I'm not breaking any news here when I say that the venerable Saturday Night Live has been a little weak over the last decade or so. It has had some flashes of brilliance (the Betty White episode from last year comes to mind, even though I'm pretty annoyed that it was spurred on by a knee-jerk internet campaign), and once in a while a very funny skit. But for the most part, it's really not that funny. I mean I still watch it (usually on Sunday mornings) but not because it really makes me laugh.
If it didn't have a rotating cast, tradition on its side, and the occasional "buzz," it would have been cancelled years ago. There is no way that it has merited 35+ seasons based on quality alone.
Although Lorne Michaels may be a powerful "industry" big shot, he has really let the show get away from him. It's almost like he doesn't know comedy anymore. He has let one of the more talented casts that the show has ever had (Wiig, Hader & Armisen are all in the top 15 in cast history) die on the vine with atrocious, lazy writing.
So here's how to fix it.
1) Get rid of the dead weight, ie. Taran Killam and Keenan from "Keenan and Kel." Killam technically can do an "impression," but he doesn't do any of them well. Keenan used to be the token black guy, but now that they have the eminently more-talented Jay Pharaoh, Keenan is really no longer needed. Not that he was ever good. His impressions are awful (notably his godawful Al Roker), and he is too fat to play half of the people he plays (Herman Cain, Tiger Woods, etc.). He almost makes Horatio Sanz look like a great talent by comparison. Almost.
2) Get rid of the skits where the hosts play themselves. These usually manifest themselves as a talk show, where the talk show host says "ladies and gentleman, please welcome [real host]." The point of having a sketch show is to portray other people and events, not to be a vanity piece for your host. When Donald Trump hosted several years ago, there was one (1) skit in which he didn't play Donald Trump. We already met the celebrity in the intro, let's make that the last time we see those people as themselves.
3) Stop having Justin Timberlake on. I get it, he's supposedly talented, and somehow he's made a side-career for himself by being a comic. (I don't get it, the guy is not funny when Andy Samberg or Jimmy Fallon aren't writing for him.) The subtext of every Timberlake appearance is, "Isn't Timberlake TALENTED?!" Enough. He plays along, and good for him, but I'd take Jon Hamm or Alec Baldwin any day of the week at face value.
4) If you are going to do a spoof of another show (like "The View," for example) have it say something. It usually only does the same impression week after week, going to the tried and true impressions that the show has made into a weekly staple. But it should either say something about the show, or reach some kind of absurdity. In other words, it should have a POINT.
5) It doesn't need to always be "live." Some of the best bits have been the pre-recorded Digital Shorts that Samberg does. But the show stubbornly clings to the idea of "live." Being live might have been impressive in 1975, but it shouldn't be a hindrance to comedy. If you need to pre-record some material to make it funnier, then do it, goddammit.
6) Destroy all recurring characters except for the ones that REALLY work (The Barry Gibb Talk Show, ummmm.....). Warming Glow does a much better job than I could at listing the ones who should have been killed off after one try.
7) The intro should have the guest host actually doing something entertaining, and not just "taking questions from the audience" or talking to a parade of wacky characters from pop culture, or from the guest host's fake past. In other words, stop being lazy. (That could pretty much apply to everything on this list.) The guest hosts should be asked to do a lot more: otherwise they shouldn't be hosting at all (COUGHJanuaryJonesCOUGH). They need more Jon Hamms, more Melissa McCarthys. (And stop asking Timberlake to bail you out.) Get people who are not only popular, but can actually perform. So more Donald Trumps, no more fucking Tom Bradys.
8) Get Seth Myers off "Weekend Update," or at least give him another Amy Poehler to bounce things off of. He doesn't work as the sole anchor. At all. Especially because of his EXACT SAME DELIVERY!, on every punchline. (The same kind of sing-songy finish that you hear from a local on-the-scene news reporter right before they say "Maggie Malone, AC-tion news...." and throw it back to the anchor.) Seth may be a good writer, but he has turned Weekend Update -- which was a highlight when Fey/Fallon were there -- and turned it into the most predictably boring slog in the show.
9) Speaking of Weekend Update, let's lay off the "Here, with a commentary is [bad impression by someone currently in the news]." These impressions are the one that aren't good enough to be in an actual skit. This usually begins with someone wheeling in on a chair and saying "Woooooo!" (I'm looking at you, Keenan.) The formula has gone bad. They need another Norm McDonald, or Dennis Miller (when he was still funny and not a GOP mouthpiece), with topical humor that is not only funny, but actually says something. Don't use it as a repository for all your leftover C-plus material. (Bill Hader's "Stefon" is exempt from this rule.)
10) Speaking of satire and "saying something," this is where SNL has really lost its way. SNL used to be a snapshot of what was going on at the time, and mocking it. Now, it has been left in the dust by Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and even Daniel Tosh. Doing impressions is not enough. The impressions should either be dead on, putting the character in an unlikely situation, or should be something exposing the ridiculousness of a situation. In 1992, SNL was named the "Entertainer of the Year" by Entertainment Weekly magazine, because of how they helped shape much of the national dialogue of that year's presidential race.(Forget for a second, that EW's "Entertainer of the Year" award is specious at best, with such timeless performers as Ricky Martin, the cast of Grey's Anatomy, and Taylor Swift winning.) Can you imagine THIS crop of SNLers getting that award? For what? For Gilly? For satirizing Elizabeth Hasselbeck? What is the last culturally poignant skit they've had?
11) Finally, kill the skits that go absolutely nowhere and have nothing to say. Especially when they aren't especially funny. You know the type I mean: you see the skit coming to an end, and then realize it isn't going to have a punchline. It fizzles out, the camera pans back, and it goes to commercial. If your skit isn't going to shine some light on something hypocritical, or at least make humor out of something ridiculous, then cut it. We live in times that need humor to act as a spotlight on the danger, hypocrisy and insanity we see in the world. SNL simply hasn't had the chops to do so. It shouldn't be that way.
Am I a comedy writer? NO. Not in any way. But even I know that, when in doubt, you make the small big, and the big small. The Onion does this better than anyone. It's actually kind of a simple formula. You take a huge event and boil it down to some mundane detail; or you take an insignificant issue and magnify it. It's not that fucking hard. I need a job; hire me as a writer on that show and I'll crank out 10 or so good sketches in one season (which would be a single-season record for the last decade).
When I was a kid, I used to ask my mom if I could stay up to watch SNL, in the days of Christopher Guest, Martin Short, Billy Crystal and, well, Jim Belushi. I then get into the 1986-and-beyond cast of Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman, Jan Hooks, etc., and they were a criminally underrated cast of performers and of writers. Had Will Ferrell not come around, the show might have been cancelled, and rightfully so.
The show can and should be a showcase for brilliant young writers. They should let these writers go for a full season, even if with the current cast (minus Keenan, of course). There is no reason that SNL can't reinvent itself, as it has so many times, and become, once again, the rapier of American comedy.
But I'll believe it when I see it.