Chronicling 'Saturday Night'
By David Bauder
Right now, the show is on a high. After a descent into bathroom humor during the mid-1990s, the comedy is now sharp and topical. The "Saturday Night Live" writing staff, together for about seven years, has returned with a new Emmy Award in hand.
But the loss of two performers Ana Gasteyer and Will Ferrell may herald a challenging year. Ferrell, in particular, was a valuable utility player, in the mold of Dan Aykroyd or Phil Hartman.
"Is it a transition year from several good years into one of its lulls?" asked Tom Shales, a television critic and co-author, with James Andrew Miller, of an oral history of the show, "Live From New York."
He's anxious for the answer, and so is Lorne Michaels, the show's founder and executive producer.
"I think it's a big loss," Michaels said. "But the nice part of the show is, having lived through these transitions a lot of times, from the audience's perspective, people are patient with it."
The NBC comedy institution is notably elastic in quality. You can chart its health on a graph like the stock market, from glory years to gory years and all sorts of middling seasons in between.
Even during the down years, there are still a handful of good shows, Michaels said.
"When a cast is at its peak and the writing staff is solid, you get an evenness," Michaels said. "It never goes below a certain level. You never worry that when people are up there, they're going to sort of forget why they're funny."
During the years that "Saturday Night Live" is bad think early '90s or mid-'80s viewers seem to take it personally, Shales said.
"It's like the official satirical television show of the United States," he said. "Therefore, we demand that it be consistently hilarious and clever all the time. That's a lot to ask for. They sure work hard to do it, and don't always succeed."
Shales' and Miller's book is both breezy and illuminating, particularly about the show's formative years.
Written with Michaels' blessing, it combines tabloid fodder backstage escapades and Laraine Newman's stories about how she sniffed heroin while Gilda Radner (who suffered from bulimia) downed ice cream with insights into the program's creative chemistry.
"SNL" was controlled first by baby boomers and has changed with each succeeding generation, Shales said. "The form wasn't completely new but the content was the attitude, the youthfulness, the point of view," he said. "It put TV into the hands of a generation that had grown up with it. It's a pretty trite thing, but it's true. It hadn't been done before."
As an illustrative moment, Michaels looks back on a classic December 2000 skit with Ferrell and Darrell Hammond portraying an "Odd Couple" co-presidency between George W. Bush and Al Gore.
The previous spring, Michaels cut two skits with Hammond's Gore impersonation because they fell flat with the audience during dress rehearsal.
Now, particularly after Sept. 11, the audience seems more interested in topical humor, he said.
Jimmy Fallon and Tina Fey, the two "Weekend Update" anchors, are the show's poster children, probably more so now that Ferrell is gone.
"It has its own audience," Michaels said. "People stay with the first half-hour knowing that 'Update' is coming. I think now with many people, the earliest time they go to sleep is after 'Update,' and that's a tribute to Jimmy and Tina."
Fallon "could walk away from the show right now and make two stupid teenage movies a year," Shales said. "He's aiming higher than that, which I think is good. He also knows that he needs at least another year there to hone his craft."
New cast members will likely replace Ferrell and Gasteyer. Entertainment Weekly has reported that Fred Armisen, an indie-rock drummer and video prankster who was a correspondent for HBO's "Reverb" program, is the newest addition.
And Michaels continues to dominate the show he created, where he's remained except for a 1980s hiatus.
"I can't picture it going on without him and yet the 'Tonight' show is still on the air, and I couldn't picture it without Johnny Carson," Shales said. "He's got a certain talent for doing the show, to keep people from killing each other and balancing out all those egos. He doesn't even spend much time there anymore. He seems to have such a presence that even if he isn't in the office, people think that he is."
Michaels indicates that's a question NBC doesn't have to worry about yet. "I have very young children," he said, "so I expect that I'll be working for a while."
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