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SNL Season 45 Premiere: How SNL Went from Not Ready for Primetime to Tame & Passed Its Prime

Photo Credit: Rosalind O’Connor/NBC

Saturday Night Live kicked off their 45th season Saturday night with host Woody Harrelson and musical guest Billie Eilish. The SNL Season 45 Premiere on its own would have been the subject of a lackluster review, but in 2019 – after four and a half decades – it no longer feels prudent to simply discuss what happened between the hours of 11:30 PM and 1 AM when reviewing an episode of SNL

Especially not this episode. Chances are you’re aware of the fact SNL just had their busiest and buzziest off-season in recent memory. A lot of that buzz concentrated around the announcement that the show had hired their first ever Chinese-American cast member, the effortlessly funny Bowen Yang. Unfortunately, more than that, the buzz seemed to swirl around one of their other new hires: Shane Gillis, who was almost immediately called out (and fired) for the offensive content of his podcast, specifically the negativity and apparent racism in his comments towards Asians. Rumors suggest that his firing was due not to the content of his material but to the lack of a genuine and humble apology. Either way, Gillis’ firing caused a social media firestorm and, apparently, started the “comedy civil war.” 

There was also the late-summer announcement that Leslie Jones would no longer be a part of the cast. There was Alec Baldwin’s highly publicized gripe with his role as the show’s Donald Trump impersonator – a gripe that contributed to a quick burst of “will he or won’t he return” that seems not to have amounted to much. There was the claim made by Chris Kattan in his memoir, released last May, that Lorne Michaels pressured Kattan into having an affair with director Amy Heckerling so that she would direct A Night at the Roxbury, a shocking revelation that ended up being little more than a blip on the radar that is SNL’s PR machine. There was also whatever Pete Davidson got up to this summer. All of this, and you’d think they would want to come out of the gate swinging. Well, if you thought that, you’d apparently be dead wrong.

When it debuted in 1975, Saturday Night Live and its cast of “not ready for primetime players” were the young, rebellious outsiders that poked fun at our society and its institutions. It gave a voice to a generation that might not have had a platform or who had to seek out their own spaces to create art that was left-of-center from popular culture at the time. It was a late-night show on a weekend in a less-than-desirable time slot. What I’m trying to say is this: SNL started out as a show with nothing to lose and nothing to prove, and over four decades of national attention and tight control under the same person, it became formulaic and tame. The show doesn’t want to poke fun at politicians, or the rich, or the famous anymore; those people are now the show’s VIP guests. Somewhere along the way, SNL sharpened its edges to appeal to a mass audience instead of focusing on giving a voice to a specific subset of the youth counterculture.

Because of this, the show is risk averse. Consider the hiring (and firing) of Shane Gillis. It’s been said in articles since Gillis’ firing that the show was deliberately looking to hire a new cast member that might appeal more to middle-America, and therefore re-position the show slightly more towards the center of the political spectrum to appeal to as wide of an audience as possible. While I don’t doubt at all that the show’s Trump sketches have alienated his most fevered supporters, it feels like an odd compromise. When you make moves to deliberately even the playing field it takes all the risk out of the satire, rendering it ineffective. Is the show lampooning Trump because they have something to say about him, or because that’s what the audience has come to expect? It’s hard to tell, but it does feel more and more like the latter.

This week Alec Baldwin shocked his biggest critics and naysayers by once again appearing as Donald Trump – the man that he so abhors. He says playing the role has negatively impacted his mental health. But SNL’s “Donald Trump” is an odd caricature of a political cartoon of a bad Trump impression. It feels so far off base from reality at this point that it’s almost like an original character and not an impersonation of the president. To take a person with such an idiosyncratic, larger-than-life personality and then distill it down to a man who is painted bright orange and stuck looking like he’s just sucked on a lemon, constantly running damage control for his incompetent staff, feels so foreign and quite honestly, lazy. 

I’m aware that we’ve never gotten honest portrayals of presidents in the past. Chevy Chase’s Gerald Ford was a bumbling moron. Phil Hartman’s Ronald Reagan was a criminal mastermind posing as a senile and friendly old man. I think the key difference is that what we didn’t know about these men informed these parodies. We know too much about Donald Trump, and the result is a parody that ignores everything we know in an attempt to pull some form of comedy out of a man who is bereft of humor. This might be an overall gripe about the state of political satire in the internet era, where by the time SNL airs we’ve already had the opportunity to drown in a sea of hot takes and read all of that presidential candidate’s tweets or gotten to see glimpses into their personal lives that were not previously possible. It makes it feel so toothless when you see Larry David’s Bernie “I’m so old and out of touch, let me prove it” Sanders impression, or Maya Rudolph’s #girlboss Kamala Harris impression. 

In my opinion, the satire is completely ineffective because what we’re privy to by going on Twitter is so much more powerful than what a team of writers can dream up under a tight deadline, but I know that there are swathes of the country that aren’t as plugged in. For them, these impressions might seem fresh and fun, but there’s still something oddly inaccessible about them. How familiar might they be with Joe Biden’s “Corn Pop” story, for example? It feels like the show is trying so hard to cater to so many different people that the result is muddy and more than a little chaotic. The debate sketch, which was more or less an endless parade of impressions that we may or may not get to see again as the next election season presses on, was the best example I can think of where playing to every conceivable side results in failure. You may have had fun watching it, but it said and accomplished nothing. 

I’m not sure how much longer SNL can get away with toothless political satire, but it might be more forgivable if what they delivered to us outside of political commentary was worthwhile. Playing it safe for a season premiere doesn’t really bode well for what to expect out of this season, and a “sketch” (more like a long-form commercial) about a Cheeto museum where the Cheeto explodes doesn’t really do it for me. Part of becoming America’s institution means that you have less freedom to express yourself or make actual art.

The closest thing we see to art now is in the 10-to-1 sketches, those two or three sketches that air between the second musical performance and the end of the episode that are usually a little riskier than what airs the rest of the episode. The show has hired a great deal of talented writers in the last few years, and this is the part of the episode where you can start to see their comedic voices break through. You can see the personality behind the writing, and you can see the joy being had by the cast members as they perform it. It’s a shame that the show can’t evolve to hand the reigns over to the young writers responsible for the occasional piece of gold that makes it on the air in the last ten minutes of each episode.

Speaking of handing the reigns over to the younger generation: while Woody Harrelson as the host of the SNL Season 45 Premiere only makes sense when you consider how desperate the show has become in trying to appeal to middle-America, having Billie Eilish on as a musical guest makes the most sense in the world. I can’t think of a performer who better represents Gen Z, and getting to see what it looks like to have an authentic and unapologetic Gen Z-er baffle and wow the SNL audience was a pure delight. Even I was baffled and wowed, and I’ve made my peace with Billie Eilish months ago. The practical effect she utilized to give the illusion that she was walking on walls is created by building a smaller set within the larger stage that rotates along with the camera. What the audience saw in the studio was probably a little less impressive considering they were watching the magic be spoiled right before their eyes, but on TV it looked incredible.


Unfortunately, here’s an example of where, again, SNL suffers from lack of understanding of their evolving audience and the changing times: it looked incredible, but it sounded like garbage. The sound mixers were not at all prepared for someone like Billie Eilish, and couldn’t seem to understand how to make her sound good. It’s a shame, because while her songs are definitely unusual, and she barely sings above a whisper, it shouldn’t have been THAT difficult to hear her. 

If there was a highlight of the SNL Season 45 Premiere, it would have to be the final sketch of the evening, the “Apple Picking” sketch where Woody Harrelson explains the farm petting zoo and delivers the best joke of the night: “we found some animals, and now they’re in prison.” It’s the kind of harmless, aimless fun that was missing from the hour and twenty-odd minutes that preceded it. 

Saturday Night Live didn’t get to where it is today by always being this timid. It got here by being bold, and by hiring the most talented and brilliant comedic writers and performers they could find. This is still (mostly) true about SNL; their writing staff is packed with heavy hitters, and the cast is undoubtedly going to go down in history as being one of the show’s strongest. I just wish that they were willing to commit to a singular voice, rather than playing a game of volleyball with themselves over the course of a single evening. The name of the game at this point seems to be simply turning in their assignments on time, and it’s starting to show.

The SNL Season 45 premiere featuring Billie Eilish and Woody Harrelson will air later this week on Hulu.


Melissa Jouben
Melissa Jouben
Melissa Jouben is an enthusiastic young writer who can usually be seen performing or enjoying live comedy in New Jersey and New York. She has a very limited range of interests which can be summed up by the following list, in no particular order: comedy, cartoons, toy collecting, wrestling, limited edition varieties of soda, and Billy Joel. She was born and raised in New Jersey and can’t wait to leave so she can brag to all her new neighbors about how great the ocean smells at low tide.

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