With the reported departure of Kristen Wiig, Jason Sudeikis and Andy Samberg, "Saturday Night Live" would look a lot different when it comes back for its 38th season this fall. But, this season, five shows remain in what will forever be known as "The Kristen Wiig Era." We've already seen "SNL" add a new featured player, Kate McKinnon, during the show's current three week hiatus. ("SNL" returns live this Saturday with host Sofia Vergara.) With many changes coming, Hitfix's Ryan McGee and myself debate where "SNL" is now and where "SNL" should go in the future.
Mike Ryan: Though our opinions differ (frequently) on the quality of individual sketches -- also: I'm sure I'm wrong and you're right -- I do consider you one of the most thoughtful Internet caretakers of this show that we both love so dearly. So, my question, before we get to the cast changes, is with only five shows remaining, what do we think about this season up to this point?
I have to say: I'm slightly disappointed. Only because I felt that this cast -- which is the exact same cast as last season (sans Paul Brittain who was cut midway through this season, but we'll get to that) had so much potential last season. This season hasn't had that same spark. Of course, the cast will change dramatically next season (we'll get to that, too) and they'll have a presidential election to work with, but this season could have really been a bit better than it has been. Oh course, there have been some fantastic shows this season -- Charlie Day, Jimmy Fallon, Zooey Deschanel -- but, especially of late, the show has left a bitter taste in my mouth.
I mean, Lindsay Lohan? That was a publicity grab that, sure, scored the show its highest ratings of the year; but it was so bad, all it did was ensure people tuned in would say, "Oh, yeah, that's why I don't watch this show."
Ryan McGee: First of all, if we always agreed...well, that would be downright boring, no? It's hard enough to collect critical consensus when it comes to other dramas or comedies on television. But with "SNL," it's almost impossible to have two people have identical responses to what worked within a particular outing. But that's a feature, not a bug: One person's "What Up With That?" is another person's "The Miley Cyrus Show." Other than Bill Hader's recurring character of Stefon on "Weekend Update," I can think of almost nothing about which there's any relative level of consistent opinion.
Publicity grabs seem to represent the highest form of utility for a host this season, as far too many have been relegated to the background in the majority of their sketches. I'd actually disagree with the overall quality of the Charlie Day episode, and I think a lot of it has to due with the fact that I spent most of the episode wondering why they bothered to hire him in the first place. I thought about that a lot during the recent Jonah Hill episode as well: Why hire someone with his smarts and comedic chops to play the straight man in 75 percent of the sketches?
Were the hosts themselves somewhat ill-equipped for the job, then maybe pushing them to the rear in favor of the repertory players carrying the load makes sense. This happens a lot when a sports celebrity hosts the show, such as when Charles Barkley returned to host in January. But we've seen quality talent pushed aside in favor of the show's cast more often than not over the past few seasons. Maybe this is just the way it's always been, and I've failed to notice this. What do you see as the role of the host at this point in the show's history: Should the host be the focal point of the episode or just a weekly addition to the ensemble?
Mike Ryan: OK, I'm going to be that guy -- I'm officially bored with Stefon. They've just gone to that well so many times and I'm starting to doubt if Hader is genuinely breaking during the segment or if he's just doing that because he knows that it gets a reaction. I digress.
As for your question, I think the role of the host works best when the host can seamlessly work his or her way into the cast. Historically, Steve Martin excelled at this so much that people have had the misconception that he was part of the cast. In the last couple of seasons (excluding former cast members), I think Jon Hamm, Emma Stone and Justin Timberlake each fit the bill as the "perfect host." But they are so few and far between.
I'll take it a step further: I think "Saturday Night Live" would be a better show without a guest host. If the cast and writers were allowed to write their best material in a given week, as opposed to the best material for a given host, the show would be better for it. I'm not saying that a guest appearance in a sketch is a bad idea. Or even multiple segments. But maybe the Tom Hanks/Jon Hamm model that was implemented when Elton John and Lindsay Lohan hosted, respectively, wouldn't be the worst idea in the world. In a "they're around; that's fun" kind of way. Because nothing kills the show like a bad host. And there are a lot of bad hosts.
Ryan McGee: I'm not sure I can continue a civil discourse with someone who hates Stefon.
OK, maybe I can. You bring up a solid point: Do we need hosts at this point in the show's run? The two highest-rating shows this year were for Charles Barkley and Lindsey Lohan, which suggest that people will come if there's general interest in the host. But that's interest which is unrelated to any perception of actual quality. Those with actual acting or comedic pedigrees didn't attract the same audiences, which suggests the function of the host to drive ratings has little to do with their actual ability to host the show.
I like your idea of removing the host and simply sprinkling in unannounced non-repertory talent for two reasons. Firstly, it would return an air of the unknown to the show. Sure, not every show would feature wall-to-wall guest stars, but being unaware of who might pop up would certainly add an air of unpredictability. (And isn't that the whole point of live television, anyways?) Secondly, it would force the regular cast to become an actual ensemble. If there's one thing that constantly sticks out about the current cast, it's how isolated they are in their performances. Rather than serving the scene, cast members are often subservient to someone else's performance. Part of this imbalance has to do with the way certain cast members seem to get paired up with a certain week's host. It's easy for a Bobby Monyihan to disappear for an entire episode if he doesn't strike the correct comedic chords with whomever is hosting. But since the host so often fades into the background, the disparity often boils down to this current cast having an extremely shallow pool of sketches that features more than two of them at a time.
Mike Ryan: Well, now that we solved that problem, how do you envision this cast looking next season? It's make-it-or-break-it time for the three remaining featured players. We already know Paul Brittain's fate. And, obviously, Taran Killam is a lock to return as a full fledged repertoire player. And I would say that Vanessa Bayer shouldn't lose too much sleep over her return. Though, Jay Pharoah is an interesting case. I mean, I like the guy, but he sure hasn't made any sort of impact yet.
As for the main cast, it's likely that Sudeikis, Wiig and Samberg will all be gone after this season. I think Abby Elliott is gone, too. Yes, she lost her role in the Fox pilot, but, answer me this: If she had gotten the part, how was she going to get out of her contract? Does that signal that Lorne is letting her go?
You mentioned Bobby Moynihan's habit of disappearing for an entire show -- will the departure of Sudeikis, Wiig and Samberg help someone like Moynihan? Will the departure of Kristen Wiig benefit the rest of the female cast? Also: What exactly is Kristen Wiig's legacy at "Saturday Night Live"?
Ryan McGee: Yes, our beloved Lord Wyndemere is no more, which is tragic. Perhaps he wanted more sweets than Lorne Michaels was willing to give? It's hard to say, and lips are sealed about the true nature of Brittain's departure. But while you and I both enjoyed his work, it was hardly crucial to the show's overall output. If that's a good thing or a bad thing, I don't know. I tend to lean towards "bad," but only due to the crop of cast members you peg as leaving after this season.
I agree Killam is a lock for full fledged repertory status, and alongside Bill Hader will probably be the most crucial cast member of the 38th season. It's somewhat blasphemous to say this, but I see a lot of Phil Hartman-esque qualities in Killam, who very well might one day be considered in the pantheon of show greats. I certainly didn't expect that when he joined the show, but he's consistently brought great characters, boundless energy, and the ability to serve lead, secondary and tertiary roles within almost any sketch.
What will Wiig's ultimate legacy be? It's hard. When she joined, she was the new girl on the block compared with heavyweights such as Maya Rudolph and Amy Poehler. Wiig turned into a breakout star after they left, but really hasn't handed off the torch or even shared the load with any of the female cast members that have appeared since. Two things have seemed clear for a few seasons: 1) The writers rely too much on Wiig to fill an episode. 2) The writers don't know how to write consistently strong female ensemble sketches.
I don't blame Wiig for her overexposure on the show, even if I die a little inside each time another version of "Secret Word" pops up on my television. While I think a lot of her characters are more or less interchangeable, I still get a kick out of her trying out a new character like her Finnish talk show host ("We have a clip!"), but it's sketches like the "Tell Him" musical number in the Anna Faris episode that have me thinking the current crop of female performers is every bit as strong as those in the Oteri/Shannon/Gasteyer days or the Dratch/Fey/Rudolph/Poehler years. We just don't think of them as such because they haven't had material in which they play off each other. That's the problem across the board, regardless of gender. But even if you don't like Stefon, you can probably admit there are far more male breakout characters than female at this point. That has nothing to do with the disparity in talent and everything about the way the current show is constructed. Am I over-thinking this? Am I giving this current crop of female repertory players more credit than they deserve?
Mike Ryan: Overall, I like Wiig. And I'll agree with you: I don't think the problem was ever Kristen Wiig. The problem was the overuse of Wiig, which really isn't her fault. For whatever reason, she was asked to carry the show. So, for better or for worse, she did. As for your question of "Am I giving this current crop of female repertory players more credit than they deserve?" -- well, to be honest, it's impossible to tell. I agree, "Tell Him" was glorious (which did feature Wiig, too), but the sample size we're working with is too small. I think what the show needs is a female cast member who isn't afraid to be outspoken -- a la Fey or Poehler. I mean, has Wiig ever appeared as herself outside of an occasional monologue? I don't blame her for her style, but her style is certainly not direct political commentary.
The show has added a new featured player, Kate McKinnon. Do you think she'll have any real influence on the show this season? Or is this hiring more for the post-Wiig era?
Also: McKinnon is the first openly gay cast member since Terry Sweeney. My question, Ryan, is: In 2012, is this a topic worth covering? Aren't we past that? Part of me wants to say, "Yes, we are past that," but it has been 26 years since the last time this has happened, which is notable.
Ryan McGee: The McKinnon tryout is certainly intriguing. I agree with you that in 2012, her sexuality shouldn't be news. But I think this brings up something that I've been waiting to discuss with you in these back-and-forths. It's hardly shocking to say that "SNL" tends to have a diversity problem when it comes to its casts. What's remarkable isn't that it's currently a problem; what's remarkable is that it's almost always been a problem. This isn't some simple manner of affirmation action needed for the sake of affirmative action. This is about the show fundamentally limiting the types of sketches it can produced based on the narrow band of ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation of the cast.
On one level, yes: funny is funny is funny. (I think Getrude Stein said that, yes?) On the other hand, when the show now does parodies of "The Talk," Wiig plays Julie Chen! That's ridiculous. Let's pose another thought experiment in this vein: What if an openly gay cast member played Stefon instead of Bill Hader? How would that play? Does the humor come from Hader's performance solely, or in combination with the audience's understanding that a heterosexual man is playing this outlandish character? I don't have any clear-cut answers to this, but we also don't have the chance to take a lot of our theoretical questions about the effects of a more diverse cast and put them into practice. The fact that the show needs Maya Rudolph to show up to play our current First Lady seems patently ridiculous for a show supposedly so in tune with the current cultural and political climate.
Again: I'm not suggesting the show enact quotas. But if it's crazy that we have to overtly mention McKinnon's sexuality, it's only because the show's casting history makes it so. It's not simply about being able to comment on the current zeitgeist. It's about being able to comment on it from as many possible perspectives as possible. Limiting those perspectives has limited the show, and until that gets fixed, there's a ceiling for how high this show can really ascend.
Mike Ryan: You make a good point. And, yes, it's not just this cast that has that problem. I mean, how many female African American cast members have there been? Other than Rudolph (whose father is Caucasian), it's just Ellen Cleghorne, Danitra Vance and Yvonne Hudson (who never made it past featured player). That's a problem. To be fair, I don't know how many female African Americans go into sketch comedy (as opposed to stand up), but, still.
Do you think it's just a logistics issue? As in: Lorne feels an Asian actor would be limited in the roles he or she could play? I'm not saying that I agree with that thought process, but is has to be something.
So, as we head into the home stretch of this season, my question is: What will be the legacy of SNL's 37th season? Personally, to this point, I think it will be looked back at as the end of a particular era. But this season, standing alone, has been disappointing. There are at least five sketches that from last season that I would rank as some of the best the show has ever aired. I can't really say that for this season. There's has been a definite lack of "hall of fame" type sketches. (Though, there are a couple.)
Ryan McGee: I don't think an Asian actor could only play Asian characters. Far from it. The show is denying both a range of characters it can portray, which is a problem. But it's also denying a range of experience it can convey, which is the far bigger problem. It's a hard thing to navigate, given the relatively small cast it maintains. Do you simply have a single representative of every possible gender/ethnic combination? Certainly not. But there's a clear dissonance between the make-up of the show and the make-up of society, and that's reflective of the audience that watches it as well. As big as the show is, it's denying itself an even larger audience and potential impact given its current roster of talent.
This season's overall impact will only be judged after we see who stays and who goes. This could be one of those years that sees a huge turnover in cast, making this the end of a particular epoch. (I think if Sudeikis and Wiig leave, we can pretty clearly end a specific era in the show's cast.) Here's what I'd love to see, should the show decide to blow things up: Find six to eight core players, and then exploit local talent based on what's needed for that particular week. I'm guessing there's more than a few sketch comedians in New York City that can fill certain niche needs. If they can't do everything, so what? There are plenty of logical nightmares about this pipedream, but having an on-call roster of local talent that would gladly take exposure in liue of a large paycheck seems like a way to really invigorate the show. Something needs to be done to shake the show from its stupor. Sure, "SNL" isn't in any danger of being cancelled; but being irrelevant is perhaps a fate even worse than death for this show.
Mike Ryan: Last thing: What's your favorite and least sketch from this season? Also, what's your most underrated sketch?
I'm going to go with the first Lord Wyndemere sketch as my favorite. (I know, shocking.)
My least favorite -- which has only gotten worse with time -- is the Lindsay Lohan "Scared Straight" sketch.
And, for underrated, I'm going to pick Fred Armisen's "One Man Show."
Ryan McGee: Sketch of the Year: "Coach Bert," where everyone assumes Steve Buscemi's coach is a closet pervert. Blistering and brilliant.
Worst Of The Year: Crab Blast 2012, a painful sketch that stranded Zooey Deschanel, Kristen Wiig, and America in a desert of pain and misery.
Most Underrated: I'll go with "The Blue Jean Committee," which closed out Jason Segel's hosting duties. This wasn't about humor so much as a vibe, and it completely won me over.
Follow Mike Ryan on Twitter: www.twitter.com/mikeryan