All the old Saturday Night Dead jokes no longer apply: Now in its 35th season, Saturday Night Live is a pop cultural machine that's likely to continue until producer Lorne Michaels decides to end it. It's also found a core cast that frequently rescues almost any episode from being a mirthless washout - unless the obstacles include bad material and a dud host, as occurred in the Nov. 14 January Jones debacle.
Slowly, steadily, SNL castmates such as Bill Hader, Jason Sudeikis, Will Forte, and Kristen Wiig have become strong, all-purpose squad members. Although most of the regulars have established recurring characters (Wiig specializes in manufacturing a slew of them, from jittery Penelope to mischievous Gilly), it's the odd, one-off performances that really glow. I'm thinking of the way Sudeikis and Forte wrung improbably big laughs as sportscasters forced to do tampon commercials on the Oct. 10 episode (Tamp it to the max with Tampax!).
Lately, SNL has had bad luck in booking hosts with a movie opening around the time they appear on the show: Everyone from Megan Fox to Gerard Butler to Drew Barrymore had a difficult time sparking laughs. (It didn't help that by the time they hosted, the products they were plugging had already flopped at the box office - maybe Michaels needs to rethink this strategy.)
SNL is having a tougher time finding a tone for its political humor this season. Fred Armisen, so good with original characters like rambling comedian Nicholas Fehn, does a weak Obama impersonation, and in general, there's little sting in any jab thrown at either Democrats or Republicans. It's as though, once the election was over and Tina Fey hung up her Sarah Palin pumps, SNL looked over at Jon Stewart and glanced at the Internet and said, We're not in that business anymore. The show can't seem to keep pace with the 24-hour news cycles. As a result, SNL just goes after whatever the biggest headline of the week is during its cold-open sketch, lets Seth Meyers make a few vaguely liberal yuks on Update, and pretty much avoids anything else that assumes its audience reads the news.
It says a lot about brand loyalty - especially for the viewer-hemorrhaging NBC - that we'll sit through moments like Butler singing. (Ratings for the show have been solid this Season - averaging 6.6 million viewers, the same as last year.) SNL withstood years of competition from MADtv, and it's unlikely that Fox's replacement, The Wanda Sykes Show, will do much ratings damage. It may be an old habit, this Saturday Night Live, but we don't seem to want to shake our addiction. B-