfortable. It is as if they know the material sucks, but there they are, live, in front of god and everybody doing some bit that was ill conceived, poorly written, barely rehearsed, and consequently, tentatively and self-consciously performed, the performers sometimes craning their necks to read the damn cue cards. Comic timing on SNL seems to be a completely lost art.
The live audience seems to strain nearly as hard to force even a titter of laughter. They want the stuff to be funny. They, want so badly to laugh. Hell, they probably waited in line for hours in lousy weather just to get in. They want their time's worth. (It's free, isn't it?) But there is rarely any payoff.
Some claim that it's the awfulness that makes it funny. That's crap. The awfulness is not funny. It's just awful. In the Martin/Taylor show the former made a valiant attempt to slog through a big Broadway style number, a fairly dangerous admission that most of the show's performances are "phoned in." I think that told far too much of the truth.
The format is old, the execution tired. The show is just not funny. It's just too painful to watch, regardless of who the musical guest might be. SNL should be retired, allowed to die quietly and with some shred of dignity, maybe in favor of airing Bonanza reruns. That Dan Blocker was some kinda actor, don't you think?