It's Time For A Competitor To 'Saturday Night Live'

Post by: Rick Ellis 21 May, 2022

At a time when there is so much great television, no show should be considered invincible. The once unbeatable Today Show is fighting off two strong morning competitors, streaming television has never been more competitive and once-dominant The Walking Dead is now just another cable TV show.

The one show that isn't currently facing a serious programming challenge is NBC's long-running Saturday Night Live, which wraps up its season tonight. There isn't a better time than 2022 to do aggressive topical comedy and yet no serious rival has popped up to challenge the sketch comedy show that is the equivalent of the music of Ed Sheeran. A popular, money-making enterprise that always feels as if it should be better than it is.

So why isn't a network or a streamer taking on this lethargic comedy mainstay? Especially at a time when the interest in topical, politically-oriented comedy has never been higher? More importantly, what would an SNL rival look like? There are a lot of possibilities that might work, but if I were tasked with putting together the show, this is what I would do:

1) Base It In Chicago

There are a couple of reasons for this. Basing it in the Midwest would give it a different feel than another sketch show based out of New York or Los Angeles. There is already studio space in place that could handle a live show, as well as experienced crews.

But the real advantage is the available pool of talented Improv performers. There's a reason Saturday Night Live has so frequently hired people from Chicago. The presence of Second City has created not just a pool of experienced SC performers and writers, but also a seemingly endless number of smaller Improv and sketch stages. Chicago might be the only place in the U.S. where you can assemble a talented cast on the fly. 

Another advantage of having access to a nearby experienced talent pool is that you can hire talent for a specific week or just a sketch. That flexibility is a differentiator from the traditional SNL-style approach.

2) Build The Show For 2022, Not 1976

For all of its successes, the Saturday Night Live of 2022 wouldn't feel out of place to a viewer who saw the show during its first year. Yes, there are now many more pre-recorded bits and the cast is more diverse-ish. But the show (and by the show, I mean Lorne Michaels) resists change the way any long-established business does. Change is scary and the attitude has tended to be that a consistently okay show is better than a wildly inconsistent one. 

So what does it mean to build a show for 2022? First of all, no one reads off of cue cards. It's fine to have a fallback, but most of the SNL cast (and nearly every guest) spends a lot of their on-air time looking off-camera and reading words with all the ease of someone living through a hostage situation. The sketches need to be more spontaneous and less like the "Your Show Of Shows: The Next Generation."

Building for 2022 means the cast and crew using social media throughout the week to build buzz. Using the world we live in as inspiration and not an excuse. It means releasing a great sketch ahead of airtime if it makes sense. It means tackling subjects that are uncomfortable and even niche. It means a slight sense of chaos on-air and even more a sense of chaos behind the scenes. It means running a Twitch channel for some rehearsals and a Twitter bot that answers questions about the upcoming week's show. Pushing the limits of what you can do when you attempt to blend a traditional sketch show, live improv, and writers who would see Max Headroom and Michael O'Donahue as comedic inspiration.

It also means staying away from the staples that have made SNL increasingly tiresome to watch. No game show spoofs. And whatever you do, make sure you write sketches that have actual endings, instead of the vague meanderings on SNL that eventually stumble into a commercial.

3) Politics Matters Now. So Should The Show

For all of the buzz about SNL's occasional flaccid political sketches, the show seems remarkably uncomfortable with modern politics. Even in a week filled with big political news, the majority of most SNL sketches are the same milk-and-potatoes topics that could have been seen five, ten, and sometimes thirty years ago. The sketches should be like some real-life version of a smart, expansive and unexpected social media feed. Politics, technology, paranoia, cute memes and everything else mashed-up into one funny and thought-provoking series of pieces. Saturday Night Live is the comedic equivalent of inside the Beltway conventional wisdom and if there's an easy joke, the show will inevitably settle there first.

4) Speaking Of Politics, Expand The Political Orientation Of The Staff
From its earliest days, Saturday Night Live has been a solidly liberal show. In the early years, it had a counterculture liberalism that disappeared once cast members became stars in their own right. This new show needs to cast as wide a net as possible when it comes to the politics of its cast and writing staff. Everyone from solidly Right anti-Hillary to people to the left of Bernie Sanders. It's okay to have sketches that make some viewers uncomfortable or even angry. As long as it's funny, thought-provoking, and maybe a little unsettling.

5) Music Is Good. But Screw The Big Stars
Saturday Night Live has made the selection of a musical guest as much of a programming choice as the pick for the host of the week. There's a preference for big, buzzy musical guests and from a programming standpoint, I can see the rationale for choosing today's hot act. But this show needs to be disruptive, even when it comes to musical guests. There should be a focus on up-and-comers, particularly in musical genres that have never experienced a Max Martin hit song. Small and smart can be as buzzy in its own way as two songs from Maroon 5. And by giving the show a solid musical point-of-view, it makes the production capable of breaking acts, which makes it more commercially valuable.

6) Etc. Etc. Etc.
There are a lot of other things to talk about. Always a cold opening, never an opening monologue. A host makes sense, but lean toward talented actor/comedians who are a bit quirky and outside the traditional Hollywood star system. In the end, every decision needs to be filtered through the lens of creating a fresh take on the sketch comedy genre. 

So where would this show air? There are two obvious options I can see: ABC or a streamer.

On the broadcast side, my personal choice would be ABC. CBS seems creatively incapable of shepherding this type of unpredictable production and the Fox affiliates seem less-than-interested in taking on Saturday Night Live yet again. ABC seems the best bet logistically, although I have no sense if they have the tolerance for pain that launching a show like this would require.

On the streamer side, it would have to be a big streamer with the ability to stream live. Right now, that leaves Netflix out it. Although it is reportedly working on that feature for the future. Amazon can do live streams, but I don't think this idea really fits in with their increasingly sports-heavy push. Obviously, Peacock is out. Apple TV+? Maybe? They can live stream programming, but a weekly sketch show feels out of their wheelhouse right now.

And then there is Paramount+. They have the ability to live stream and even better, they need more programming that helps them break through the streaming clutter. And another advantage of a show like this on Paramount+ is that if it does become a hit, the streamer can build on the success by rolling out other related content with the cast. It would be the chance for Paramount+ to build a new franchise. Although all of that depends on the company's ability to create a buzzworthy hit.

Creating a competitor to SNL wouldn't come cheap. But unlike a lot of other original programming, it's guaranteed to garner a ton of attention and buzz. Then it's up to the show to hold the audience.

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Last modified on Saturday, 21 May 2022 23:32