Mar 10, 2013

A Few Wild and Crazy Old Men: Saturday Night Live's Nostalgia Problem

By Josh Oakley

(A bunch of old people sleepwalking. Pic from Pop Culture Brain)

The idea that Saturday Night Live “isn’t what it used to be” is an incredibly easy and mostly incorrect thing to say at this point. As a sketch show running for an hour and a half almost every week of the network TV season, it’s always lacked consistency in writing. And to blame the cast is unfair, given that right now the “not ready for primetime players” are as ready as they’ve ever been. The issue, judging from this week’s Justin Timberlake hosted episode, is that the show itself seems to agree with the idea that its best days are behind it.

Out of the ten sketches from Timberlake’s episode, only four were not recurring, or did not feature recurring characters. The Elton John cold open was merely fine, the NuvaBling commercial worked well (largely thanks to the incredible female cast SNL currently has), “Sober Caligula” was an interesting concept that fell completely flat, and the less said about “She’s Got a Dick”, the better (but there is a lot to say about it: Does the show know about transgendered people? And does it know they are human beings to be treated with equal respect to everyone else?)

Two other sketches were technically repeats of bits from the Jamie Foxx episode last year, but they both largely worked and certainly weren’t playing off of any lust for the past. “Maine Justice” was so incredibly weird that, except for Andy Samberg’s poorly done straight man, it at least felt riveting after most of what came before it. And the final portion of the evening, featuring Cecily Strong and Vanessa Bayer, may not have been much less offensive than “She’s Got a Dick”, but the absurdity of the two women made the pieces fit together perfectly. Strong has been with the show for less than a year, and she’s already become one of its most vital assets.

Though you wouldn’t know that unless you stayed through the whole night. A show that’s been on since 1975 has every right to pat itself on the back occasionally, but there’s a difference between that and performing the world’s most boring circle-jerk as presented in the episode’s opening monologue. A cavalcade of stars (and Dan Aykroyd) welcome Timberlake to the “five-timers club”, a unique group that has hosted the show more than four times. Alec Baldwin, Tom Hanks, Paul Simon and more are on hand, to sleepwalk through their lines to the point that you wonder if Timberlake and the very game Martin Short are simply Weekend at Bernies-ing them throughout.

Immediately following this poor display (and before Timberlake’s now-tired “Ville” sketch and Hader’s still-brilliant Stefon) is a dating show that features not one, but two bits that were great when they premiered but nobody was begging for. The sexy singers previously seen in “Dick In a Box”, “Motherlover” and “3-Way” make their return, and it’s not Timberlake or Andy Samberg’s fault that the material lacks any sense of urgency. Even worse, unfortunately, the third curtain on the dating show is lifted, and revealed are: the Festrunk brothers (“two wild and crazy guys!”). Steve Martin tries, but Aykroyd doesn’t, and it’s certain that this bit won’t go down in the history of these characters.

The major problem with the opening monologue and the return of the Festrunk brothers is simple: it’s nostalgia without actual joke writing. SNL can become so comfortable with bringing back characters (the Gilly reference in the five-timers club shows this perfectly) that it forgets to do anything with them. This isn’t a new problem, and it’s not likely to go away anytime soon. SNL remembers the Church Lady, and the Spartan Cheerleaders and Land Shark and forgets that there was something behind those that made them something we still talk about today. SNL thinks that throwing a bunch of quirks together creates something worth making a million times over. But we don’t love Stefon (and this, his umpteenth appearance, may have been his best yet) simply because of his hand-movements and the way he hits on Seth Meyers. The writing behind is character is so strong, and the performance so involved, that it makes itself something we want to see again.

SNL proved with its Justin Timberlake episode, yet again, that the writing is what’s lacking in the sketches we remember as “bad”. The performers on hand are great. The material just isn’t there. But, and this is what this episode calls to the front more than most: it’s much easier to forgive a sketch like the Caligula one, which is at least trying something, to Timberlake’s “Ville”, which feels violently lazy even before “Harlem Shake” makes an appearance.

This problem is not limited to SNL. Culture itself is awash in nostalgia. That idea has permeated through every generation (see: Midnight in Paris). But previous generations didn’t have Buzzfeed. Now, more than ever, the populace’s clamoring for the past, and the comfortable, is at the forefront of culture. Hell, they’re making a new Boy Meets World. Teen Wolf became a show on MTV. And there’s a million other examples. This isn’t a bad thing, per-se. But, eventually people are going to become nostalgic for the things that were only made because people were nostalgic for something else. And once we’ve fallen that far down the rabbit hole, this is at least a discussion worth having.

Some remakes, reboots and re-what-have-you’s work can stand on their own, and are completely worth having. But SNL shows the danger in worshipping the past. It shoved its best non-Stefon, non-commercial, to the 12:55 slot, and focused on long sketches that bounced off of the generosity we provide for what we used to have. The show needs to realize the strong cast it has, get some writers that can give them iconic characters, and go from there. Remembering the past isn’t a bad thing. Honoring the past isn’t either. But regurgitating it, with little regard for quality, is an issue. And SNL has always had a problem with running sketches into the ground. But having a cocktail fashioned after Kristen Wigg’s Gilly is just absurd. SNL now lives so firmly in it’s past that it thinks three years ago counts. If, god forbid, Bill Hader leaves in the next year or two, I don’t want to see a Stefon reference the year after. Because nostalgia, in the form of the exact jokes I’ve heard before, said the exact same way, has a place. And that place isn’t Saturday Night Live. It’s Tumblr.

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