SNL cast gets sketchier at awk­ward time for NBC

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ENTERTAINMENT - By Meredith Blake

OVER al­most four decades, Satur­day Night Live has dis­played a Madonna-like gift for rein­ven­tion, de­fy­ing crit­ics who, ev­ery five years or so, ques­tion the show’s rel­e­vance in a rapidly chang­ing cul­ture. The likes of Chevy Chase, Will Fer­rell and Amy Poehler have come and gone, but SNL has en­dured.

This year, SNL faces one of the most sig­nif­i­cant tal­ent ex­o­duses in its his­tory — peren­nial stars Kris­ten Wiig and Andy Sam­berg are mov­ing on, Ja­son Sudeikis is likely to fol­low, and af­ter 11 years head writer and Week­end Up­date an­chor Seth Mey­ers ap­pears ready for an­other chal­lenge — though he’s deny­ing ru­mors he’s re­plac­ing Regis Philbin at Live! With Kelly.

Col­lec­tively, these ex­its could be the great­est chal­lenge the com­edy in­sti­tu­tion has tack­led since the high­pro­file de­par­tures of Phil Hart­man, Adam San­dler and Mike My­ers in the mid-1990s. Grow­ing pains are cer­tainly noth­ing new for SNL or its cre­ator, Lorne Michaels, but this lat­est chang­ing of the guard comes at a par­tic­u­larly awk­ward time: NBC, which has lan­guished near the bot­tom of the net­work rat­ings since 2004, has more than enough prob­lems with­out wor­ry­ing about the sta­tus of SNL.

“SNL has to per­form at a cer­tain level,” says Brian Stein­berg, tele­vi­sion ed­i­tor at Ad­ver­tis­ing Age. “NBC can’t af­ford to have any cracks in the pil­lar.”

Both Michaels and NBC En­ter­tain­ment Chair­man Robert Green­blatt de­clined to com­ment.

Ac­cord­ing to NBC spokesman Tom Bier­baum, the show has con­tin­ued to hold its own. SNL rat­ings have held steady at an av­er­age of 7 mil­lion view­ers since 2004, ex­cept dur­ing the ab­bre­vi­ated 2007-08 sea­son. This year, the show av­er­aged about 7.1 mil­lion view­ers, down just a hair from 7.2 mil­lion last sea­son. To put these num­bers in per­spec­tive, that’s as many as watch The Big­gest Loser, and dou­ble the usual au­di­ence for The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.

Not bad for a show that’s about to turn 37.

SNL also per­forms well among the cov­eted 18-49 de­mo­graphic — es­pe­cially when com­pared to the ge­ri­atric hin­ter­land that is Satur­day night tele­vi­sion — and in par­tic­u­lar young males. This is a draw for deep-pock­eted ad­ver­tis­ers, like beer com­pa­nies and film stu­dios, Stein­berg says.

Still, with a large ensem­ble cast, an even big­ger crew, and wardrobe and cos­tume ex­pen­di­tures that would make J.Lo blanch, SNL is by no means a low-bud­get pro­duc­tion. Ac­cord­ing to a source close to the show, it costs NBC about $3 mil­lion to make a sin­gle episode, a bud­get com­pa­ra­ble to that of an hour­long net­work drama.

Though it’s highly un­likely SNL would lower the boom on the show while Michaels is still in­volved, bud­get cuts are not un­prece­dented. In 2006, Michaels axed five cast mem­bers un­der pres­sure from the net­work to cut costs.

What­ever the in­vest­ment, it’s worth it, ac­cord­ing to TV an­a­lyst Shari Anne Brill: “There are peo­ple who came into SNL who don’t watch any­thing else on NBC. They need to re­mind peo­ple that they have shows on the rest of the week be­tween 8 and 11.”

James An­drew Miller, co-au­thor of Live From New York: An Un­cen­sored His­tory of Satur­day Night Live, ac­knowl­edges the show is at a cross­roads. In par­tic­u­lar, he calls Wiig’s farewell “one of the most emo­tional de­par­tures in the his­tory of the show.” He cites her abil­ity to por­tray a wide range of char­ac­ters — not just the wacky ones, like Tar­get Lady.

“There are dozens of per­form­ers who were great. They couldn’t pick up the show and carry it on their back the way she did,” Miller says. “Her de­par­ture is not to be taken lightly.”

But oth­ers see a sil­ver lin­ing in the cast changes. “There was some fa­tigue with Kris­ten Wiig’s char­ac­ters,” ar­gues Adam Frucci, ed­i­tor of the com­edy web­site Splitsider. “The same peo­ple who are say­ing the show can’t sur­vive with­out her were com­plain­ing about the Tar­get Lady hav­ing her 15th sketch.”

Ryan McGee, a critic who writes about SNL for Hit­Fix.com, agrees. “There’s a re­ally good chance for the show to blos­som if they can give more screen time to other women, like Vanessa Bayer and Nasim Pe­drad,” two tal­ented but un­der­uti­lized per­form­ers.

Like­wise, Sudeikis’ ab­sence could mean more air time for Taran Kil­lam, who’s widely viewed as the show’s next break­out star. In the past, big cast de­par­tures have cleared the way for new tal­ents to emerge — think of Will Fer­rell, who joined the show at a low point in 1995.

The show’s two-tiered cast also works as a kind of ex­tended au­di­tion: Most new cast mem­bers start out as fea­tured play­ers and are up­graded to reper­tory sta­tus once they’ve proved them­selves. It doesn’t al­ways work out, of course, but the bot­tom rung of the SNL cast has proved to be a cre­ative stag­ing area for ma­jor stars, in­clud­ing Jimmy Fal­lon, Eddie Mur­phy and Poehler, as well as Wiig, Sudeikis and Sam­berg.

“This is what Lorne does: He re­places peo­ple, he de­vel­ops tal­ent. It speaks more to his ge­nius than just hav­ing the same cast come back year af­ter year,” Miller says. “There’s a part of him that likes prov­ing peo­ple wrong. How many times have we heard ‘Dead from New York’? It’s the stu­pid­est joke in tele­vi­sion. There could be a nu­clear war, the cock­roaches would be walk­ing around and SNL would still be on the air.”

Miller also claims the show’s rat­ings from week to week have more to do with the mu­si­cal guest and host than with the qual­ity of the in­di­vid­ual sketches. The ev­i­dence bears out his the­sis: This sea­son’s sec­ond most­watched episode, hosted by em­bat­tled star­let Lind­say Lo­han, was also one of its most poorly re­ceived.

These days, SNL also has to grap­ple with un­prece­dented com­pe­ti­tion. In the past, SNL has eas­ily beaten the few shows fool­ish enough to go head to head in the same time slot, like MADtv and The Howard Stern Ra­dio Show.

But The Daily Show and The Col­bert Re­port have stolen some of their thun­der when it comes to po­lit­i­cal satire. Mean­while, young Web na­tives turn to sites like Funny or Die and Col­lege Hu­mor any­time they’re crav­ing laughs, rather than park­ing in front of the TV on Satur­day night.

Af­ter a rocky start, SNL has ad­justed ad­mirably to the dig­i­tal era. In late 2005, Lazy Sun­day, a mi­crobud­get video in which Sam­berg and costar Chris Par­nell rap ag­gres­sively about their ba­nal week­end plans, be­came an un­ex­pected vi­ral sen­sa­tion. The techno­phobes at NBC yanked the boot­leg copies that had been posted to YouTube, but even­tu­ally they re­al­ized the value of mak­ing con­tent avail­able on­line. Now SNL is a show that’s shared via email and Face­book by mil­lions of peo­ple who haven’t stayed up late to watch it in years — or don’t even own a tele­vi­sion.

Yet even with the rise of dig­i­tal me­dia, the power of net­work air­waves should not be un­der­es­ti­mated. Stein­berg puts it bluntly: “SNL has a broad­cast mega­phone that Funny or Die does not have. To have an au­di­ence of sev­eral mil­lion peo­ple is a big gen­er­a­tor of buzz in a way that vi­ral still isn’t.”

The show also con­tin­ues to carry a cer­tain ca­chet, both inside and out­side the com­edy world: It means some­thing to be a part of it. “SNL is still be­ing courted, it’s still a big deal for the can­di­dates to go on, and it’s still a big blip on the cul­tural radar,” Miller says.

In a way, the tran­si­tional year ahead is but a symp­tom of the show’s con­tin­ued suc­cess. SNL is a bit like an ouroboros that swal­lows its own tail — or put an­other way, it turns stand-ups into movie stars.

DANA EDELSON/NBC

SNL cast, from left, Bobby Moyni­han, Taran Kil­lam, Paul Brittain, Abby El­liott, Andy Sam­berg, Vanessa Bayer, Ja­son Sudeikis,

Nasim Pe­drad, Fred Ar­misen, Bill Hader, Ke­nan Thomp­son, Kris­ten Wiig, Jay Pharoah. In­set, Lorne Michaels.

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