“Saturday Night Live” is a cultural monument. The comedy show has had a cult following since its inception, and has created stars in both writing and acting. The sketch comedy model allows writers to explore extreme specificity in humor. The show is always changing and it’s always relevant. Every moment in politics and culture of the last several decades was parodied in SNL sketches – such as movie troupes, Bill Clinton’s infidelity and hyper-specific personal experiences like the “kids table at Thanksgiving” or commercial airline travel. For the past 47 years, SNL has had their finger on the pulse of the culture. This fact is absolutely essential to the show’s success. Without such a definite understanding of popular culture, the show would not be one of the longest running TV programs of all time. In 2022, however, the show is losing its touch.
The latest season of SNL, which premiered on Oct. 2, 2021 had the lowest viewership in the show’s history, a 50 percent drop from season 46. More specifically, less than 1% of people aged 18-49 watched the first episode. The show is losing its appeal among this prized younger demographic where it was originally popularized. That being said, SNL is still the highest career aspiration for anyone working in comedy. To get anywhere near Lorne Michaels, one has to have an established career in the industry – one which likely takes more than 10 years to build. Only four members of the season 47 cast are under age 30. This includes our resident young person Pete Davidson (now 28) and two members of the writing team who were promoted to featured players since season 45. Maybe this cast is historically young compared to previous seasons, but in 2022, social media has created a new and vibrant world of humor, and it is often completely disconnected from what we see on cable TV. Like any language or culture, the new world of humor cannot be fully understood by someone who exists outside of it.
Where are young people consuming and producing content in a rapid and allusive cycle that parallels the kind of relevant, specific and parrotable humor of SNL in its 2008 presidential election era? Tiktok. The answer is Tiktok.
SNL-style humor is most recognizable on the social media platform through impersonations. Amatur actors on Tiktok are truly phenomenal. The same hyper-specificity of humor is conceived and produced by kids at home, with nothing but their iPhones. One actor, Johnny Berchtold, displayed such acting talent in his Tiktok videos that it helped him be cast in the Starz limited series “Gaslit” with established stars Sean Penn and Patton Oswalt. Actors play characters with disturbing accuracy. They duet each other in sketch-style scenes. The platform has created a new SNL, rapidly imitating the culture which we live every day back to us on our screens.
If Tik Tok is the SNL of the future, then The Pocket Report is its Weekend Update. Inspired by Stephen Colbert and other unbreakable satirists, host Gina DiVittorio gives a cynical leftist’s take on the news. She speaks for a generation disillusioned with even the most left-leaning mainstream media. “The 2008 financial crisis… led to things like housing foreclosures, people with masters degrees applying to entry-level positions and potentially your parents divorce.”
The biggest difference between the humor of these two mirroring platforms is politics. SNL is known for its political sketches when cast members or guest actors do corny imitations of politicians – most notably, Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump. This humor is extremely centric to millennials, if not Gen X. Humor for the youngest generation can most accurately be described as dada. It is intelligent, cynical and absurd. Donald Trump is the most easily mock-able person who has likely ever existed in the public sphere; making fun of him is just shooting arrows into the ground. Part of social studies class in high school was discussing current events, and one day, we had to have a class discussion about the president being sued by a porn star named Stormy Daniels with whom he had an extramarital affair, and who had come to mainstream media attention for going on a national tour of strip clubs and divulging what it was like to have sex with the president of the United States. I was raised in a time when politics was beyond parody. A slightly exaggerated impression of Donald Trump by Boss Baby, that lady on Twitter, or anyone else just doesn’t do it for me.
SNL’s production team is likely aware of their predicament. The show has historically recruited from NYC nightclubs and TV writers rooms, looking for comedians seasoned with live performance experience. In 2019, Bowen Yang was promoted from the writing team to a featured cast member. He had built a career primarily on the internet, with experience such as hosting a podcast and posting “expertly-timed lip-sync videos of famous movie scenes” to Twitter. Writers Sarah Sherman (28) and Aristotle Athari (30) were also promoted to act on screen after the 45th season with less live performance experience than most other cast members.
Comedy Group “Please Don’t Destroy” started by posting comedy sketches on Twitter and Tiktok – such as Guy Who Thinks He Went to School With Spongebob, Normal Goth. The sketches encapsulate the farcical humor of Gen Z, and the cynicism towards modern neoliberalism. “I just realized I haven’t thought about Trump in three days…I love this presidency!” When I first saw their content online, I thought these were just the kind of extremely talented and niche creators who would only ever perform for an internet-based audience. But the trio was hired to produce a digital sketch for SNL in season 47. Younger recruits could be an attempt to appeal to a demographic that the show is quickly losing.
Some critics say the show is too soft on Biden. SNL was just one of many political media outlets that found success in the Trump era, spewing facile insults backed by little to no critical analysis. The new administration doesn’t write their own sketches. Not delivering on campaign promises isn’t nearly as mockable as the four seasons total landscaping press conference. Will the show’s comedy be able to survive in a post-Trump world? The public’s tolerance for political absurdity is heightened after seeing a reality TV star become president. The normal, banal politics of the Biden administration isn’t enough to get us high anymore. The landscape has changed. Comedic innovation is breeding at an unsustainable rate on social media, and it more accurately reflects what the public wants to see. SNL cannot pull audiences’ eyes from the small screen to the larger one with the same tired sketches and imitations. In order to keep prime time ratings, they will have to drastically change their tone from institutional to original, learning from the content children are producing online with their iPhones and a biting sense of levity.