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The More Saturday Night Live Changes, the More It Stays the Same

Extended breaks and mass cast departures have had little bearing on the show's slow evolution.
  • Clockwise: Eddie Murphy, Chloe Fineman, Billy Crystal, and Martin Short in Saturday Night Live (Photos: Everett Collection; Primetimer graphic)
    Clockwise: Eddie Murphy, Chloe Fineman, Billy Crystal, and Martin Short in Saturday Night Live (Photos: Everett Collection; Primetimer graphic)

    The October 28, 2023 episode of Saturday Night Live felt like a belated acknowledgment that some things at the show, however minor in the grand scheme of 49 seasons, had changed. It started from the opening sketch, wherein Mikey Day debuted an impression of President Joe Biden, taking over from the show’s go-to impressionist James Austin Johnson (who took over from Jim Carrey and, before that, Alex Moffat).

    Changeovers in the SNL presidential administration aren’t unheard-of (in fact, you have to go back to the single term of the first President Bush to find a president whose sketch-comedy counterpart wasn’t swapped out), but they’re often something the show will attempt after some sort of reset or opportunity for extended rethink. The reason for this particular opportunity was also addressed, albeit obliquely, in this (very good!) Nate Bargatze-hosted episode, with a sketch built around SAG president Fran Drescher (Sarah Sherman) discussing the actors’ strike. That particular strike hasn’t sidelined the SNL cast members, who, as part of a late-night show are covered by a different set of rules, but the writers’ strike that preceded it ended Season 48 early and got Season 49 off to a late start. All told, SNL wound up going dark for about six months, the show’s longest off-air streak since 1988.

    In the history of SNL, there have only been five breaks of around half a year or more — mostly due to past strikes, though sometimes the labor disputes’ timing felt fortuitous in retrospect. It's also possible that some of these breaks would go relatively unnoticed by casual reviewers. After all, under normal circumstances SNL is still very much on a traditional network TV schedule of ending in May and picking up again sometime in the fall, with production costs and logistical concerns that keep the show from airing extra episodes, summer seasons, or anything else that might mitigate a long absence. A between-season break lasting less than four months is even more rare than one that stretches past six. Yet the show is also defined, in many viewers’ minds, as being yoked to current events; think of all the normie summer-season laments that SNL isn’t around to cover this or that political kerfuffle. So it is worth examining what happens in those more substantial empty spaces.

    The show’s first big hiatus, about a week shy of six months, arrived in between the fifth and sixth seasons. It was a logical time, given that the remaining members of the classic original cast left after Season 5, along with producer Lorne Michaels. Though the show has created the impression of an institution sometimes subject to a total housecleaning, a full cast changeover with no returnees has actually only happened twice: When Michaels left the show in 1980, and when he came back in 1985. It made sense that it would take some time to rethink what SNL would look like without Michaels, Gilda Radner, Jane Curtin, or Bill Murray, among others, and what NBC cooked up after nearly six months off the air was a notorious disaster, shepherded by new producer Jean Doumanian.

    It didn’t seem that way at first, though. SNL’s first sketch of Season 6 after its long hiatus featured frequent host Elliott Gould — an appropriate choice, given that he hosted multiple Season 1 episodes — waking up in a bed with multiple new cast members, paying homage to his 1969 film Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. Not a terrifically timely reference in the fall of 1980, but the rest of the opening proceeded with a self-referentiality viewers likely found (and would still find) comfortingly familiar: Gould described Gail Matthius, with a kind of knowing charity, as a “cross between Gilda and Jane,” while Charles Rocket introduced himself as “kind of a cross between Chevy Chase and Bill Murray.” Joe Piscopo asked wide-eyed questions about the original cast, who Gould characterized as a bunch of aggressive drug fiends (along with various other NBC TV personalities unrelated to the show).

    Later in the season, even with future superstar Eddie Murphy added to the mix, the cast was still self-consciously operating in the shadow of the “old show.” The season’s penultimate episode opened with host Bill Murray consoling the cast about their bad press, with Murphy on hand to complain that they keep getting compared to the old cast. Having to trot out more jokes about impossible comparisons (and another fairly pedestrian movie reference, as Murray led them in a Meatballs-y chant of “it just doesn’t matter!”) in front of another friend of the old show elicits some pity, though watching the actual episodes might reduce that empathy, however slightly.

    As uncomfortable as it can be to revisit one of the least-loved seasons of the show’s history, it’s also eerie how much the bad SNL of 1980 resembles bad SNL throughout the ages, like an early, clumsy sketch attempting to rekindle presidential satire via Jimmy Carter (Piscopo) ruminating over his recent electoral loss, or a passel of lifeless talk show parodies. (Would you believe the hosts frequently flummox the guests by refusing to stay on topic?!) It wasn’t that the show’s format had changed, or even that the show insisted on repeating itself, so much that it was suddenly breaking an implicit promise: that there would be, over time, a certain number of hilarious sketches to balance out the mediocre ones.

    Season 6 turned out to be bookended by epic breaks, as a strike put the season out of its misery just as Dick Ebersol took over as a producer in the spring. After another six months off the air, SNL returned for Season 7 with only two previous cast members in tow: Piscopo and Murphy, who would go on to anchor some otherwise-rocky seasons sans Michaels. Murphy, it turned out, could fulfill the aforementioned promise more or less on his own; the show could skate as long as Eddie was there to provide the requisite number of big laughs.

    The show became funnier, but also, at times, a little ruthless in its desire to hit those marks. In many episodes, the cold open was replaced by a single one-off joke before throwing straight into the introductory credits, and many of the non-marquee sketches were surprisingly short, barely lasting long enough to justify a set change. These were early signals of how the Ebersol era de-prioritized the “live” part of the show; later, Murphy would finish out his final season almost exclusively via pre-tape segments, which Ebersol thought might be key to the show’s survival.

    The next big gap was strike-adjacent, though not actually caused by labor negotiations. During a one-off Season 10 packed with more established ringers like Billy Crystal, Martin Short, and Christopher Guest, the show was off for an extended mid-season break as a two-week strike was resolved, then came back on the air for a few more weeks before an early finale in April 1985. Michaels returned to the show for Season 11, which didn’t premiere until November 1985, as he requested some more time to rebuild. Like his predecessor, Michaels hired some more established talent, including Joan Cusack, Anthony Michael Hall, Randy Quaid, and Robert Downey Jr. (Downey and Cusack weren’t really household names at the time, but Hall and Quaid had substantial roles in hit movies — and, weirdly, all four actors had appeared in overlapping films).

    Despite the now-starry cast, the season that followed this big break was so ignominious that large chunks of it barely exist online. Look up the Season 11 premiere on Peacock, for example, and you’re treated to opening credits which then skip straight to Dennis Miller’s first Weekend Update, followed by a Penn & Teller magic segment and a one-woman sketch from the late Danitra Vance — no former John Hughes geek or future Iron Man to be found. The season as a whole (from which Jon Lovitz, Dennis Miller, and Nora Dunn emerged to stay for the rest of the ’80s) was an object lesson in how little difference there can be between a few weeks off to recharge and half a year off to retool. Despite a few experimental flourishes, most of what changed was the cast. After all, it’s not as if the sketches are stockpiled in advance.

    The show was in a better spot when another writers’ strike occasioned its longest-ever break, between Seasons 13 and 14; the survivors of Season 11 had been joined by Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman, and Jan Hooks, among others, with Mike Myers soon to follow. Because of the strike, the show was off the air for the majority of 1988, and jumped back into the fray that October just in time for a lengthy (and much-quoted in future compilations) Bush-Dukakis debate sketch. Today, the idea of SNL missing most of the presidential election season is nearly unthinkable – but at the time, it probably didn’t scan as especially odd, as the previous two election cycles passed without especially attentive SNL coverage.

    In fact, by returning in ’88 with so much fanfare, kicking Carvey’s George Bush impression into greater visibility, the show was unwittingly setting a new template for the next several decades. After 1988, even presidential elections that didn’t seem to particularly interest the writers or performers were nonetheless met with a minimum of multiple elaborate debate sketches, and typically much more.

    Oddly, there are echoes of Carvey-style cartoon impressions in Mikey Day’s first Joe Biden sketch, and not just because vocally, Day’s rasp sounded a little like Carvey’s doddering version of Mickey Rooney (“I was the number one star… in the world!”). The sketch mostly features Day addressing the camera in the style of an old Carvey-as-Bush opener, focusing more on vocal quirks than genuinely cutting satire. It’s probably not intentional; it’s also not surprising that eventually the show would circle back to Carvey’s outsized style. The sheer volume of SNL history may be why it’s hard to detect many major revelations in the first few episodes of Season 49. The cast has barely changed, with no one leaving and one new addition. Trendlines, like the daunting number of sketches featuring either the veteran Day or the super-veteran Kenan Thompson, can probably be attributed to the vagaries of a big cast.

    Despite some incremental shifts that may reveal themselves over time, this could be the least-changed SNL that has ever returned from a half-year break. The show doesn’t even boast new Weekend Update anchors, despite Colin Jost and Michael Che now serving longer than anyone else in those chairs, closing in on a full decade. There were rumors a few years ago that Michaels had hoped to lure most of his then-current cast (which included long-haul players like Kate McKinnon, Cecily Strong, and Aidy Bryant) to stick around through Season 50.

    The current version of SNL often feels like it’s half-sticking to that plan even after it failed: The last crop of stars have definitively left, but another half-dozen stars are on at least their fifth season, and the crowdedness of the cast ensures that no one will feel like they’ve completely gotten their due in that time. It seems entirely possible, for example, that Day is taking the Biden role in preparation for a Trump/Biden rematch in Season 50 — which will be Day’s ninth on the show. The last time SNL had a six-month interruption, no one in the cast had ever served for nine seasons.

    The idea that SNL can serve as a job unto itself, rather than a stepping stone into movie stardom, is more than a decade old at this point, and it’s only natural that this would in turn cause the show to change more gradually than suddenly. The fixed format is part of the assignment: Make something within this framework on a weekly basis. Yet seeing the show inch along even with its biggest break in decades does illustrate how sometimes, SNL feels like it’s resisting its own natural evolution. This could be a byproduct of COVID, which made the show the bad kind of unpredictable for a number of months; only the technicality of the innovative SNL At Home episodes prevented the pandemic from creating another half-year gap, and several cast members have spoken of staying on longer than they planned in search of one more normal season following the traumatic, unsatisfying end to Season 45. It’s an understandable impulse and an impossible task.

    Whatever version of Season 50 that comes to pass may not be what Lorne Michaels had in mind, even if a bunch of cast members stick around for it — any more than Season 49 will be Season 48, Part II. SNL is in a paradoxical state of constant change and rigorous stasis; it is constantly changing without changing too much. In the last few years, the show has sometimes felt as if it’s in denial about the first part.

    Jesse Hassenger is another writer/editor/critic in Brooklyn.