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Live, and Still Relevant, It's Saturday Night

Faculty member co-edits book about long-running comedy show and its impact on popular culture

Asst. Prof. Matt Sienkiewicz (Communication) (Photo by Caitlin Cunningham)

By Sean Hennessey | Chronicle Staff

Published: Nov. 1, 2013

Assistant Professor of Communication Matt Sienkiewicz, an Emmy-nominated documentary filmmaker and screenwriter who teaches courses in global media cultures and media theory, is co-editor of the recently published Saturday Night Live and American TV. The book — which Sienkiewicz edited with Nick Marx and Ron Becker — features essays that address issues ranging from race and gender to authorship and comedic performance, while following the history of this 36-time Emmy-winning show. Sienkiewicz sat down last week with the Chronicle’s Sean Hennessey to discuss the project

 Q: How did you come up with the concept for the book? 

Our interest in the project was stoked when we realized there was not an academic study on “Saturday Night Live.” There are many books that traffic in hagiography and “inside stories” — books that talk about Chris Farley getting into a fight with David Spade on the set or John Belushi getting drunk at Studio 54, etc. But there was no real critical look at the show in the academic literature. We thought that was sort of an amazing gap.  Even more so, we thought that “SNL” represented just a wonderful opportunity to teach television history in a fun and engaging way.  Success on television is all about balancing innovation with tradition — providing the audience with something new and current, but not so new that it feels totally unfamiliar.  I would argue “SNL” represents this as well as anything on TV.  It’s a great chance to look at single source and see how things like technology, economics, politics and social mores have shaped the medium of television.

Q: Why do you think “SNL” has lasted as long as it has with essentially the same format going up against all the programming choices that are out there?

One of the great things about “SNL” is how it steals from what works in lesser-watched fields of comedy.  “SNL” lets places like Internet comedy sites and more niche shows like “The Colbert Report” take the chances.  Then they figure out what works and are just brilliant at “mainstreaming” ideas that have been successful in other contexts.  For example, they were late to the party with viral videos, but when they came out with “Lazy Sunday” and the like they hit big. 

The other element that needs to be addressed is the show’s abilities to create stars that move beyond television. It’s one of the rare television programs that’s not dependent on its actors to execute and to maintain popularity.  It’s like a sports team with a great system where you can switch the players and still make it work.

 Q: What is the show dependent on, then?

I would say there are a couple of key factors. One, it’s one of the few shows on television that possesses a real sense of an authorial presence, a single person who’s running it. Lorne Michaels has been in charge of the show for all but a couple of seasons. He makes himself a part of the show, you know he’s there and he’s become a marker of consistency and quality.

It’s also the way in which “SNL” really hits that balance of consistency and innovation.  On the one hand, there are the things about the show you can count on: “Live from New York!,” the monologue, musical guests, recurring characters and so on.  But at the same time there’s a sense, perhaps contrived but nonetheless present, that anything could happen.  You’re watching something that is both very much “of this moment” and classic TV.  It’s a great combination.

Q: The show has certainly been a launching pad for stars.

“SNL” can be thought of as a sort of graduate school of comedians. It’s a place that can take an underground sensation and allow them to develop into an international star. Will Ferrell, Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy…

Q:…and Amy Poehler, BC Class of ’93.

Yes, absolutely. She started here at BC doing improv comedy with My Mother’s Fleabag. Then she was an improviser working out of Los Angeles and New York doing really cutting edge comedy. She was able to go to “SNL,” keep some of that edge, but mainstream it just a little bit and then move into “Parks and Recreation.”  I think that show is really balancing perfectly innovative comedy and popular, giving people what they want at the same time as challenging them a little. And I think she’s one of the best examples of how “SNL” can take this incredible raw talent and tame it just a little bit, just enough so that the audience can be expanded. “SNL” sort of played that graduate school role for her.

Q: Comedic presentation has changed with Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart, among others, yet “SNL” is still going strong. Does that surprise you?

“SNL” markets itself as being edgy but it’s really sort of a conservative program. “SNL” has a strong tendency of being a couple of years behind the times, as opposed to something like Colbert or Stewart which I think is really pushing it. The key to “SNL” is maintaining a really solid brand name where you let other people like Colbert and Stewart blaze the trail. They’ve been doing this for a long time.

Q: It looks like they are finding that balance between following someone else’s lead and being creative.

Yeah. But it’s not that they’re just copying – it’s a matter of being extremely perceptive. They ask, “What is working on Comedy Central?” What can we do and take from that and bring it to our audience, which means putting it under a bigger tent? The real genius of “SNL” is this ability to transition cutting ideas into an old, classic context and make them seem new enough to feel fresh but not strange.

Q: One of the chapters in the book is about race, which is something you don’t see addressed a whole lot of on the show.

Yeah, that’s a big issue. If you look at “SNL”’s history, it’s had extremely white casts that are predominantly male, predominantly heterosexual, mostly Christian etc. There is a conservative element to “Saturday Night Live” that I think is sort of undeniable. If you look at their new cast members, they have six new members and they’re all white. So this is not generally an area where they are pushing boundaries. That’s because they have always been geared towards what they perceive to be a mainstream audience. And it hasn’t changed yet in America, where the mainstream audience is perceived as being white and middle class.

Q: You wrote a chapter for the book titled “Speaking Too Soon: ‘SNL,’ 9/11, and the Remaking of American Irony.” What’s that about?

I make an argument that “SNL”’s approach to irony really did change before and after 9/11.  Irony didn’t “die” as some commentators argued, but it did change.  Before, “SNL”’s irony was a sort of nihilism.  Comedy was positioned as being about “nothing.”  Think of “Seinfeld.”  Pre-9/11 “SNL” made jokes about politics but they focused mostly on caricatures, sexual foibles and so on.  A few months after 9/11, however, there’s a different sort of irony.  They’re stilling being sarcastic and ironic about politicians and society, but all of a sudden it’s more pointed, they’re trying to make more socially significant comments with their irony.

Q: In the era of reality TV and scripted comedy, “SNL” is one of the few live shows out there — is that part of its appeal?

Part of what makes “SNL” a little more viable is that even though very little happens that’s unscripted or surprising, the possibility of a “live moment” is what drives a certain percentage of people to watch it that night even if they could DVR it.  They had Miley Cyrus on a few weeks ago, for example. Huge numbers. Nothing really happened but there’s was this “what could happen?” factor.

But “SNL” does like to have controlled explosions every once in a while. Think of Sinead O’Connor’s famous performance.  They like to have something happen that really points to the liveness of it so that the next time Miley Cyrus is on or whatever the case might be, there’s more reason to tune in and watch it live so you can be talking about it.  That’s part of their balance – they don’t want it to be uncontrolled but they want the sense that anything could happen.

Q: How has “SNL”’s approach to humor changed through the years?

I think that now there is a higher expectation of the viewer’s ability to engage with current events to understand what’s going on. Part of it has to do with the fact that if you don’t know what’s going on, you can take out your phone and Google what this joke is about.  You can pause your DVR and watch the video clip that is being referenced. Is it more intellectual? I don’t know but it’s much more specific. There’s a higher knowledge threshold to the comedy now; I don’t know if that makes it more intellectual but it expects more awareness, especially in regards to the politics. I would say that’s a major change in “SNL” and it fits into our narratives about contemporary society being more an information society.

The expectation of information I think is fairly high. I think the number of jokes based on seeing a specific video — either a music video or something that went viral on YouTube — is very high, so they have an expectation that you’re on top of things in a way that I think was much less so than in the 1990s. In the ’90s you were expected to know headlines, but I think now to get much of the stuff you’re supposed to have seen the clip or least read some Tweets about it.

Q: You’ve indicated that watching “SNL” is almost being part of an imagined community.

Yes, the idea is that there is a driving desire — even though we’re in this country where we don’t meet most of our fellow countrymen — to feel as though you’re connected. And simultaneous media experiences can play a key role in that. It can give you an opportunity to say, “OK, I don’t know everybody but we’re all watching this, having this experience.”

“SNL” has strived to maintain some sense of, “This is a place you can gather to have a collective experience.” I think that Miley Cyrus episode is a reasonable example of it, where you have a certain class of people who consider themselves connected because they’re watching the show together, maybe Tweeting about it together. It’s like a meeting point, and they can have that kind of experience. I think this is fading away as the media audience is fracturing, but I do think “SNL” is one of the few shows that’s been able to latch onto that to a certain extent and keep that as part of its marketing.

Q: Through the years, who have been some of your most favorite “SNL” characters?

My favorite actor and character was Phil Hartman — Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer was one of my favorite bits. The concept is he’s a caveman who’s frozen and gets woken up and now he’s a lawyer. We love to believe that our legal system is not this elitist thing that’s all about technocratic knowledge, which it is. This bit about a caveman being a great lawyer is playing off this weird trope in American media history about the lawyer who wins even though he doesn’t know the rules — think “My Cousin Vinny.” It’s the same joke over and over again, but I think this is such a great insight into the American psyche where we like to believe that the regular guy has access to these complex institutions. That bit always worked for me.