NEW YORK — “Saturday Night Live,” like rock ’n’ roll, is perpetually dying.
Throughout the 31 seasons of the NBC sketch comedy show, on a near annual basis, critics have written off “SNL” for not being “what it once was.”
When the immensely popular Chevy Chase left the show early in the second season, his replacement was derided. Three decades later, Bill Murray remains one of our most celebrated comics.
“It’s been dying since the second season,” says Lorne Michaels, the creator and executive producer of the long-running show. “It’s always about reinvention.”
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With it four years since Will Ferrell was a cast member and two years since Jimmy Fallon departed, the present incarnation of “SNL” has been one, Michaels says, of “transition.”
But the newest crop of cast members has helped energize this season of “Saturday Night Live,” which continues Saturday (11:30 p.m. ET) with old-time “SNL” favorite Steve Martin hosting, with Prince the musical guest. This year’s four newbies — Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, Andy Samberg and Jason Sudeikis — have all made notable contributions.
“I think you’re seeing the wave of the future,” Michaels, 61, says.
Fey: ‘Great, exciting freshmen’
Tina Fey, who co-anchors “Weekend Update” with Amy Poehler and who is one of “SNL’s” three head writers, agrees.
“I think there’s a generational shift happening now,” she says. “I feel, for sure, like a senior and there’s a lot of great, exciting freshmen that are coming in.”
Slideshow: Celebrity Sightings The shaggy-haired Samberg has lately become immediately recognizable to viewers. His mock hip-hop video with Chris Parnell about cupcakes and “The Chronicles of Narnia,” entitled “Lazy Sunday” (penned with new writers Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer), was a huge hit online, where it was linked by blogs including Gawker.com.
Hader has proven himself with savvy impressions, including a hysterical, spacy Al Pacino. He’s also experienced a few typical first-year roles, including playing a man frozen in a coma in one sketch.
“It got a laugh,” Hader cheerfully defends his performance. “I’ve done speaking parts and not gotten a laugh.”
Wiig already has a recurring character — a checkout lady at Target who couldn’t be happier with her job, who races away from her register and off to the shelves to pick up each new product she spots.
Sudeikis, who was a writer for two seasons before entering the cast, has proven capable in carrying a skit himself — as he did in a virtual one-man sketch where he gradually descends from shopping for a wedding ring to trying to steal one.
“I think, in a certain sense, everyone that’s new is doing well,” Samberg says. “I have nothing to compare it to, but it certainly feels like there’s been a sense of excitement all through this season.”
There have also been some behind-the-scenes changes. Seth Meyers, the fifth year “SNL” member known for his Sen. John Kerry impression and the elaborately insulting scientist Dr. Dave Klinger, has recently been promoted to head writer. (With Fey and Meyers, the third head writer is Andrew Steele.)
The new position, Meyers says, alleviates his pain if none of his sketches make the show: “It’s gives me something to do rather than stew in my own juices of disappointment. You can actually still help the show.”
Aside from the Internet phenomenon of “Lazy Sunday,” “SNL” sketches were also recently made available on Apple’s iTunes for $1.99 each. These 21st century options, Michaels says, “changes the whole dynamic.”
“The audience of the show has always been young and I think they’re more likely to be aware of the new technology,” he says.
Martin is returning as host for his 14th time Saturday, but doesn’t like to stroll down memory lane too much: “I’m not sentimental about anything after 1970. I don’t know why,” the 60-year-old deadpans.
“I forget how young everybody was when we started,” he says of being back at the now hallowed “SNL” studio — 8H — in NBC’s Rockefeller Center headquarters. “And when I come back here, I think, ‘Gee, everybody is so young.’ Then I realize, but we all were. I’m reminded of an essential truth, that this is a very young show.”
While “SNL” is still clearly geared to the young, in 31 seasons countless loyal viewers have inevitably grown up.
“The problem with a show that’s been on for 30 years is that it’s sort of everybody’s sketch show,” says Meyers. “It is, actually, your parents’ sketch show because when they were your age, they were watching it.”
“Other than ‘Meet the Press’ and ‘60 Minutes,’ other shows don’t have that problem — but it’s a great problem to have,” he adds.
Of course, most of the cast members of “SNL” are not freshmen. Together, they make up a genuine ensemble, which Michaels says is currently like “what football has in special teams.”
“There are people who are there who do something where they’re the best for that.”
Veteran Darrell Hammond keeps up impressions of Donald Trump and MSNBC’s Chris Matthews. Fred Armisen can mimic Prince or hawk chandeliers with a Long Island accent. Chris Parnell remains, perhaps, the show’s MVP, a constant reservoir of both middle-class straight men and wannabe rappers.
Will Forte, his veins often popping, has emerged as possibly the show’s craziest performer. He recently, as the ponytailed lead singer of the house band for morning talk show “Duluth Live,” downed a fake bottle of whiskey and began screaming things like “Go Thunderbird Spirit!”
And that still leaves Rachel Dratch, Horatio Sanz, Kenan Thompson, Maya Rudolph (who returns after maternity leave Saturday), Finesse Mitchell and the “TV Funhouse” clips from Robert Smigel.
If there is a star of “SNL” right now, it might be Poehler, who seems to see more screen time than anyone else. But it may be too early to proclaim whose generation this is.
“Those kind of things of who went on to become a giant megastar, you only find out in retrospect that it was the ‘Eddie Murphy Years’ and the ‘Will Ferrell Years’,” says Fey.
In the end, what might be the dominant aspect of “Saturday Night Live” isn’t its fluctuations, but its consistency.
“Nothing has changed,” Martin says. “Not even Lorne’s photos on the walls in his office.”
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