Strap In For ‘SNL’ Rebuilding Year

In last night’s season opener of Saturday Night Live, the running joke was that we will all have to suffer through a rebuilding year after the exit of stalwart cast members. Host Tina Fey said as much in her upfront monologue, and then trotted out the six newcomers for freshman hazing in the form of a humiliating song and dance number. Later, there was a game show skit in which Kenan Thompson challenged contestant Tina Fey to guess whether the person trotted out was new cast or a member of the band Arcade Fire. The payoff: Lorne Michaels, who picked the new cast, appearing as a lifeline, and guessing “the black guy?” Thompson, the only black guy on the stage and one of the most tenured SNL cast members, was aghast.

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I have been a fan of SNL since the very first broadcast, and have never been one who routinely says, “this show sucks.” I have watched from the very first episode, and one of the best parts of being a fan is watching the new faces during the musical intro, and then see some performers crash, burn and disappear, while others gradually turn into Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Martin Short, Adam Sandler, Eddie Murphy, Jimmy Fallon, Chris Farley, Will Ferrell, Mike Myers, Kristen Wiig and most recently Bill Hader, Andy Samberg, Fred Armisen, Jason Sudeikis, and Will Forte.

My problem with last night’s episode is that the writers focused on the new cast but didn’t give them any opportunity to ingratiate themselves. It was all ridicule. Nobody got a chance to show how they will help fill a glaring void. The show hasn’t recovered from the exits of Wiig and Samberg, and now has to make do without Hader, Armisen and Sudeikis. Hader in particular had an MVP breakout season before he left in May. The only newcomer given a chance appeared on Weekend Update as an unfunny stand-up comedian (I don’t know which of the six he was), and it was the wrong time for a skit that set out to be deliberately unfunny. The newcomers should have been given a chance to show what they can do. Hopefully the writers will make up for that quickly, because the show needs it bad.

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Cecily Strong, who shared Weekend Update duties with vet Seth Meyers and takes over when he leaves to replace Jimmy Fallon, seemed green and intimidated. Then again, so did Meyers when he first took the anchor desk alongside Amy Poehler and seemed a step down compared to predecessors like Fey and Fallon. He has grown to be one of the best fake news anchors the show has ever had. Thompson, Taran Killam and Bobby Moynihan seem most likely to emerge among the returning cast members, but let’s hope they get some new characters to go with the ones they’ve beaten into the ground. Can’t say I love Jay Pharoah’s Barack Obama because it feels more like an impression than a comic rendering (as opposed to, say, Armisen’s David Patterson or Ferrell’s George W). But then again, I’ve always found the political satire openers to be more obligatory than compelling. Last night’s strategical misfire – dwelling on the fact the cast is in disarray but giving the newcomers nothing to do – made it impossible to gauge which of the six will be the next stars launched by SNL. A commercial for a sequel to Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs gave a sense of the riches awaiting those who succeed, as Hader, Forte and Samberg all voice roles and those guys are making headway with movies and TV.

So who’ll be the next Farley, Sandler, Ferrell or Fey among newcomers Beck Bennett, John Mulhiser, Kyle Mooney, Mike O’Brien, Noel Wells, and Brooks Wheelan? As is the case with every cast that succeeded the original gang, I’ll tune in no matter how painful the growing pains. I remember fondly when newcomer Bill Murray first got on the air and asked viewers to laugh at everything he said, because he was determined to make it and this would ease the pressure. It didn’t take him long and to me, watching these comic stars emerge before my eyes is one of the most satisfying elements in my slavish devotion to this show.

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