The funny thing about "Saturday Night Live" - one of the few funny things about the show these days - is that it's exerting its most significant influence ever on the culture at precisely the moment in its 32-year history when the show itself is least significant.
Not since the heyday of Joe Piscopo has there been so little to laugh about. And one reason the number of laughs is down is that the number of cast members is down too. With "Seinfeld" and "Friends" now distant, syndicated memories, NBC is facing such a dire cash crisis that network suits forced Executive Producer Lorne Michaels to make a painful choice over the summer. He could either produce fewer shows with the same line-up, or the same number of shows with a slashed cast.
Michaels has diplomatically downplayed the matter, but the impact has had seismic proportions. "SNL"'s line-up has dropped from 16 last year to just 11 regulars this year, with zero featured players. The pink-slipped include Horatio Sanz and Chris Parnell, both of whom joined the ensemble in 1997 and had matured into highly dependable players. Television's loss, no doubt, will be Hollywood's gain.
"The show, like a garden that gets overgrown, at a certain point needed to be pruned," Michaels has rationalized the cuts to interviewers. He adds, "We've done it at six or seven points in the past."
Never in this way, though, and never as the result of fiscally driven ultimatums. This is historic. And it's what happens when decisions affecting creative pursuits are made by people who sell ovens for a living - namely the network's owner, General Electric.
As I watched the first shows of the season, I couldn't help wondering why Michaels hadn't chosen instead to prune faceless non-household names such as Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, Andy Samberg or Jason Sudeikis. Eavesdropping on Sanz and Parnell in the unemployment line would be a bigger yukfest than most of the material this crew's come up with so far. Sure, Darrell Hammond and Amy Poehler made the cut, but it remains to be seen whether they can carry this institution on their shoulders. To date, the prospect appears iffy at best. "SNL" finds itself at both a crossroads and an all-time low.
Hence the infinite irony in the fact that the sketch fest has never been more influential. Not one but two new shows on NBC this fall have taken "Saturday Night Live" as their inspiration. Only in America: At the same time it cuts back its support for the real thing, the network invests big-time in a pair of programs that are overt knock-offs.
"Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" is anything but a shoestring production. The hour-long show is the latest creation from writer-producer Aaron Sorkin - the brain behind "Sports Night" and "The West Wing" - and it does for late-night ensemble comedy what "The West Wing" did for presidential politics. It whips up a beguiling parallel universe whose inhabitants are motivated by passion, nobility, intelligence and courage. It supplies unusually well-written characters and unusually well-written dialogue. Most impressively, it presents the writing, performing and broadcasting of a hip, satirical television show as an act of insurrection. This is a drama in which comedy is serious business.
On paper, this probably sounded preposterous - after all, "SNL" is no more revolutionary these days than is "Mad TV." Sorkin pulls it off completely, though. Each installment of "Studio 60" - the show within the show - is approached with the care and gravity that one might need to stage a military coup. The show's producer, played by Bradley Whitford, and head writer Matthew Perry make compellingly flawed crusaders. Whitford's character is coming off a coke bust. Perry's has a chip on his shoulder the size of the Rockefeller Center rink and a thing for the show's star (Sarah Paulson), a born-again Christian he broke up with after she appeared on "The 700 Club." All of this is straight out of Sorkin's own life story, so it's no surprise the show's every minute feels authentic.
Some critics have faulted the show for taking itself too seriously, but I find "Studio 60" a riveting reminder of the promise the medium once held. The inventors of television predicted it would uplift and unite humankind, bringing museums, the world's great orchestras and impartially reported news into the home. Instead, we got "Starsky & Hutch" and "Entertainment Tonight." All the more reason to appreciate a fantasy world in which the creators of a sketch show take aim at an arrogant administration and enlighten with every laugh.
Which brings us to "30 Rock," the brainchild of former "SNL" head writer and "Weekend Update" co-host Tina Fey. The 30-minute program, which debuted last Wednesday, offers a comic take on life behind the scenes at a late-night sketch show. In addition to writing and producing, Fey plays Liz Lemon, head writer of "The Girlie Show," a sort of for-women-only version of "SNL." In a prescient bit of writing and casting, Fey has brought in Alec Baldwin to play a General Electric suit who takes it upon himself to fix what's not broken. He decides that what "The Girlie Show" is missing are men - duh - and concludes that the key to attracting more male viewers is adding a Martin Lawrence-type comedian with mental-health issues ("SNL" alum Tracy Morgan) to the cast.
The master stroke? While the offices of television executives are routinely adorned with framed posters of their network's hit shows, Baldwin's office boasts an elaborately mounted, full-color image of a best-selling oven. Like Sorkin, Fey is writing about what she knows.
And writing about it exceedingly well. "30 Rock" is as ebulliently loopy as "Studio 60" is earnest. If future episodes maintain the laugh level of the first one, this ought to be around for a while. Its chemistry works in all directions. Baldwin is dead-on as a love-to-hate corporate stooge, Morgan brings a manic, anything-can-happen energy to his role, and another familiar "SNL" face, Rachel Dratch, makes a lovably off-beat utility player. As always, Fey is a treat to watch. Few can match her combination of comic and intellectual gifts.
"Sometimes," Baldwin's character explains to Fey's after unveiling his vision, "you have to change things that are perfectly good just to make them your own." That may explain what's going on at "Saturday Night Live." Let's hope it's a long while before that fate befalls either of the new shows it has inspired.
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