NBC began its celebration of Saturday Night Live’s 40th season last night with a primetime rebroadcast of 1975’s Show No. 7 — an episode that stuck a needle in the rump of America, as SNL did weekly back in those days — when Chevy Chase hurled increasingly offensive racial slurs at janitorial job applicant Richard Pryor, calling it a word-association test.
Half an hour later, SNL aired the first episode of the 40th season with guest host Chris Pratt singing a song he wrote about hosting SNL and reminding viewers his Guardians Of The Galaxy blockbuster is in theaters near them.
The NFL got spanked in a blistering sketch in which Baltimore Ravens and the Carolina Panthers players shouted out their names and any criminal offenses before the start of their game. Marvel’s movie-making machine took some ribbing; Ariana Grande and her kitten ears performed songs by way of promoting her album My Everything. And Michael Che made his debut as the show’s very first black Weekend Update co-anchor.
Related: ‘SNL’ Blitzes NFL – Again (Video)
SNL is still held by its fans as a cultural treasure, a great pageant of talent, and the “fueling station” of Hollywood. The number of successful graduates of the late-night franchise is “a testament to the system they have for auditioning people and putting them on the show,” says Tom Shales, the Pulitzer Prize-winning former Washington Post TV critic and co-author, with James Miller, of Live From New York: The Complete, Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live As Told By Its Stars, Writers And Guests. An extensive update of the 2002 best-seller has just been released.
SNL, 40 seasons in, remains the most-watched show in the late-night landscape, and the most-watched program on Saturday nights, beating its primetime competitors despite the lower HUT levels at that hour. It also may be the only 40-year-old TV show for which The Reporters Who Cover Television dare to claim a deep and abiding love, even though it has been around so long it is now older than its target demo. That’s because creator Lorne Michaels not only has a knack for finding talent, he has the knack for clearing the way for them to leave.
“Ninety percent of the people working here now weren’t alive during the first five years,” Michaels boasts in the book update.
Last year’s cast changes came back to bite the show — and Michaels — when two male black cast members noted the absence of black women in the lineup, and the press latched on to the story.
Kenan Thompson raised the simmer to a boil when he spoke about the difficulty of finding black women who are “ready” for the show. But Michaels & Co. got props for coming right back with a self-mocking Kerry Washington-hosted episode, in which the Scandal star was run ragged playing a slew of black female characters, including the First Lady. SNL followed that by holding a rare in-season audition and hiring Sasheer Zamata.
After last season’s cast-diversity dust-up, this season the show is promoting its legacy. Alum Darrell Hammond has replaced the late Don Pardo as the voice of SNL, having impersonated Pardo on the show in the past. Michaels got NBC to warm up the audience in primetime each Saturday at 10 PM this season with a ramble through the show’s four-decade history — starting with last night’s broadcast of the Pryor-hosted episode from Season 1.
This season, Pete Davidson was announced as the sole new cast member, though the returning bunch would be lighter by four. Then, Michaels surprised fans this month when he replaced Cecily Strong as Weekend Update co-anchor with Che, who’d exited the SNL writers room to spend the summer cutting his faux-TV journalist teeth as correspondent on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show. Last night, while Strong returned to regular cast member status, Che joined Colin Jost — heir to the Seth Meyers/Tina Fey Memorial Show Writer/Faux Newscaster chair.
Putting Che in the co-anchor’s seat is the season’s Big Headline — catching the program up to this century. It’s also the first time the parody newscast has featured two men — a dramatic departure from the rigid One Guy/One Woman Rule of Actual TV News co-anchordom.
Getting its anchor desk chemistry right, and the show back on track with content that’s more controversial than its cast, is a top priority for the show, and for NBC, as the country lurches toward the 2016 presidential election. White House races are to SNL what the Olympics are to NBC’s Today show.
The election of ’08 and SNL were very, very good for each other, as Miller and Shales note in their update. When Sarah Palin appeared with her SNL doppelganger Tina Fey, the program captured its biggest audience in 14 years — jumping 161% above year-ago averages. Palin’s much-ballyhooed appearance on the show snagged a bigger crowd than that week’s appearances of her running mate Sen. John McCain on David Letterman’s CBS late-night show, and her VPOTUS rival Joe Biden’s guest gig on NBC’s Tonight Show — combined.
Here’s what interviewees in the book update, along with Shales and Miller speaking with Deadline, had to say about the show now and going forward — including which possible presidential candidate may not find the SNL welcome mat out in 2016.
On Revamping Weekend Update:
Cecily Strong, on getting the Update chair in the first place: Every time I have a meeting with Lorne, I assume I’m getting fired. It’s like seeing a doctor and you assume they’re going to tell you you have AIDS, even if it’s a dentist. So I was really scared and we just chatted for a while and then he said, “I’m going to have you do Update.” I had no idea he was even thinking about it. And then he was like, “Well, I’m gong to go; I’m taking someone to dinner.”
James Miller, on replacing Strong: That’s a pretty big matzo ball…Lorne made the decision a change was needed and Cecily was a stronger cast member than Weekend Update anchor. It frees her…in a way that’s great for her, and Michael Che is very clever and we’ll see about the chemistry. Cecily probably was little better with Seth [Meyers] than Colin.
Tom Shales: “Changing one of the anchors is an admission it wasn’t working, and I know they don’t like to admit something is not working.”
On SNL’s Changing Culture:
Nasim Pedrad: I had definitely heard all of the bad stories about SNL but, you know, from another era. I knew Kristen and a couple of other people from the show and they said it had toned down a bit. And I have to say I was still really surprised when I got there as to how kind everybody was to one another.
Strong: It’s like cutting yourself or something, to read bad things [about performances on the show]. You know how it feels. For some reason they like us to be competitive. They like to make it as if it’s a competition and that is the opposite of my happy, healthy place. I like ensemble and supportive environments.
Miller: To me, one of the most exciting things is the change [over the show’s 40 years] in culture. The first book chronicled a lot of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. It was a very competitive place. The very culture of SNL has changed; it’s a more collaborative place. The cast has different sensibilities….I think the other cast members were genuinely thrilled at Kate McKinnon’s Emmy nomination; they show a lot of support for one another.
Shales: A few of them said in the new interviews they were glad they weren’t part of the original group because they could not have sustained that kind of existence – the drugs and the general excess of it. They’re not a wild and crazy group. They’re comic actors — so they’re not like you and me — but they’re not as wild, and certainly not as crazy as that first cast that’s so well remembered. They have mixed feelings about that first [cast]. They envy them – they’re practically all icons now – but they don’t envy them their lifestyles or the amount of rivalry that seemed to exist among them — punches thrown and stuff like that.
LAST SEASON’S CASTING CONTROVERSY:
Lorne Michaels: During the flap about ethnic casting, Kenan was trying to say ‘It doesn’t work if they’re not ready.’ But you can’t use that language anymore….Believe me, we were protested by Asians, by Latinos, by others. It isn’t that you’re not doing it, but we are now perceived as a national institution. But we are not taxpayer funded, you know?
Miller: It shows how much attention people pay to the show.
Shales: All that attention helped certify the importance of the show and was a rebuke to those who say it doesn’t matter any more…They did a pretty good job handling it; if they had just tried to ignore it…they would have looked arrogant and irresponsible. It’s still the mass medium and they’re still trying to appeal to the widest possible audience.
ON A REPORT THAT THOMPSON MAY LEAVE AFTER THIS SEASON:
Kenan Thompson: When you’re lucky enough to have a run on SNL, you’re not really that excited to leave it, but it is one of those inevitable things; you can’t stay forever. I’ve always had my agents and my lawyers, and we all sit down and try to go make something happen… If I can come up with an idea that suits me, and that I can use to convince other people to give me money and then go do it, that’s probably the ultimate, especially for a comedian.
ON SHE WHO MIGHT NOT BE WELCOME IN ’16:
Michaels: We were contacted by…Howard Wolfson from Hillary’s campaign [during the ’08 election] and they wanted to do the first show of the season. Obama was heating up, but they called first, so I said OK… And then, the week of, they bailed. I went, ‘Really? You called us, and we gave it to you.’ I think every now and then I get carried way and think we actually do have influence. And then, after that, we put Obama on the date, when Hillary was supposed to be on. The sense of entitlement which was following her everywhere at that point peaked for me at the bailing.
Shales: Hillary – her people were extremely rude and we never could get her to talk [for the book update]…Hillary’s people said “She’s busy. She can’t take the time. She’s directing her energies toward other things.” Her own lousy book — like anybody gave a shit about that.
(Excerpts from LIVE FROM NEW YORK Copyright © 2002 by Thomas W. Shales and Jimmy the Writer, Inc. New material copyright © 2014 by Jimmy the Writer, Inc.)