I was eleven years old the first time I watched an entire episode of Saturday Night Live. Hunkered down in the basement of my newly-separated Dad’s condo with my younger brother, popcorn and a can of forbidden-at-home Coke, I sat transfixed as the next ninety minutes flew by on their old, rabbit-eared television. I couldn’t tell you the details of the particular episode, but it was the season we were introduced to Chris Farley, it was party time at Wayne’s World, and Stuart Smalley became my very first therapist.
In the weeks and months and years to come, Saturday Night Live became a comedic haven during those weekend visits to my dad’s place. His home was a strange new world, occupied by three men all dealing with divorce, addiction, a difficult medical diagnosis or some combination of the three. While my dad planned fun outings and family time on those weekends together, the condo was still the physical manifestation, the living proof, that my family and my life had irrevocably changed. At no point was I more acutely aware of this than in those nighttime hours, tucked into a sleeping bag on the floor of the finished basement waiting for sleep to come, and it was in those hours that my life-long love of Saturday Night Live was born.
I came to learn later that we’re about the same age, SNL and myself. Saturday Night Live arrived on the scene in 1975 and I showed up a few years later. I also discovered that SNL was a comedic lifeline for my parents in the early years of their marriage. Living in a new city away from family, they’d craft paper bag versions of Land Shark and knock on their neighbors’ doors (and predictably, those neighbors became friends, because who wouldn’t befriend the neighbors with homemade Land Shark masks?) My own children still find a knock on our door followed by the words “candy gram” to be one of the funniest things they’ve ever heard, and though they’ve yet to see the whole show live, they are thoroughly entertained by the likes of King Tut or Mr. Bill.
This weekend, Saturday Night Live will celebrate 40 years on the air and throughout that 40 years, SNL has inspired a never-ending debate about which cast was the best or which years were its glory years. My own introduction to the show was during one the most oft-defended eras so you might be expecting me to declare the early 90’s as the height of SNL glory. Or perhaps the fact that I’m a woman in her mid-thirties who quotes Tina Fey and Amy Poehler on a near daily basis makes it seem I’d predictably declare the years when women writers hit the scene and females dominated the cast as the best of the best. Or maybe you think I’ll throw my hat in the ring of early years, in a hipster-like attempt at nostalgia for an era I never experienced.
There will be no such declaration. This is an argument I refuse to attend. In fact, I think the idea of “The Best Years of SNL” is a myth based on selective memory and a little bit of generational egoism and I’m ready to dispel it once and for all.
Thanks to the wonders of Netflix and HuluPlus, I’ve watched nearly every episode of Saturday Night Live that was ever produced, including the ones that were on the air when I was still in diapers, and here is the truth: At some point, every episode is marked with brilliance and every episode falls flat on its face. You don’t believe me? Just go back and watch an episode or two from your favorite season of Saturday Night Live. Watch it all the way to the end, past both musical performances. You might be surprised to find that your memory of your favorite season is a highlights reel, but the single episode you chose is much like the episodes of any season, at times hilarious and at times, well, not. I’ve found this to be true season after season, and that truth makes me love the show that much more.
Maybe your defense of a favorite season resides more in the content of the material and the world it was reflecting at that time. I get that. I honestly do. But one of the strengths of SNL is its ability to adapt to a changing world and to satirize those changes in a way that speaks to each new generation. In other words, the moment you can’t find the humor in at least one skit SNL has to offer in its current season is probably the moment you can consider yourself a geezer. It might be time to pull out the rocking chair and start telling stories about walking to school uphill both ways. In the snow. “And that’s the way it was and we liked it. We LOVED it.”
The writers and cast and crew of this show are charged with an extraordinary task — to bring fresh material to life on a weekly basis. That material has to be timely as well as funny, and must be written, rehearsed, costumed and designed in a few short days. Throw in a host who may or may not be able to hold his or her own amongst the comedic chops of the regular cast (they can’t all be Justin Timberlake), sprinkle in some sleep deprivation and add a side of network influence and FCC regulations and the results will always be varied. I read an interview with Lorne Michaels just last week where he stated, “I used to say that on my tombstone would be the word ‘uneven’ because [the show has] never been described any other way in a review. It’s only cumulatively that you sort of go, ‘Oh yeah, that.’ You can’t be perfect for 90 minutes.”
You can’t be perfect for 90 minutes, but you can deliver a bit of perfection in the mix. And that bit of perfection, that’s the gift of Saturday Night Live. It reminds us that we can laugh at the absurd. We can find humor in even the most frustrating situations. It reminds us that in order to succeed, we sometimes have to fail, publicly. It demonstrates how vulnerability yields connection, and taking risks can pay off. It reminds us that when all else fails, we can laugh, especially at ourselves.
So this weekend, I’ll be watching SNL’s anniversary special and raising a glass to the show that taught an eleven year old girl that laughter is the best medicine. Or, in the words of Jack Handey, “Dad always thought laughter was the best medicine, which I guess was why several of us died of tuberculosis.”