WGA Strike: Saturday Night Emaciated

I attempted last year to do a recap of Saturday Night Live for Blogcritics. I stayed with the show for half a season until I lost interest in SNL again, an interest I had only regained due to the show’s fat-cutting in 2006-07. Any longtime viewer of the show knows that the late-night staple has been struggling for some time in terms of quality, although it’s managed a mainstream success or two in the Emmy-winning “Dick in a Box” and other SNL Digital Shorts.

Due to its timely nature, SNL was one of the first casualties of the WGA writers’ strike. NBC has fired 90% of SNL‘s production staff due to said strike, although that news comes from the New York Post‘s “Page Six” and as such should be taken with a grain of salt.

As a longtime Saturday Night Live fan, I’m not sure how to feel about this news. On one hand, the episodes I’ve seen recently haven’t been that great. Last year had a few moments but this year the show seems to have become even more reliant on recurring characters than usual, even for SNL. It seems like every week the show has attempted to launch any sketch that worked well with the audience – “Bronx Beat,” “MacGruber,” “The Dakota Fanning Show,” that Italian guy Bill Hader plays – as recurring.

The writing seems uneven and has been for years, and SNL deserves more of an overhaul than it’s received in recent years. Last year the show had its budget cut. Its longtime competitor, MADtv, had its thirteenth season premiere delayed until earlier this month (four lame-duck “best-ofs” were produced while the show was being retooled.) Times are not good for either show, and the skeleton crew that remains suggests that NBC might have a reason for cancelling Saturday Night Live after thirty-three seasons.

Does this look like the end for Saturday Night Live, though? I doubt it. SNL had just fallen into the hands of Dick Ebersol before a 1981 writers’ strike, after a much-hated run under Jean Doumanian. If not for the strike, Ebersol might not have retooled SNL to be the launching pad for Eddie Murphy, an intermittently-used rising star in 1980-81 and the main draw of the show’s 1980-85 period. The 1988 writers’ strike famously killed a Gilda Radner hosting stint, but the show was as strong as it had ever been in 1987-88 and the strike didn’t adversely affect SNL‘s 1988-89 season. Saturday Night Live‘s survived a few strikes and I can’t see NBC killing off one of its cash cows after staying with it so long.

I can, however, see a complete overhaul and/or hiatus for the rest of the 2007-08 season (or 2008-09 if the WGA strike manages to go on long enough.) Now is the time to figure out how to make SNL competitive in the age of Human Giants and Robot Chickens. SNL is attempting to live on in the form of improv comedy at New York’s Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, although the November 17 performance might not be more than a one-shot deal.

As much as I support the writers in their ongoing battle against the studios, the WGA strike could be a blessing in disguise for Saturday Night Live. Maybe the show’s really dying this time. It’s hard to say.

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