Death, Taxes, and the “SNL Lost It’s Touch” Train. Like Uggs, lambasting Saturday Night Live for being on the decline has always managed to stay in style, albeit cyclically. Each new era is heralded by self-proclaimed “more seasoned viewers” as the one which will convince audiences to finally stop watching, forever. Nonetheless, Lorne’s nighttime powerhouse has long captured the cultural milieu through sketch humor, and has certainly proved again and again its staying power. Now in its 47th season, the show has continuously churned out bastions of the comedy world; heavyweights spanning generational success, from John Belushi, Eddie Murphy, Molly Shannon, Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Will Ferrel, Tina Fey…to pretty much everyone else you’re thinking of all were once cast members. Yet, every few cycles, public opinion dictates that the show’s preeminence in the industry is over; that nobody watches anymore. And to be fair, these criticisms are often fairly levied, in the 2021 cycle SNL viewership dropped to some of its lowest, ever.
Speaking for myself, I can’t remember the last time I sat through an episode in its entirety, I honestly can’t even tell you where I would watch it (Peacock joins the latest of streaming services that I have yet to get on board with. If these platforms were American Girl Dolls; Netflix, HBO, and Hulu make up the OG Samantha, Nelly, Kitt Kittredge crew while the later ones have been relegated to Doll of the Year status.. But ah I digress..). And yet, I have continuously viewed clips from the show; even while no longer enjoying the vicinity of my parent’s cable subscription. Whether tuning into Kieran Culkin’s monologue via Twitter in the height of Succession’s S3 heyday, or just locking into Youtube’s “replay” option for Timothee’s Tiny Horse skit; people may not be watching all of SNL anymore but they are still watching at least some of it, pretty regularly. Indeed, a recent digital short from Billie Eilish’ hosting debut garnered over 4 million views on YouTube.
So this isn’t another purported “hot take”that the show sucks now. Or even an argument that it doesn’t, which I happen to pretty much agree with. But rather I aim to treat SNL as a case study; into a traditional media power absorbing internet talent or viral trends, and what this means for the entirety of the entertainment landscape. The show serves as a worthwhile entry into such discourse because it is a sure entertainment institution, having maintained industry staple status since its inception in 1975.
The show’s most recent season begs the question: has the Web 2.0 promise to democratize key industries finally been realized; can breaking-into-Hollywood-level talent truly come from anywhere? If nothing else, SNL can credit its longevity to the genius of its casting. And to that point, the show knows this is a key strength, and when to lean on it– there’s a reason Pete Davidson’s disarming presence carried the Trump presidency era of the show (turns out he didn’t even prove to be good for comedy). Beyond that, we can reliably investigate the show’s casting decisions as cultural predictions into what and who will be funny for the next decade. The newest cast, mostly hand plucked from different viral corners of the internet, has performed relatively well in terms of views and ratings in comparison to the last few seasons; they certainly make the case that comedy content popularized on the internet may have finally found staying power on network television.
Trend cycles, and thus comedy, now moves at lightning speed. More traditional entertainment bastions must keep up or quickly become, well, cringe.
Let’s take the case of recent addition Sarah Sherman, better known as @SarahSquirm. A Northwestern alum and trained comic on the Chicago stand-up scene, Sarah had built up a solid repertoire before ascending to late-night greatness. Yet, she was a riskier casting choice than years past; a subversive “gross-out” comic known for her weird, often horror adjacent comedy.
When the series announced her inclusion, many of her more die-hard fans were worried. Would she be forced to sacrifice her signature alternative brand of comedy to suit the network’s more midbrow taste? Of course, there is always some individual compromise involved in becoming a cast member, and yet SNL has largely allowed Sarah to follow her impulses. Take a look at her most recent meatball sketch, reviewed by the Atlantic, and watch as pustules covering her body, talk and sing. Certainly, absurd or even disgusting material is no new territory for the show, but as Atlantic editor Spencer Kornhaber remarks, this sketch felt different– a break from the shows´recent inclination to “play it safe”. Such is not merely a victory for incorporating alt comedy into the mainstream, but an indication of a genuine culture shift. Indeed, the second most noteworthy takeaway from this year’s Oscars is that the hosting humor felt mostly stale— those jokes had already been made, and better executed, via Twitter or TikTok weeks ago. Trend cycles, and thus comedy, now moves at lightning speed. More traditional entertainment bastions must keep up or quickly become, well, cringe.
Social media has also recently served as an audition-tape of sorts, casting fresh faces throughout all corners of the entertainment industry. Hunter Schafer was originally contacted by Euphoria’s casting team via Instagram and internet favorite Meg Stalter turned viral front-facing comedy into a reprised role on HBO’s Emmy-winning show Hacks. That isn’t to say the internet is the sole reason for their success; Hunter was established working as a model in New York and Stalter had cut her teeth on the Chicago stand-up circuit. Rather, the attention they garnered for their respective crafts on social media proved a catalyst for their incorporation into mainstream entertainment.
The story of improbable success, buoyed by viral stardom, has become increasingly commonplace. Take Rachel Sennott, the Shiva Baby indie darling, who credits her Twitter personality as a turning point in her acting career.
“As a shining example of the “make your own stuff and put it out there” model, Sennott does not see any other viable path for her career. “I think if I had just gone to acting school and then auditioned, no one would be like, ‘Who’s that girl?’ ” she says. “Like, I’m completely regular-looking.”Backstage
Rachel was no stranger to the drama scene, having studied at NYU’s Tisch acting school and performed stand-up prior. But she credits her ability to find breakout success and alter her career trajectory to her intentionally established online persona. And it is certainly true that Rachel Sennott has made a name for herself these past few years, especially within independent film. Loyal fans or diligent IMDb-ers will recall her gracing their screens with an appearance on HBO’s High Maintenance back in 2018, years before gaining critical acclaim with Sundance-debuted Shiva Baby. Today, Rachel plays one of the leads in A24’s (the holy grail of indie entertainment) horror flick Bodies, Bodies, Bodies, set to release later this summer. So long story short, she has certainly been incorporated into industry-leading productions.
Social media has afforded a new landscape for great art to truly come from anywhere, but the ability to capitalize on this expanded avenue is still dependent on race and class privilege.
Now, the above examples mostly explore classically trained or industry seasoned artists, who were able to further propel themselves by, and not only because of, their curation of internet personalities. And yet, there is another aspect of such internet momentum that merits a mention, as this article wouldn’t be complete without exploring the Hype House to Netflix deal pipeline. The “rags-to-riches” story of social media stars turned actors, models, fashion designers, even boxers is a tale as old as… YouTube. Before TikTok creators were bagging million-dollar brand deals from their bedrooms, their predecessors, long-form content creators, were cashing in on this internet gold rush. This class of digital forty-niners have mostly become legitimized individuals in the media industry since, no matter how ridiculed they may have been originally. Jimmy Tatro ushered in this first gen wave of now-established creators, by levying his “frat-boy” YouTube success into a wave of network television deals, from 22 Jump Street, American Vandal, to Smallfoot. Emma Chamberlain, who started on the video platform at sixteen, just hosted the Met Gala and holds a brand deal with Louis Vuitton. These two are perhaps the most convincing examples to exemplify the YouTube-Gone-Legit career path. Today, the newest iteration of social media success is yet to be mapped out. It’s happening at such a breakneck pace that it’s hard to keep up; from TikTok comedian/ LinkedIn troll Jack Martin now leading ABC’s La Brea to Addison Rae playing an influencer in a Netflix movie, it’s clear that major studios are quick to tie themselves to trending talent.
Granted, like the online generation that came before them, there is space to argue here over which creators are truly ‘artists’, but I’ll save that for the comments. The point of mentioning such phenomena at all is actually rather singular; to unequivocally prove that the internet has fundamentally altered entertainment, and continues to do so in a way that will be increasingly intertwined and unpredictable.
Nowhere is the Gen Z-ification of the current landscape more clear than the Please Don’t Destroy team’s assimilation into the SNL writing team and digital short repertoire. The sketch trio consists of NYU alums Ben Marshall, Martin Herlihy and John Higgins. All in their early to mid-twenties, the group went viral last spring with their fast-paced irreverent sketches on Twitter and TikTok.
Herlihy’s “Guy Who is Convinced He Went to School with Spongebob” has amassed almost 100k views since he posted in November of 2020, and Marshall’s tweeted sketch “I Got Vaccinated!!” has almost 3 million favorites
Their creative force fills the “Lonely Island” hole in SNL’s current offering, capturing the current zeitgeist in a way only few digital shorts have tread before. Yes, I’m looking at you (mmmm what you say) The Shooting AKA Dear Sister; a perfect example of a Lonely Island production that was completely emblematic of the era’s current comedic taste, and still influences the culture today. Indeed, every so often, the clip resurfaces on Twitter to much praise, a celebration of three of the most perfect, odd minutes of weird comedy ever made. It is this type of self-aware, risky, and frenetic comedy that the Please Don’t Destroy guys have been able to reintroduce to the show.
Vulture’s feature on the new boys in town asserts them as the natural predecessors to carry the torch that the Lonely Island team left behind; three friends making off-beat videos that fulfill a certain key demographic not generally satisfied by the show’s other offerings. The article also makes an important distinction – while they certainly create fully formed sketches, the group is careful to play to the current audience and moment in time by maintaining viewership with short videos, ADHD-soothing quick cuts, and fast punch-lines. The new era of comedy is clever, absurd, and instantaneous; and the group certainly delivers.
The only type of material that could garner more attention on Twitter is something to complain about, like for instance – nepotism babies.
Luckily, these boys can satisfy both needs. Indeed, both Martin Herlihy’s and John Higgins’ dads are former SNL writers. Steve Higgins is also now a current announcer on Fallon.
So perhaps there is a secret ingredient in the sauce of success beyond talent and internet fame; some good old-fashioned familial connection never hurt anyone either. That’s not to diminish their work, or even to say that nepotism in comedy, or any industry, is really anything new.
However, it is worth acknowledging that even when talent is paired with social media’s viral propensity, this is still not always enough to achieve mainstream success. A certain amount of privilege is needed to capitalize on any of the above opportunities. To their credit, the guys do acknowledge this. In fact, pretty much every single one of the mentioned successes are some combination of college-educated, classically trained, or related to fame; if not all three. So yes, social media has afforded a new landscape for great art to truly come from anywhere, but the ability to fully capitalize on this expanded avenue is still dependent on race and class privilege, just like the traditional modes of entry before it. More people are getting through, but most of them still look the same, pay in the same tax bracket, or have familiar last names.
While not always actualized, the crowdsourced peer-to-peer aspect of social platforms certainly can hold the power to allow merit-based success to actually occur, and institutions are beginning to take notice. The revolution will not be televised, it will be… TikTok-ed? The prestigious Cannes Film Festival just announced their inclusion of a one-minute TikTok submission category; an unexpected move championing a new media format, which will surely lower even further the barriers to entry of a once impossibly exclusive industry. In another example, Ava Duvernay hopes to continue diversity and inclusion initiatives with an IMDb meets LinkedIn type platform to source production talent from largely ignored demographics.
A culture shift is definite. Hollywood has been somewhat democratized by the power of social media and the current cast of SNL is a testament to that. But there still exists many of the societal, racial, and economic barriers to success that inhabit almost every part of our capitalistic system. Nevertheless, the increasing advent of digital inclusion to traditional media institutions is continuing progressively, and the herald of Web 3.0 and other diversity initiatives can give hope that maybe the internet will in fact, actually save us, once and for all.
I can confidently say that we are closer than ever before for great art to come from anywhere, but please, to any straight white men reading this — the world still doesn’t need your podcast.