The return of Eddie Murphy as guest host of Saturday Night Live for the first time since 1984 has sparked a fresh round of SNL retrospectives and reminiscing. Not only has Murphy been more visible in the past few weeks than he has been in years — having a passion project to promote will do that — but he's promising to revive all of his classic SNL characters on this weekend’s show. (I assume this means he’s been talking with the writers, since they’re the ones who will have to dream up bits for all those characters, which to be sure is a nice problem to have.)
Murphy’s comment occasioned a nostalgia-fest across all media, as everyone went in search of old YouTube videos of “Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood” and other gems from his four seasons on SNL. It was perceptively noted that the 19-year-old Murphy arrived at SNL in the fall of 1980, just after a house cleaning that had seen the departure of showrunner Lorne Michaels and all the original cast members. Were it not for Murphy and his gallery of raucous, edgy alter egos, many insiders now believe SNL would not have made it to 1985, the year Michaels was persuaded to retake the helm.
In the two decades post-Murphy, SNL’s fat would fall into the fire routinely, only to get pulled out again. Billy Crystal and Martin Short came to the show's rescue, only to leave a year later, leaving such talents as Randy Quaid and Nora Dunn to hold down the fort. Chris Farley and Adam Sandler were viewed as saviors when they rode into 30 Rock, only to be summarily fired. Meanwhile, something stunk behind the scenes. A 1995 New York reporting bomb revealed the “deep spiritual funk” inside SNL resulting in the prodigious wasting of talent — Janeane Garofalo, Michael McKean, Ben Stiller, the list goes on.
Like most longtime fans, I just wanted the show to stop sucking. And inside SNL, it seems, someone did, too. About the time Tina Fey and Amy Poehler showed up, the show became reliably watchable, even into the third half-hour. Now here we are, midway through the show’s 45th season, and SNL feels more relevant than ever. It now airs live coast-to-coast, making it more than ready for primetime in the west, where it airs at 8:30pm and routinely ranks among the 10 most-watched shows on TV with viewers ages 18-49.
That’s the other thing about SNL — its ubiquity. YouTube videos of its sketches can rack up millions of views within hours of posting, and they join a long tail of SNL clips stretching back 40+ years. For me, it’s one of the Internet’s most enticing rabbit holes. And it leads me to think that, like the wider phenomenon of Peak TV, we are now experiencing Peak SNL. There just seems more of it than ever, much of it is good, some of it is brilliant, but its market dominance is beyond question. Every late-night show these days does political satire, but SNL’s ability to cut through the clutter is unrivaled.
Take the fairly brilliant NATO cafeteria sketch that aired recently. Paul Rudd, Jimmy Fallon, and James Corden played a triumvirate of European leaders making fun of President Trump (Alec Baldwin, as ever). Rudd, who played French president Emmanuel Macron, looked like he’d spent a long time in the makeup chair — and for what, two lines? Who does that? OK, a nice kid from Kansas City does that… but also, someone who understands the SNL effect. He knew people would be talking about it on Monday.
As someone who looked forward all week to the next live broadcast of NBC’s Saturday Night, as it was called in the 1970s, I can personally attest that Peak SNL is not as exciting as classic SNL was. The novelty and ingenuity of those first few seasons could never possibly be duplicated. Nor will we ever again feel the thrill of an unknown like Murphy bursting on the scene — there are just too many other platforms out there. Weekend Update used to have a whiff of danger to it — from Chevy and “Jane you ignorant slut” all the way through to Norm Macdonald. But that couldn’t last, if for no reason than the fact that viewers now expect SNL to give them actual news.
That said, SNL is doing a better job than it ever has of giving its audience what it wants and expects. The show’s sustained dedication to not sucking has created a virtuous cycle where everyone today is expected to bring their A game, from the performers who know they have to write SNL-styled humor if they’re going to keep their jobs, to the guest hosts who step into sketches like old pros. I picked a show from this season at random, the one with Chance the Rapper hosting, and marveled at how he seemed to have every shopworn SNL beat down cold, from the commercial parody to the daytime-TV show, the racial satire, the bit with the creepy twist, and the slapstick sketch.
For people hoping that Eddie Murphy has a triumphant SNL appearance — it almost certainly will be the most-watched SNL in years — one good omen is that another long-departed alumnus, Will Farrell, recently returned to host an episode and it was loaded with great, sharp writing, in particular a Thanksgiving dinner sketch that had more layers than my shepherd’s pie.
Peak SNL is a blessing and a curse. At a time when everything is competing for the public’s attention, SNL’s ability to stand out is, well, outstanding. But it’s also a curse because, like Peak TV, this can’t go on forever. Lorne Michaels will shuffle off eventually. Toxic office culture could creep back in. Other showcases might come along with less restrictive contracts than the one SNL has been using for 20 years.
For now, though, who cares? Gumby’s back! And live from New York, it’s still Saturday night. Enjoy the show.
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Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.