Certainly the loss of Dana Carvey, Jon Lovitz, Jan Hooks, and Phil Hartman, after long runs, has hurt. And even with world-class talent, creating 90 minutes of fresh sketch comedy is a daunting challenge.
But there’s more ailing Saturday Night than any particular personnel defections: The show that once broke all the rules is now obsessed with maintaining its internal pecking order, from where people sit in meetings to how much airtime new cast members deserve.
What’s really killing SNL is a deep spiritual funk. There’s a lumbering heaviness about every part of the show, from an extravagantly expensive set for a Wizard of Oz sketch to the self-important attitude that squashes bold personalities to the marathon writing sessions that stumble past dawn. “You feel it as soon as you walk into the writers’ room,” says a young comedian who rejected an offer to join Saturday Night. “It’s a depressed, kind of lethargic burnout.”
The on-camera talent is more spirited; unfortunately, much of that is expressed as petulance. In the middle of a January show, Sandler and David Spade are in an office one floor above the studio, drinking beer and acting cute for a couple of models. “Don’t you have a show to do?” someone asks Spade. “Not this week,” he sneers. Fifteen minutes later, Spade appears briefly in a sketch, squinting into the middle distance to read his three lines from a cue card.
“They can’t even fake forcing themselves to care,” says a longtime SNL writer who’s saddened by the show’s decline. “When you watch the show on TV, that comes through—it really seems taken with itself. And when it’s as bad as it can be, and people still act like there’s nothing wrong, then it’s sort of like a fuck-you to the audience—‘We don’t have to be good, because we’re Saturday Night Live!’ It’s like the post office. ‘What are you gonna do, deliver the mail yourself?’”
Internal squabbling and raging egos have always been a part of the Saturday Nightethos—“It was a combination of summer camp and concentration camp,” remembers Anne Beatts, one of the show’s original writers; now it’s “a cross between Love Boat and Das Boot,” says Mike Myers, the Wayne’s World star who recently left the show.
But as SNL lurches toward its twentieth birthday this October, the turmoil is producing far fewer laughs. For every bright spot—like Norm MacDonald on “Weekend Update”—there are a planeload of bombs, like an interminable October sketch in which Chris Farley and Tim Meadows simply screamed at each other. Last week, Garofalo fled SNL to make a movie. Writers phone their agents regularly, begging to escape. With ratings down 19 percent from two years ago, and NBC nervously watching the show’s weekly budget climb to an all-time high of $1.5 million, executive producer Lorne Michaels still hasn’t figured out how to put the fun back in dysfunctional.
As arrogant as Saturday Night can often be, there’s something sad about the slow, woozy fall of a treasured pop-culture institution. For SNL fans who grew up on the Coneheads, E. Buzz Miller, Buckwheat, and Church Lady, watching the current incarnation of the show is like watching late-period Elvis—embarrassing and poignant.
All is tranquil and prosperous in Lorne Michaels’s ninth-floor office at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. Postcard-size copies of SNL’s colorized host photos form a celebrity quilt behind the executive producer’s desk—there’s Steve Martin! Sharon Stone! Uh... Nancy Kerrigan?
An off-white sectional couch and matching overstuffed chairs look expensive but not ostentatious. Elegant black-and-white photos of the current SNL cast line the stark white walls; unfortunately, the group has grown so large that the photo of its newest member, Mark McKinney, is propped against a table leg.
The office décor says taste, money, I’m-all-right-Jack serenity. Two floors down, however, a plastic surgeon is ripping hunks of flesh from the movie-star face of Jeff Daniels.
It’s past midnight on a Friday in mid-January. In multiplexes across this great land, Daniels is farting and belching his way through Hollywood’s No. 1 box-office hit. But he had to come to Saturday Night Live to get really dumb. Long gone are the days when Chevy Chase, wearing makeup no more complicated than a pricier necktie, could deftly skewer Gerald Ford. Tonight, Daniels was being fitted for a prosthetic nose and eyebrows, to help him impersonate Liam Neeson. But the mold used to create the prosthetics has stuck to Daniels’s skin. A doctor has been trying to chip the gunk from the star’s face, but after two hours of Daniels’s screams, he’s taking a break.
Michaels’s face betrays no sign of the ordeal. “The show is in a transitional period,” he says wanly. “I think it’s better than last year, and not where it will be by next year.”