18 August 2007 | Chip_douglas
I love the nineties - SNL edition
Ever since the start of the 22nd century, there seems to be new pop culture documentary focusing on TV shows of the last three decades every other week. Most of the subject matters begin to run out of steam when they come to the nineties, simply because the recollection is still too fresh. The people commentating haven't had the chance to fully digest their feeling and remembrances yet. Such is the case in this, the third of Kenneth Bowser's documentaries on Saturday Night Live (following 'The First Five Years' and 'Lost and Found').
Even though it doesn't seem all that long ago, all of the former cast members that have been rounded up here have visibly aged. Must be all those late nights in New York city. Each season gets it's own little segment that usually focuses on another element that makes up the show, such as the huge cast (including featured players) at the start of the nineties, the popularity of the political stuff, or the need for repeating characters. Each segment is adorned by cleverly animated bumpers (often taken the form of newspaper clippings). Usually these kind of shows intersperse the interviews with popular music of the day, but since SNL actually featured all the popular musical acts of the period, footage from the show is used, featuring some very apt lyrics (the editors and researchers must have had a field day putting all of this together).
The show starts with the hiring of Mike Myers (even though he started the show in 1989) and hitting the big time. Lorne Michaels admits he did not want to bring in an entirely new cast in 1990, preferring to ad featured players to fill in the gaps for those who were about to leave. This strategy would get him into trouble by the mid nineties. A new batch of young comedians joined and quickly forged a lasting friendship: Sandler, Rock, Farley, Spade and Schneider. Of these, everybody quickly agreed Chris Farley was the funniest, meaning he could basically take his pick of sketches without having to write anything himself. Even after 15 years on the air, the show was still a predominately white atmosphere. Chris Rock (especially) and Tim Meadows (for at least half of his tenure) found it difficult to find their voice on the show. A candid Rockis the first to admit his 'I'm Chillin' sketches were basically rip offs of 'Waynes World'.
During the early to middle part of the decade, the show was dominated by stand up comedians (the show likes to pretend Sarah Silverman was a promising star on the show, while in reality she never broke out of featured player status). Lorne Michaels was clearly growing older and wiser. Older in that he didn't understand where Adam Sandler was coming from, wiser in that he let him do his stuff on the show anyway. Long time writer Robert Smigel explains that Sandler was deconstructing comedy and became a star without having to create recurring characters in skits. For the first time in SNL's history, it started to aim for and attract a younger audience (another trend that many viewers felt began to go out of hand by the end into the new century). But in 1995 the ratings fell and the suits at NBC decided the show would either be axed, or completely hauled over. The classic Total Bastard Airlines skit is used to symbolize the big lay off.
At the midway point of this documentary, the new cast arrives and the Will Ferrell era begins. This new batch of performers came mostly from an improv background and arrived with a lot of silly characters fully former. In fact, this cast seemed to thrive on recurring characters more than any other before them. Of course the most famous and hilarious recurring skit in recent years is touched upon: 'Celebrity Jeopardy!'. Although it's never mentioned, the advent of the Internet also helped to spread the comedy of SNL beyond it's usual Saturday evening spot. Norm MacDonald reveals the actual Burt Reynolds wanted to come on Celebrity Jeopardy and reveal himself to be even more stupid than his SNL counterpart, but then Norm got fired by the powers that be, some of whom also get a very brief chance to explain their side of the story.
Despite the problems backstage that are touched upon, and the brief mentioning of the deaths of Chris Farley and Phil Hartman, Saturday Night Live in the nineties seems to have been a fairly steady business endeavor without any of the great hiccups it faced in the earlier years (recounted in the corresponding documentaries). Again, maybe there just isn't enough water under the bridge yet. Everybody is very nice about the other's talent, as just about everybody who showed up for an interview gets a pad on the back. Cheri Oteri looks different, though, did she get her nose done or something? The program ends with a bit of Lorne gushing and with Jimmy Fallon revealing the secret of the Cowbell sketch: it wasn't all that funny until Will Ferrell changed into a too small shirt between dress and air. So, the documentary ends on a high note (although technically, Cowbell aired in April 2000). As of this writing we still have three years to go before 2010, so I guess Ken Bowser will have to wait a few years before doing another one of these. Preferably until 2020 or thereabouts.
8 out of 10