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Thursday, May 23, 2024

'Saturday Night Live' Helped Create the Age of Memes. Now It Can't Keep Up

If there's one thing boomers, Gen Xers, millennials, and Gen Zers can agree on it’s that Saturday Night Live sucks now. That "now" is tricky, though. For 60-year-olds, it can be any time after the show's obvious demise following the Belushi-Chase-Radner years. For fortysomethings, it's any period post-Poehler-Fey-Rudolph. Until recently, this proclamation was rooted in a combination of wounded ego—it’s hard to laugh along with people who weren’t yet born when you were in high school making jokes about when they were in high school—and the discovery of superior comedy or superior things to do on Saturday night, such as sleep. But even once they’ve issued their verdicts, many disillusioned fans continue to suffer from what writer Willy Staley calls SNL Disorder: “a compulsion to watch the show week in, week out, despite taking little pleasure in it.” Creator Lorne Michaels seems to know all this and has worked it into the show’s calculus: By the time you finally quit watching, Saturday Night Live has morphed to entice a new generation. It’s one reason why it’s been on air since the Ford administration.


But for the better part of the past decade, SNL has sucked empirically, emphatically, royally. It’s sucked balls, and it’s sucked balls by design. I’m not talking about a severe decline in talent, nor do I mean it sucks entirely. (Bowen Yang as Fran Lebowitz nostalgic for when “everyone in New York had a machete” and as the petulant iceberg that sank the Titanic will be year-end highlights in comedy.) But for years, eight or nine of the roughly 10 sketches each week have been expected, uninventive, rote duds. There are several causes, including that YouTube, Netflix, Hulu, and other streamers have opened many more avenues to circumvent SNL, which was long the path to comedy writing and acting stardom. But mostly the continued suckiness comes down to the fact that Saturday Night Live is no longer equipped for the meme age it helped build.

For proof, look no further than this sketch from last year’s Halloween episode: “Another Uncle Meme.” In it, host John Mulaney plays a frumpy businessman castigating his nephew and coworker (Pete Davidson) for sharing mean memes about him in the company Slack. On a monitor behind him, Mulaney shows colleagues his dating app profile picture, a selfie of him in a puke-green argyle sweater and shit-eating grin, with the caption, “SWIPE RIGHT IF YOU WANT BAD SEX.” Nice! Like a meme you’d see on Reddit! It’s met with scattered chuckles in the audience, as they await a twist. There’s no twist. The sketch is just Mulaney flashing through half a dozen memes of the same photo with his PowerPoint clicker. “Look what popular meme account PurpleDrankPosse said,” he bemoans. It’d be one thing if this was a one-off sketch that fell flat, which happens often when you’re tasked with creating 90 minutes of comedy each week. But down to Mulaney’s exact squinty-eyed selfie and the borrowed meme captions, this was a carbon copy of an “Uncle Meme” sketch from earlier in 2020. As Chloe Fineman says to Mulaney during the bit, “I assure you … no one thought this was funny.”

The problem here isn’t that the memes themselves aren’t funny. As far as digs at your uncle go, “HELLO DARLING. YOU MAY WACK ME IN THE PENIS WITH A GOLF CLUB” isn’t bad. The problem is that the memes aren’t funny in the medium. It’s also one thing for SNL to repeat the latest circus act in Washington, DC, nearly verbatim, just louder, during the cold open. It’s another to try to re-create the experience of the internet. Memes are made funny and incisive not just by their content but by their context. A meme about the Big Boat stuck in the Suez or horny bachelor Bill Gates makes you laugh in large part because it appears in the middle of a stream of overly serious tweets about a spat among journalists, during the workday. In a sketch comedy show, where the viewer is there to laugh, watching memes shared on a screen within your screen is like going to a basketball game where no one steps onto the court and instead you watch highlights from an old game on the Jumbotron.

Sketches about memes in general are less fatiguing and prevalent than SNL trying to stretch specific viral moments into sketches. This season alone has included sketches focused on single-frame memes like Michael Jordan's shrugging, permed security guard in The Last Dance (one year late), restaurater Salt Bae (four years late), and the Cinnamon Toast Crunch shrimp tails saga. This last sketch aired only a week after the adventure unfolded, but by then the internet had already memed it to oblivion. The humor and drama was in following the twisting story online in real time—the cereal eater’s Kafkaesque correspondence with General Mills, and then the allegations that he has been a serial manipulator and abuser. By the time Saturday arrived, every memelord and major news outlet had lampooned and psychoanalyzed Tailgate, and SNL’s only novel commentary seemed to be, Wouldn’t it be funny if instead it was mouse bones found in Apple Jacks?

All this falls more than a wee bit short of the vision Michaels set in 1975: “We wanted to redefine comedy the way the Beatles redefined what being a pop star was,” he says in the show’s oral history, Live From New York. “That required not pandering, and it also required removing neediness, the need to please.” For years this was true. When TV was the monoculture, when a plurality of Americans watched the same episode of All in the Family, Three’s Company, or Friends earlier in the week, SNL was what Chevy Chase called the premiere “vehicle to take apart television.” It did this through absurdist characters laying bare the banality of American entertainment: Gilly, Stefon, Wayne and Garth, the Coneheads, Will Ferrell’s More Cowbell guy. They multiplied as SNL alums birthed their own into the zeitgeist: Ron Burgundy, Happy Gilmore, the Nutty Professor. These are all ur-memes—a gust of energy during internet comedy’s Big Bang. Would there be a Side-Eying Chloe, Disaster Girl, or Ermahgerd meme without Debbie Downer? Would there be perfectly timed TikTok video sight gags without “Dick in a Box”?

SNL debuted Digital Shorts, of which “Dick in a Box” was a greatest hit, in 2005 in direct response to YouTube earlier that year. It was a meme factory and marked the last time the show stayed ahead of, or at least along, the curve. Today Americans spend about 24 hours online each week. When everyone is fluent in the language of lampooning culture that SNL helped create, what is left for SNL to say? Plus, the monoculture is dead. This forces the show’s writers to scramble to guess what current events and pop culture ephemera viewers will be familiar enough with that a sketch doesn’t completely elude them, but not so familiar with that they’ve already seen or cracked 14,000 jokes about it on Twitter, Reddit, or their group chats. And it’s a losing game: Hence a pre-filmed short about boomers horny after getting vaxxed that recycled a bunch of memes about boomers horny after getting vaxxed, or a sketch about sea chantey TikTok that’s just a bad sea chantey, or a song about NFT nonsense that’s just nonsense itself. Or moments of unabashed, uncomfortable pandering, like when faux meme overlord Elon Musk hosted earlier this month. The funniest moment during that episode happened online, when he cratered the price of a joke cryptocurrency based on a meme of a dog (a price he’d help inflate through memes). Musk’s oddly anodyne appearance prompted the Ringer to claim that SNLis at a post-Trump crossroads.” The truth is, the Trump years only helped veil the fact that the show was at a crossroads then.

SNL has always prided itself on holding a mirror to reality, but when we’ve been staring at mirrors all week online, we’re ready to look away. The show concludes its 46th season tomorrow, with Gen Z host Anya Taylor-Joy and the extremely internet savvy Lil Nas X as musical guest. Soon it will turn 50 and Lorne Michaels 80, just as Generation Alpha, the children of digital natives, become teenagers and enter the show’s coveted demographic. Unless SNL evolves, these kids may not ever watch the show or decide it sucks; they may be too busy creating their own comedy or memes about their uncles.

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