I’ve been in love with Saturday Night Live ever since Martin Short, Harry Shearer, and Christopher Guest’s mockumentary short “Synchronized Swimming” was broadcast about halfway through the first episode of SNL’s tenth season: 6 October 1984.
That means I’ve been a devoted, close-watching SNL fan for almost 33 years.
I’ve followed some seasons more closely than others: religiously during college when my all-time favorite cast occupied Studio 8H (my favorite season ever: ’90-’91) and rather passively throughout my mid-20’s and 30’s. Life circumstances have been the primary driving force behind my SNL viewing habits. I first watched the show as a peer group recreational activity. My viewing habits slowed when my kids were small (and I was exhausted). I came back to regular viewing when my kids became teenagers. Emily, me...Gibson, Whitaker, Harriet...we’ve frequently watched the show together as a family.
Three years ago, I started writing recaps/reviews of each new Saturday Night Live episode for Paste Magazine. This has been a most challenging assignment. I like SNL just as much when it’s bad as when it’s good. I think every single episode is a marvel of live television production...not to mention, SNL has become the largest, most visible risk any major U.S. corporation takes. The show is rarely a good bet, businesswise. And yet NBCUniversal (aka Comcast) keeps it going, year-in, year-out.
I’ve been writing weekly reviews of SNL during a period of revival and renewal, so I’ve had a front-row seat for the so-called resurgence. But to be perfectly honest, SNL has always been worth the watch to me. I’m there to marvel, to gawk, to try to catch a glimpse behind closed doors to the amazing process that delivers nearly two dozen 90-minute shows every year.
And, for Paste, to comment on how I think the good folks at SNL are doing.
Thing is, writing about my favorite TV show from a critical standpoint, writing about this thing I love in a language strangers will find...useful? It’s prompted a nagging question that’s really starting to get under my skin: why so much commentary, so much deeply-thought (and felt!) op-ed style writing about movies, TV, film...popular culture in general?
Why should anyone care what I think about Saturday Night Live? And assuming they do care, why do they care?
See, I don’t care. Or let me rephrase that: I only find some critical commentary to be useful, helpful. But it’s very, very little. And generally reserved to writing by professionals; renowned experts offering almost academic-style writing on very fine topics relation to popular culture.
99.9% of web-based writing about SNL (including my own) is vaguely qualified opinion or promotional in nature—pieces where the author is simply downloading their first impressions and thoughts about the latest episode they’ve consumed...or is a full-on promoter of the show, urging us all to “check it out!”
So I don’t even care what I think about SNL. I’ll watch the show whether you, me, or anyone else thinks it’s good or not.
But I do care what my friends think about pop culture ephemera. I know them. I share life with them. I want to know them better. And the best way to get to know someone better is by listening to what they think about stuff. In that context, any of our theories and opinions—no matter how qualified or spurious—matter.
It’s when our lives physically intersect that our opinions on pop culture or sports or politics or religion actually carry weight, I think.
Of course social media insists on just the opposite. For many, “virtual” relationships rise to the level of embodiment...and suddenly what some blogger from somewhere thinks about the new U2 record is supposed to carry weight in the life I’m living way over here.
But I’m trying to step away from that now. I don’t take religious counsel from strangers who show up at my door to proselytize. If I don’t actually know you, then I really don’t need your blog post about Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. I have friends whose opinions will suffice—even if you’re more knowledgeable than they are, smarter, better looking, funnier.
Sharing opinions and ideas is how I build relationships. So if I’m not building a relationship with you, why in the world do I need to hear about your latest Game of Thrones theory?
Okay, this tact certainly has some inherent problems, I know. But I’ve got to do something to reduce all this useless pop culture noise.
Perhaps it’s the fact I am so consumed with actually making pop culture (er, movies) that it has completely turned me off to pop culture criticism. I think that something’s shifted there. I’ve tried, but I can’t get my interest in other people’s culture commentary back.
I used to be a high school drama and film criticism teacher. During that time, I fell in love with a movie review podcast called Filmspotting. It really is the best of its genre: smart, thoughtful, not-pretentious commentary and opinion on all the latest films...and occasionally some old ones, too. The hosts have always been warm and friendly— the kind of guys you want to be friends with.
But somewhere in there, 2012, 2013, I stopped listening to Filmspotting. It completely disappeared for me. Nothing personal, it just evaporated from my radar. I didn’t replace it with another film commentary podcast, nor did I stop listening to other podcasts I loved (This American Life, The Tobolowsky Files) And I certainly didn’t stop seeing new movies. I just stopped listening to these perfectly wonderful weekly conversations about what movies meant and why they were good or bad.
(I should say that, I do occasionally go back to Filmspotting. May be a long drive...I download the latest episode and hear what Matty and Josh think about all the new movies. It’s still excellent. But I rarely finish the episode. I grow restless, bored. I move on to something else.)
Could it be that this all of this op-ed commentary about pop culture serves more to fill our empty places—those places deep within us that desire to make and say and express but are completely disengaged within the context of the kind of lives most of us live as consumers, not makers. Have we all become so obsessed with commentary and critique because actually making and creating is just too damn hard?
When did art-making become a spectator sport, a thing we go to such absurd lengths to consume?
Or could it be because we’ve been so conditioned to consume and are so ill-equipped to create, we take the inspiration we feel after experiencing a great movie or TV show or record and do the only thing we can: turn it into a comment, an essay, a simple Facebook thumbs up?
I am convinced that we all want our ineffable experiences with art to matter. So maybe...because the value of ideas and meaning today is best expressed in the social media space, we go to our blog posts, video essays, clever Tweets, sage-like Facebook shares...and 800-1000-word Saturday Night Live reviews on Paste...to make meaning.
If the meaning I find in these things I consume doesn’t matter...do I?
I don’t think we really care if people read and respond to our ideas at all. We just need them to be there—in electronic print for all eternity (and accessible to every one in the world). Otherwise, what’s a man to do with his epiphanies?
Saturday Night Live is good again, by the way. By most objective standards, the show is as funny and popular as it’s been in a decade, maybe more. The critics are raving. Most say it’s because of Trump. I’m not so sure. Not that you should care, of course. I mean, if you like watching SNL, by all means watch SNL. And if you don’t, don’t.
But I do hope, if we’re friends, we find time to talk about it sometime. It really has been my favorite for ages. (I’ve actually attended two tapings of the show!) And still, going on twenty-five years, I have very vivid recurring dreams about working at SNL as a writer...and sometimes as a performer. Knowing that about me, probably helps you understand where I’m coming from a bit more.
If it does, you may want to check out my reviews of the show on Paste, too.