By: Greg Tiller
Have you ever found yourself at home in front of the TV on a Saturday night? If you have, chances are you’re familiar with the NBC network’s late-night staple, Saturday Night Live, also known as SNL. Debuting on October 11, 1975, SNL has become a New York institution that has spawned the careers of many of comedy’s brightest stars such as Will Ferrell, Tina Fey, Kristen Wiig, Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy, and countless other stars who started unknown and are now movie and television icons. Currently in its forty-fifth season, SNL consistently places high in the ratings and is still widely talked about by Americans and across many forms of media. But how has a show that’s been on-air for nearly half a century managed to remain a mainstay? But just because it’s a staple of American culture, doesn’t mean it hasn’t had its ups and downs over the decade.
Kicking off on October 11th, 1975, under the title “NBC’s Saturday Night”, SNL was developed as a replacement for the weekend reruns of The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson. The show debuted with seven cast members. Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris, Laraine Newman, and Gilda Radner made up the group referred to as “The Not Ready for Prime Time Players.” Though the show originally focused on its musical guests more than the skits, the undeniable talent and chemistry of the cast slowly progressed to become the show’s focus over the course of the first season. The show quickly became a pop culture hit with it’s satire of the political climate of the time and sketches that brought forth memorable characters and quotable lines. The cast shot to stardom, some more than others, with “Weekend Update” anchor Chevy Chase leaving the show six episodes into the second season to pursue a movie career. Chase was replaced in the cast by Bill Murray later in the season.
There weren’t many memorable skits from the 80s. Starting with the sixth season, Joe Piscopo and Eddie Murphy were the only cast members keeping the show alive, but they fired all the cast and replaced them with unknown people by the ninth season. Because of the insignificant skits and cast members, the 80s aren’t a very memorable or successful period for SNL. But, fortunately, the 90s came along and picked up the pace.
Though the 90s ending up improving a lot on where the 80s failed, it was a slow climb to the same prosperity it originally had in the 70s. As they lost their significant cast members, they began to hire more to compensate for the loss. This ended up overpopulating the cast and making it hard for people to break out. Because they had so many cast members, they couldn’t have as many reoccurring characters, thus they didn’t’ have many developed characters. This made it harder for audience members to connect with their skits. But towards the end of the decade, they began to thin out the cast and hired new, better members, such as Will Ferrel. This helped the show get back on track and carry it into the 2000s.
Just weeks after 9/11, SNL premiered its twenty-seventh season without skipping a beat. This benefitted the show because it showed that comedy shines even through the darkest moments. This strong start– along with entertaining skits with talented actors– showed a new high quality in SNL that would carry throughout the decade. Though the show had always political satire, the political sketches’ criticism and parody became blunter, which was very popular among audiences; they had gone after the Bush administration harder than they had any administration before. Their parody of Sarah Palin was so iconic that many Americans confuse Tina Fey’s lines for something that Palin said herself. This success, traction, and adoration easily carried into the 2010s.
This decade saw the cast became much more diverse with more people of color joining, including the first Latina cast member, Melissa Villasenor, who was hired in the forty-second season in 2016. Kate McKinnon was the first openly lesbian cast member, who joined in 2012 in season thirty-nine, and, in the most recent season, they’ve hired their first Chinese-American actor, Bowen Yang. This has really helped the show connect to a wider variety of people coming from different backgrounds, identities, and cultures.
This decade is an important one because it is the most recent and most viewed by our generation. The political sketches have especially been popular in the last few years because of the 2016 election and the Trump administration. As the political climate becomes tenser and tenser, many people tune in to get a lighter take on it while still confronting the issues. The show has always served as a way to entertain and lighten the spirits of its audience, even during some of the most difficult times out nation has had, and it looks like it will continue to be an escape for Americans as we head into the 2020s.