Opinion: The Rotting Heart Of 'Saturday Night Live'

Post by: Rick Ellis 02 October, 2021

I remember reading a book a few years ago about what it was like to be an actor in the old midcentury Hollywood studio system. Imagine you're a young actor, struggling to line up any sort of work. But for whatever reason - looks, acting talent, raw charisma - one of the major studios offers you a contract. It's not much money, but you know the studio will provide steady work and if you have talent and catch a couple of breaks, you can turn that grunt work into a career. Maybe even stardom if you are extremely lucky.

But the studio owns you on some level. They make decisions about the roles you can take and who you can work with. Even projects that aren't directly connected to them have their fingerprints all over them. You're a household name. But you creatively live in a cage. It can be a well-paying cage, but it's a cage, nonetheless.

Hollywood actors 75 years ago knew that was the danger. But they signed on anyway because it was the only option for most of them. If you didn't cooperate with the big studios, if you didn't agree to sell a piece of your soul for steady employment, your chances of becoming a working movie actor were very slim.

If you're a comedian or comedy writer in 2021, this story will sound very familiar to you. Saturday Night Live might be the Coldplay of satire, but the show is undeniably a starmaker. Lorne Michaels and NBC have created a slick, often creatively soulless star machine that scoops up raw talent, beats all of the rough edges off of them, and provides them with the comedy equivalent of a career safety net.

Former SNL cast members can move on to their own TV shows, movies, and other projects. Writers can parlay their SNL resume into work on primetime shows or quirky streaming comedy specials. Becoming part of Saturday Night Live is as close to a guarantee of career success as you'll find in an otherwise unpredictable industry.

The thing about Saturday Night Live is that it's not a very good show.  But complaining that Saturday Night Live isn't funny is a bit like whining because your dollar store hot dogs contain too many cow lips. You know what you're getting into before you decide to consume it.

It's not even that under the guidance of Lorne Michaels, the show is a big media company's idea of edgy. It's comedy that is deferential to advertisers, props up some truly terrible guest hosts, and continues to have a reputation as having a set that is plagued with problematic behavior. The problem is that becoming part of the Lorne Michaels star machine means he and his comedic Scooby Squad will always be a part of your career. Your show will be produced by his Broadway Video, family members will be part of your staff and you will never, ever be brave enough to speak ill of Michaels. Because if you've spent any time working with Lorne Michaels, you know that he will tolerate a lot of bad behavior. But he won't ignore what he considers to be disrespect or an acknowledgment that he made you a star.

A lot of people have this nostalgia for Saturday Night Live that allows them to overlook all of the truly bizarre allegations that have surfaced around the show and Lorne Michaels. Such as a story Chris Kattan told in his autobiography alleging that Lorne Michaels pressured him to sleep with filmmaker Amy Heckerling to keep her on board as the director of the film A Night At The Roxbury:

Kattan writes in the book that Heckerling made advances towards him in the early stages of developing the movie when she was attached as director. Kattan was 27 years old at the time and declined a physical encounter with Heckerling. Kattan says he got a call from “SNL” creator Lorne Michaels afterwards informing him that Heckerling was considering dropping out of the project. Kattan writes that Michaels was "furious" and allegedly told him, "Chris, I’m not saying you have to fuck her, but it wouldn’t hurt." Michaels allegedly said Paramount would only make the “Roxbury” movie if Heckerling was attached as the director, so if Kattan "wanted to make sure the movie happened, then [he] had to keep Amy happy."

Or how about the recent allegations of sexual grooming and underage sexual conduct that centered around a former member of the Saturday Night Live cast (with a bonus appearance by Jimmy Fallon)?:

By the fall of 2001 the plaintiff was allegedly a regular on Sanz's afterparty guest list. At these parties she drank alcohol and interacted with other SNL luminaries. At one point she sat and drank a Budweiser beside Jimmy Fallon, who asked her what she planned to study in college. ("The people seated at the table became very quiet when Plaintiff disclosed she was a junior in high school.") Fallon introduced her to Lorne Michaels, who asked her about her fan site devoted to Fallon. At a party at another cast member's loft, Sanz allegedly digitally penetrated her in full view of other NBC employees, one of whom asked him, "Are you fucking serious?" At an afterparty the next week, which Fallon and Sanz let her into, she allegedly drank alcohol while chatting with then-executive producer Mike Shoemaker, who currently produces Late Night with Seth Meyers. She was 17.

I have heard plenty of stories from current and past castmembers and staff at Saturday Night Live. The issues aren't a secret inside the entertainment industry. Especially inside the comedy community. But the reason why you haven't heard more about these issues is that most entertainment news outlets aren't willing to burn their relationship with Michaels and NBC down to the ground just so they report on some unhappy comedians or an allegation that is likely to be settled with some money and an NDA.

That is the crux of the problem at Saturday Night Live. Michaels and NBC have carefully cultivated a money machine that really doesn't do comedy all that well. But it makes money and provides a veneer of counter culture to a producer and network that are as corporate and safe as a cool bottle of Pepsi.

The new season of Saturday Night Live begins tonight and your favorite entertainment news sites will be filled with clips from the show and perhaps some mild complaints about the lack of laughs. But no one will be writing about the fact that Saturday Night Live is a vapid, safe show produced by a pretty terrible guy.

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Last modified on Saturday, 02 October 2021 23:42