Pop Culture

Lame, from New York, it’s ‘SNL’

There are countless good reasons to love ‘Daily Show’ host Jon Stewart. He’s smart, he’s decorating his office with a pair of shiny new Emmys, and he’s responsible for proving to the smarmy Craig Kilborn that no one is indispensable. But here’s another reason, if you need one: he constantly shows up “Saturday Night Live,” television’s most complacent comedy franchise, which starts its new season Oct. 4 on NBC.

One of the luckiest breaks “SNL” has had in its storied history is that very little programming of any quality has come along to compete with it. “Mad TV” has its following, but most of the players in late-night television have been content to stick with variations on the same recipe: one part comic miscellany to two parts celebrity couchfest.

(MSNBC is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC.)

Now, however, everything “SNL” has ever had going for it is done better by Comedy Central’s “Daily Show.” Political satire? Check. Timely social commentary? Check. The goofy laugh? Check. Lending a boost to a visiting celebrity’s cool quotient in under five minutes? Check.

In short, “The Daily Show” is observant and entertaining television in a way that “SNL” hasn’t been in a very long time. With any luck, the ascent of a critically acclaimed, well-liked, whip-smart heir to the throne will either light a fire under “SNL” or get it put out to pasture for good.

“SNL” certainly showed some life during what might be dubbed the early Will Ferrell era — 1997 or so — but it has had an underlying slow leak for at least 10 years. Some of its troubles can be traced to simple logistics. The show has clung stubbornly to its 90-minute format for almost 30 years, refusing to admit that it has never successfully filled that much time.

The thinness of the material is only made worse by the tendency to flog it until even things that were originally funny start to grind down the nerves of the audience like an orbital sander. The Church Lady, the Copy Guy, Hans and Franz, Mary Catherine Gallagher, Mango . . . they all tripped over their own killer buzz and wound up face-down in a puddle of very unflattering ubiquity.

IS THIS SKETCH OVER YET?

Adding to the problem is the extravagant length of almost every sketch. Most of them limp lifelessly around the stage for easily twice as long as they should, and many go on for four, five, or 10 times as long.

There is a tendency for “SNL” pieces to pop whatever cork they have at the 15-second mark — call it the Oh-I-Get-It Giggle — and then to do absolutely nothing after that except repeat that initial joke four or five times. There’s no structure, no momentum, and no energy.

“The Daily Show,” on the other hand, has the advantage of being relatively lean and agile. At only a half-hour, including a short celebrity interview, it doesn’t have time to develop the deathly dragging sensation that an episode of “SNL” runs into at about the 20-minute mark. With its focus on the news of the day, there is a constant supply of new material, most of which won’t be called upon to carry more than about 30 seconds of airtime.

With his focus on short, headline-style segments, Stewart has the opportunity to get in and get out of each individual joke before that stale mildew smell starts to waft from it. He and his writers are on the job four nights a week (more or less; repeats are frequent), so they’re often cranking out just as much total volume on a week-to-week basis as the folks at “SNL.”

But with the attention span for comedy notoriously short, keeping the focus on jokes that fire and then get out of their own way is reasonably safe. Even when you miss, which is inevitable, you only miss a little. A twenty-second brush past a disastrous clunker is one thing; an agonizing, hair-tearing, minutes-long stretch of forced audience laughter is enough to induce feelings bordering on despair.

While show structure undoubtedly plays a role, personnel matters do too. “SNL” built its reputation in part on a stable of strong ensemble performers, at least some of whom could provide a boost even when the material lagged. Whether it’s because of the proliferation of cable outlets that compete for some of the same talent, or because of a bad run of luck, the cast feels as thin as the content.

The last really good utility player the show had was Ferrell, whose loss was felt acutely last year, and now with the departure of Chris Kattan, it has also bid farewell to its most impressive weirdo. Jimmy Fallon can hit high notes, as can Tina Fey and Rachel Dratch, but after that, the quality drops off alarmingly.

'SATURDAY NIGHT STALE'

Jon Stewart, on the other hand, is funny. He is a person who was born funny. So are most of the rest of the regular correspondents and commentators. There is an inherent advantage to having a rock of a comedian — good enough to have lifted even the dull Emmy ceremony — anchoring the proceedings.

This stands in stark contrast to the problems it can create when a show with rotating celebrity hosts finds itself saddled with someone the writing staff must surround with orange cones and avoid like a pothole.

The “SNL” problem goes deeper than mechanics and personnel, however. There is something that’s gone fundamentally stale in the show’s sense of humor. It has a history of rebellion, having battled the censors in the 1970s over material that still wouldn’t make the air today.

But in a time when your average 15-year-old has a chance to see the work of the Farrelly brothers and Tom Green, it’s just not possible for a network television show as institutionally conservative as this one to cash in on any degree of shock value.

“SNL” has also largely abandoned genuine political satire. Granted, it has always mixed its cerebral humor with a generous helping of straightforward silliness, but it seems recently to have adopted a remarkably toothless attitude toward current events.

Take a sketch from earlier this year, in which Chris Parnell, playing the President, explained that he simply didn’t care about disarming Iraq anymore, and was giving up. That was essentially the entire joke — he went on to explain that he didn’t care anymore, was taking a vacation, and would no longer be pursuing disarmament.

Why is that funny? Is it because he would never do that? So what? What quality of Bush, or politics, or events in Iraq, is being commented upon? In the end, the sketch came off as little more than a chance for Parnell to do his W. impression, which is adequate, but is hardly so funny that it can prop up a long speech that has absolutely no point. Without any meat on the bones, a guy doing his Bush voice is nothing you couldn’t see at a neighborhood picnic.

This stands in stark contrast to the sound thrashing that “The Daily Show” delivers nightly, not so much to a particular person or a particular viewpoint, but to vapidity, vanity, arrogance, and posturing, wherever they’re found. It speaks volumes that any politician in his right mind would rather be dogged by “SNL” than “The Daily Show” right now.

Without the ability to draw the irreverent vote and with little bite in its viewpoint, what “SNL” has left is primarily a brand of wink-and-nudge humor reminiscent of nothing so much as skit night at the end of a high-school football camp. Even this would be all right — there’s a reason goofy humor endures — except that the show seems to lack the flair to pull it off.

This is the comedy of guys in dresses, funny voices, and the horrors of ugly women. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you’re just lifting material from ninth-grade lunch tables across America.

There’s admittedly a certain irrelevance to complaining about a show that’s about to enter its 29th season. There’s a reasonable argument to be made that “SNL” is neither good nor bad; it simply is.

The franchise has survived several disastrous seasons, as well as regular declarations that it will never be any good again. Despite the dizzying fickleness of network television, “SNL” has a shown a cockroach-like ability to endure.

There may be nothing that can derail the grande dame of television sketch comedy at this point, but the more intelligent, incisive competition — like “The Daily Show” — makes it to air, the more conspicuous its shortcomings appear. The cards are on the table, and it’s time to either plunge into another rebuilding phase or start looking for an exit strategy.

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