Still Not Laughing, Dept.
Your sobsister watched the SNL in the '90s: Pop Culture Nation special last night.
Two things occurred to me upon completion of this televisual feast.
1) man, they chose to feature some mediocre bands to bookend the comedy clip segments. Barenaked Ladies? Gin Blossoms? Blues Traveler? Dave Matthews Band? I'm assuming/fervently-hoping that the songs featured in these bits commented on the topic being discussed in the bookended section. 'Cause otherwise the 1990s on SNL were disproportionately skewed towards forgettable-cum-annoying "alternative"-cum-"jam" bands-cum-opportunities to get up and see what's in the fridge. Have I mentioned that John Popper harmonica solos make my eyes cross and ears bleed? And not in a good way.
2) while the show chose not to duck some of the controversy attendant on its life in the '90s (the Norm Macdonald firing, SNL as a white boys' club), the single most consistent and damning criticism of the show at the time (and, basically, since 1980)--that it just wasn't that funny--was deflected by pointing to the subsequent fame and fortune of its marquee players (Adam Sandler, David Spade, Chris Farley, Chris Rock, et.al.) and to the fact that the media voices offering this criticism were Boomers with a different idea of what comedy should be. Presumably, "funny".
(The corollary to this, of course, would be the number of amazingly-crap films built on the flimsiest of '90s-era SNL characters. Hey, howzabout a It's Pat/A Night at the Roxbury/Superstar/Stuart Saves His Family quadruple-feature?! Ha ha! No need to bring ipecac to that party! That they managed to avoid making a Cajunman or Copy Guy movie is a modern miracle on par with the appearance of the Virgin Mary on a corn tortilla.)
In refutation of this (and Robert Smigel's dear-God-hopefully-ironic defense of Adam Sandler, "he was really deconstructing sketch comedy"), I'd say that "subsequent fame and fortune" (the flaws of a hindsight argument aside) does nothing to demonstrate that they were funny then. Or that they were ever funny. 'Cause, really, no-one should have to endure an entire Adam Sandler film. Or one of David Spade's. Or David Spade and Chris Farley's. Because there is a fearful-wide canyon between creative work that makes money and creative work that's any good. The fact these actors became rich'n'famous does not in any way imply they were creating anything other than forgettable multiplex fodder, right? I mean, we're all on the same page here, no? 'Cause otherwise Chris Tucker would have to be considered a comic genius. And McDonald's haute cuisine.
Further, I'm going to have to call a wee bit o' the auld bullshit on the notion that creaky ol' Boomers couldn't "get" these young lions of comedy. SNL honcho Lorne Michaels is even credited at one point for continuing to air these segments--despite the fact that he himself didn't get them or consider them funny--because the kids liked them. Me, I would have to reconsider my judgment if I ceded creative and quality control to stoned numskulls viewers because they howl at yet another appearance of Operaman. But I'm not Lorne Michaels who, if nothing else, is adept at feeding the public what it doesn't know it wants but what he knows it'll be able to digest. Now, do generational differences exist in humor? I myself don't think so. Putting aside the rose-colored glasses of camp and nostalgia, I think crap humor from the '20s or '50s is still crap, . And funny remains funny, be it Mack Sennett or the Marx Brothers or Woody Allen. Okay, early/mid Woody Allen. And while watching Sandler channel his inner nine-year-old might've been interesting, it wasn't and isn't funny.
This isn't to take a Manichaean view of SNL's history: first cast=good, everything else=shit. There were, of course, funny bits and great actors in the '90s, just as there were duds back in the halcyon days of Belushi and Aykroyd and Radner. But the unfortunate thing about the '90s-era SNL (and one could just as easily say this about the '80s and '00s versions as well) is that the mold for the show had been formed by the "classic" cast in terms of sketch types and character types, of the show's rhythms and continuities and transitions. And subsequent cast iterations have been stuck in a very uncomfortable crevice between slavishly recreating that style (itself an admixture of Mad magazine, '60s counterculture/postmodernism, Second City/Groundlings improv, and Ivy League humor magazines) and trying to craft a unique and independent model.
I watched a recent episode, my first in at least a year. It was fitfully amusing. Perhaps "amusing" is too strong a word. Maybe I should say there were minutes here and there that I could see being considered theoretically amusing. I saw how peg "A" entered hole "B" and understood how one might expect humor to result. But did I laugh? No. Did I chuckle? No. Did I smile? Mmm...maybe. Twice.
Ninety minutes, two half-smiles.
Maybe YouTube and viral videos will serve as the minor leagues from which SNL will draw its future talent, thereby co-opting its competition and ensuring its own survival.
Maybe the flicker-quick unspooling of information and entertainment online will force a new model on future editions of SNL.
Me, I think "Pop Culture Nation" translates to "biding my time till I build an audience for my movie project".
And then I totally "get it".
You know, the joke.
On the viewers.