Saturday, 13 November 2010

Saturday Night Live: The Gift & The Curse - Redux


It’s retro time again here at TV or not TV as we step back in time to September 2008 and a feature I wrote for Obsessed with Film on the American institution that is Saturday Night Live.

The show has always been either very kind or very cruel to its alumni and that was the focus of this feature, looking back with hindsight was I spot on or way off on my assessment of the current SNL line-up and what their future had in store for them…?


“Live, from New York, it’s Saturday Night!”

On October 11th 1975 a TV show began that would have one of the most significant cultural impacts in the history of television; Saturday Night Live is an American comedy sketch show that airs, funnily enough, on Saturday nights and is recorded, as you may have guessed, live. SNL, as the show is commonly known, has been responsible for launching the careers of some of the most popular comedy actors of the last forty years, it’s alumni list reads like a who’s who of box office titans… and Horatio Sanz.

SNL is filmed at NBC studios at Rockefeller Centre in New York and was created by Lorne Michaels, who still executive produces the show today, about to begin it’s thirty-fourth season, SNL is now one of the longest running shows in US network history and is a firm part of American culture, continuing to be one of the, if not ‘the’, most influential show on television. Each season features a cast of young actors and comedians and each episode is traditionally fronted by a guest host and features a musical act.

When the show began in 1975, the emphasis was heavily on the ‘variety’ side of things, but slowly as the first season went on, sketch comedy began to increasingly dominate proceedings, shaping SNL into the format you see today. ‘The Not Ready For Prime Time Players’, as the first season’s cast mockingly referred to themselves, quickly established themselves as the real stars of the show.

When Chevy Chase left the show mid-way through the second season to pursue bigger and better things, he set the precedent that many of his SNL peers would also follow over the years. While Chase’s decision to attempt to ply his trade elsewhere might not have been the bed of roses he may have been expecting, many SNL alumni have gone on to achieve massive success on the big screen; Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy, Adam Sandler and Will Ferrell all owe their success to their SNL tenure.

For every Bill Murray though there’s a Chevy Chase and for every Will Ferrell there’s a Chris Kattan. For some reason, many popular SNL performers can’t make their popularity on the show translate onto the big screen, and after leaving the cast, find their careers faltering. The same seems to be true of SNL characters that make their way into feature length adventures.

While this initially seemed to be a fruitful avenue to take with the success of The Blues Brothers and Wayne’s World, these have proved to be the exceptions rather than the rule with more recent SNL film efforts failing quite spectacularly; A Night At The Roxbury, Superstar and The Ladies Man were all mauled by critics and audiences alike. It’s little wonder that we haven’t seen an SNL character make the jump to film since The Ladies Man forced it’s charmless ways upon us in 2000.

It’s inevitable that film work will be offered up to SNL’s cast members, both during the show’s seasonal hiatuses and when they finally decide to cut loose and follow the Hollywood dream. Given the fact that the cast spend months on end each year writing and performing an array of colourful characters, you’d think that SNL cast members would adapt quite well to film roles – but this isn’t the case.

Some SNL alumni have gone on to achieve great success by continuing their work on the small screen; Tina Fey has gained nothing but praise for 30 Rock, a series that has also gone some way to saving Tracy Morgan’s career, Jimmy Fallon, who has also struggled with big screen roles, I think we can all agree what a haemorrhoid the Taxi remake was, has recently landed his own late night talk show in the big talk show shake-up that’s going on at the moment in the US and several cast members have made scene-stealing guest appearances on US sitcoms.

Big screen roles however, seem cursed for the former cast members of Saturday Night Live, even for those who initially succeed, career longevity manages to elude so many of them. So what is it that seems to prevent these talented comedians and performers from making a lasting, successful career on the silver screen?

The first thing that it’s important to consider is Saturday Night Live’s air time; Saturday night. Staying in is the new going out, or so people who never go anywhere would have you believe, and while I can’t speak for America, I can categorically say that Saturday night TV in the UK is complete and utter unadulterated dog shit, but if we had something like SNL, I can safely say I would be watching regularly.

My point is that with SNL being Saturday night TV, it has become an institution; something to watch with your family or your mates while you have a few beers – something which can instantly improve your enjoyment; hell, I once watched Scary Movie drunk and laughed virtually all the way through…

This isn’t an attack on SNL’s quality, because it has delivered consistently cutting edge comedy for years, but what I’m suggesting is that when you’re glad of some decent entertainment on TV on a Saturday and you’ve had a drink or two you may find a certain actor or character a lot less annoying or more entertaining than you would if you had to fork out £6.00, or however many dollars that is; $50?, to sit and watch that same character churn out knob and fart jokes for an hour and a half at your local cinema.

This links us to the second major reason I believe many SNL stars can’t transition small screen laughs onto the big screen; running time. SNL features ninety minutes of non-stop sketches and gags from a variety of performers, if you don’t like the actor or character currently occupying your screen, then in five minutes there’ll be another one, but if you’re watching a feature length film starring one of these same actors or characters then you’re there for the long haul. Even two of the SNL alumni who I would argue have achieved the greatest career longevity; Adam Sandler and Will Ferrell, still manage to polarize audiences.

So how do you explain the plummeting careers of SNL stars past? Are the writers the real talent behind the show, with the stars taking all the glory or is Saturday Night Live actually cursed? When you consider the tragic premature deaths of three of it’s most popular performers; John Belushi, Phil Hartman and Chris Farley you can argue that it is, but the curse I refer to is the one that affects careers. Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd, two of SNL’s most famous former sons, had the world at their feet in the eighties, and while they’re by no means out of work nowadays, when was the last time you laughed at something either of them did? …Actually Aykroyd’s shameless attempt to cash-in on The Blues Brothers nostalgia with the criminally awful Blues Brothers 2000 was pretty funny, but I digress…

The same can be said of those who graduated from Rockefeller Centre in the nineties. At one time Mike Myers’ name on a poster ensured a guaranteed hit, but after the debacle that is The Love Guru, you have to wonder if he’s the latest victim of the SNL curse. You’d probably be shocked to hear Dana Carvey had even made films beyond Wayne’s World, David Spade clearly fairs better on television, Rob Schneider, who seemed to be carving out a nice career as the comedic relief sidekick in the early nineties, has been reduced to nothing more than Sandler’s bitch, even the mighty Chris Rock’s film career has been nothing more than roles they could have got Cedric The Entertainer to do for half the price.

So what of the current crop of performers and recent alumni to walk onto SNL’s hallowed stage; the most successful SNL alumnus of the new millennium is Will Ferrell, Ferrell dominated the screen for seven seasons of SNL and soon brought his larger than life persona to the big screen, and he has quickly become one of the biggest comedy players in Hollywood. Ferrell has also proved himself to be a reasonably talented actor with his performance in Stranger Than Fiction, but his career has not been without flops. Unlike the majority of his peers, for Will Ferrell the hits far outnumber the flops, but he has arguably been at his best when teaming with Adam McKay, who coincidentally was head writer on SNL for most of Ferrell’s stint, collaborating with him on most of his best sketches.

Ferrell though is the only mega-star SNL has created since the supposed golden age of the mid-nineties, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler have both been successful but their success has been more critical and somewhat limited to the small screen. The current SNL cast may soon break this trend though; Andy Samberg, fresh off the success of Dick In A Box, the spoof music video he and Justin Timberlake performed on the show that became an internet sensation, had his first major starring role last year in the surprisingly enjoyable Hot Rod. Will Forte and particularly Bill Hader, who has seemingly had roles in nearly every major comedy released in the last few years, also appear to have bright futures in front of them.

Can the current generation break the seemingly career crippling curse that hangs over SNL and use the gift that this show gives them to build successful careers? I genuinely believe that the likes of Samberg and Hader can, and although it could be a while before SNL produces it’s next megastar, the show’s influence on modern comedy both in film and TV appears to be as healthy as ever. And who knows, maybe some of the colourful alumni of years gone by will experience a career resurgence and remind us all that they became stars for their talent and not just off the back of their association with such a legendary and influential show.

For the time being though, the gift and the curse of Saturday Night Live is very much still afflicting many of the show’s former cast members, and only time will tell who will be next to receive the gift of success from their tenure on the show and who will be next to fall victim of the SNL curse.

*This feature was originally written for, and published on, Obsessed with Film.


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