Live From New York, Times Are Changing!


SNL Cast Members/Courtesy of Mary Ellen Matthews via NBC on Vanity Fair

Saturday Night Live entered its 46th season this fall, a once-radical show that has by now become a venerable American institution. Perhaps most significantly, SNL is now the best career opportunity that can be offered to an up-and-coming comedian. It’s the Harvard of sketch comedy. Countless actors from Eddie Murphy to Adam Sandler to Tina Fey to Will Ferrell have made their start performing on SNL, and their careers have gone into the stratosphere after being on the show. While not all cast members were as successful as Murphy and Ferrell, SNL retains tremendous power in finding and making comedy talent.

But slowly, SNL has become less important as a place for new comedians to make their name. The Internet means that anyone trying to have their big break can just post their content on the Internet, as in the case of Trump lip-syncher Sarah Cooper (@sarahcpr) or impersonator James Austin Johnson (@shrimpjaj). Meanwhile, comedians who come out of SNL these days don’t have the same success as their predecessors, who often featured or starred in hit films grossing hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office. Now, they’d be lucky to have a sitcom or even a game show deal, in the case of SNL alum Leslie Jones. 

These trends can be illustrated best with the example of recent SNL alum Andy Samberg, who I believe to be an incredibly funny comedian but whose efforts have not led to a Will Ferrell level of success. Samberg’s 2016 movie Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, while praised by critics, only grossed $9 million dollars at the box office and failed to meet its budget of $20 million. Meanwhile, Ferrell’s 2003 smash hit Elf grossed $220 million dollars on a budget of $33 million. The same can be said for many of Samberg’s fellow recent alums. 

Even while SNL is losing its power as a way for new comedians to make their name, it retains tremendous power as a cultural institution. The show dominates Twitter and other social media platforms even when the response to the episode is negative. Many people believe that SNL has an impact on politics. Did Tina Fey derail Sarah Palin’s political career? Did hosting SNL boost Donald Trump’s? And what about the current political sketches and their impact on the election?

But this year, SNL seems to be struggling. Alec Baldwin is clearly exhausted from playing the president for four years, and Jim Carrey is universally despised by the Internet, leading to calls for Carrey to be replaced by the previous impersonator Jason Sudeikis. This constant use of celebrities in the opening political sketch leads to the obvious question of whether SNL has faith in its own cast. On the October 24th episode, the cold open featured only one cast member, and only briefly. All the other actors in the sketch were guests.

Another sign of weakness is the lack of recurring characters. Since the show began, SNL has been known for repeating characters that work, some of whom even appearing in their own movies. This season has produced essentially none. So far, there’s only been Pete Davidson’s Chad, John Mulaney’s memed uncle, and several Weekend Update characters. 

However, there is hope for SNL. The cast is the largest it’s ever been, and diversity is at an all time high, though only six out of twenty of the players are non-white. And of the top five cast members with the most appearances, three are people of color, number one being  Kenan Thompson. This is a good sign that  SNL can be a place where people of diverse backgrounds and ethnicities can thrive. It also demonstrates that SNL represents America in a highly racially polarized landscape.

Like a sports team in rebuilding mode, it seems like SNL is trying to find and develop stars for the future. Of the five cast members with the most appearances, three of them came in the last three years. Who knows, one of them may be the next Eddie Murphy or Tina Fey. 

Here are some of the best sketches featuring some of SNL’s up-and-coming talent: