I am in no way singling out the current SNL cast, or any other cast in the 30+ years the show has been on the air. Probably every cast they’ve had has its adherents who believe that their group was the “golden era” of the show. I imagine this is particularly true of the original cast – Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Jane Curtin et al. I know at least one person who thinks they should have taken the show off the air when that group went away. But let’s be fair – if you look at the length and breadth of the original cast’s offerings, you will find some truly lame skits. I don’t think I need to specify any here, but I must note that such pieces were often shunted to the last half hour of the show, which tells me that I’m not the only one who discerned their lack of comedic merit.
Not too long ago, I had a chance to see some rebroadcasts of material from Your Show of Shows. As you may know, that was a popular TV show from the early 50s starring Sid Caesar that is very much the historical antecedent of SNL. One could fairly describe it thusly: It was a 90-minute weekly skit comedy program broadcast live and featuring a regular cast of performers. Sound familiar? It’s probably from before your time; it’s certainly from before my time, so you may be in the position of knowing what the show was while not having seen much footage from it. A big reason is that NBC long ago destroyed most of the original kinescopes of the show, so even though it ran for over four years, there isn’t a whole lot of it available for viewing.
As I watched, I was impressed by the comedic talents on display, from performers such as Caesar, Imogene Coca, and Carl Reiner to writers such as Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart, and Mel Brooks. But I was also struck by the fact that certain skits were utter failures, with strained performances and forced, tentative laughter. This made me smile for a moment, because when SNL first hit the airwaves, I read a few critics’ views that it was a pale imitation of their gold standard – Your Show of Shows. Seeing this footage made one simple, humble truth quite apparent: It is very difficult to put together a weekly live comedy program, and it always has been difficult! It seems that these critics could fairly be accused of having burnished the flaws of this program right out of their memories, just as many of SNL’s fans have done to their own cherished memories. To be fair, we should also take into account the drastic evolution in comedic styles and broadcast standards that occurred in the 20 years between these two programs, but that’s a separate, though parallel, line of thought so I will not pursue it further in this post.
So do I consider all of these shows – the many casts of SNL and the old Your Show of Shows – to be equal to one another in talent and comedic merit? Not at all. I have my favorite performers, casts, and skits, just as you do, so I will not claim to declare any absolute truths in that regard. But I will put forth the notion that there never was a “golden era” of such programs; that is, there never was a time when every skit was brilliantly written and performed. There never was a perfect Eden of comedy that we have now lost and strive in vain to recapture. No, I think the truth is that comedy has always been hard, is hard today, and will remain so. But when it works, it embodies something luminously transcendent, and will therefore remain a vital human pursuit. I, as an earnest student of comedy, will continue seeking to broaden my understanding and appreciation of its many forms, which includes trying to understand how the rules and limits of humor are reinvented by each succeeding generation.
* Before Chevy