“Saturday Night Live” may not be having a horrible start to 2016, but it is certainly having a desperate one. Last year, the popular opinion was to hate on “SNL” and point out that it wasn’t funny anymore. Blame it on bad writing or poor casting, but “SNL” did not make us laugh in 2015. With Saturday’s show starring host Larry David, critics applauded a great comeback on the part of the infamous Lorne Michaels. With a predictable Bernie Sanders cameo, an awkward “Zoolander 2” promotion and a host of skits that just were not trying, it begs a new question — what are the standards for “SNL” today?
David hosted Saturday with the usual king of anti-charisma he is famous for. During his monologue that followed an unsurprising Taram Killam Ted Cruz impression, David kept things consistently sarcastic. He opened with a shrug and, “Anyway, this hosting, come on. It’s so stupid,” and ended with a shrug and, “I would say we have a great show for you tonight, but I can’t say that.” Call this Larry David just doing himself, or you can link this heralded performance to a similarly heralded and unenthusiastic one by Louis C.K.
C.K. hosted “SNL” in May 2015, and his monologue was applauded for its controversial humor that is oh-so Louis. In seven minutes, he touched on the topics of child molestation, mild racism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Those seem like heavy opening subjects for an “SNL” monologue, but many critics celebrated how C.K. stuck to his roots with his dark stand-up and seemed detached from the whole “SNL” event.
C.K. and David’s performances catapulted the two into the legendary section of “SNL” hosts, even with the show clearly experiencing times of trouble. It might seem awkward to openly criticize an already-criticized show, but there is something else at play. Obviously, with Michaels’ strict reputation and the sheer amount of planning that it takes for this live show, their monologues were not unexpected. This pattern of purposefully making fun of “SNL” shows a new kind of desperation from Michaels.
Instead of being the once-powerful political, social and cultural critic, “SNL” has turned to self-deprecating humor. Although this is the cornerstone of many comedians, it does not work when your supposedly powerful comedy show starts to make fun of itself. Even worse, “SNL” asks these sarcastic, famously self-deprecating comedians to come to the show and make fun of it for them. This tactic shows a general downward, or at least changing, trend in the standards for “SNL.” The trend follows a particular line of awkward stints that do make headlines but do not seem to get laughs for “SNL.”
Donald Trump graced the “SNL” stage in November 2015. The night was both an obvious promotion on the part of Trump and “SNL,” but more importantly, a bad idea. So continues these decisions that are simply attempts to get views on YouTube. During David’s night, a duet starring Killam as Peyton Manning and Kenan Thompson as Cam Newton went out of its way to do this. It tried to put a police brutality message into an unfunny skit. The fact that this skit was a day before the 2016 Super Bowl made it feel all the more forced and attention-seeking. The worst part about it was when Killam’s character made an awkward joke about the creepiness of Papa John’s. That joke could have been copied and pasted from Twitter. If you want to see more of what “SNL” wanted out of its night with Larry David, see David’s blooper reel that leaked days after the show. As the video drags, David’s laughter seems to start mocking the lines rather than appreciating them.
When you add these tactless skits to the constant put-downs by critics, unenthused hosts, shameless promotions, increased political appearances, uninspired cast (retire, Kenan Thompson) and the most desperate move of 2015 — “SNL 40” — you do not get a pretty picture. If “SNL” ever wants to dig itself out of this hole, it had better start taking itself seriously first.