Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Sports Displacement

I don't think I've ever really been into sports. Well, I did watch two seasons of World League Football (Go Surge!), and roommates have occasionally dragged me into watching the odd basketball game or two, but it stands that I never, ever, think about watching a game or match or race on my own. I do have that guy energy, though, and I've concluded that it shows up when I talk about or watch sketch comedy.

I have my favorite franchises (mostly the usual--Kids in the Hall, Monty Python), but the "team" that I am irrationally devoted to and would probably have a pennant on my wall for if such things existed is Saturday Night Live. I started watching SNL in the eighties, and my first memories are of one of the worst eras of the show (Joe Piscopo, Charles Rocket, and Eddie Murphy). My cousin and I used to have to conspire to be at the TV at 11:30 on Saturdays, and there are few seasons where I didn't catch every episode, even forgoing the first half of Dr. Who on PBS for the first-run episodes.

That first episode of the season is like the NBA Draft for me--sizing up the new talent, seeing who moved on. Concluding that this or that year was a building season and that the fresh cast members would grow into this greatest of all arenas for live comedy (great job Keenan!!). I just about lost it when Michael McKeon (Lennie of Lennie and Squiggy) showed up in the cast, not to mention Chris Elliot, Sarah Silverman, and KitH alum Mark McKinney.

I've even wrung my hands at the decisions of Lorne Michaels, who has been the franchise's GM for most of its history. there have been a lot of bad years, but that's what following a team is all about--it's uniquely frustrating because Cubs fans don't have to repeatedly listen to people say that their team should be cancelled every time the subject comes up at a party, plus the people who act like the show was strictly downhill since Ackroyd and Belushi--they did plenty of shitty sketches too, and Samurai Deli (or barber or whatever) wasn't really any more inspired than the "you-like-a-da-juice-eh" guys, and the "wild and crazy guys" are often kinda lame, notwithstanding Steve Martin's presence.

I think the digital shorts are pretty brilliant about half the time, and Justin Timberlake is probably one of the five best hosts ever to be on the show, but, like TV Funhouse, they probably won't take over the show and drive out all the other content. New blood is new blood, and it's the Phil Hartmans and Tim Meadowses that really make the show spark by sticking it out in the hypercompetitive environment year after year, perfecting their craft and delivering sketch after sketch with brilliance and poise.

My girlfriend hates weekend update, but it's the anchor of the show. My focus on this segment started with Dennis Miller (who I now can't stand). It's a tough job, and not a way to hide out in the background. You have to construct a persona and deliver it week after week. Some are good by playing it straight (Kevin Nealon or Chevy Chase), while others run against the natural grain (Norm MacDonald), and others just don't have the chops (Colin Quinn). Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are my personal all-time favorite anchor team.

Fey is certainly one of the titans of the show's run, and as the first female head writer, also headed the strongest and deepest female cast in my memory. Maya Rudoph, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Kristin Wiig have a huge range and major talent, and I hope Seth Meyers continues to search out quality female talent.

It's been easier to follow the show since Comedy Central and E! started carrying old episodes, but that carries its own frustrations. The episodes are pared down to an hour, and the musical performances, the cold open, and Weekend Update are always included, ensuring that some sketches don't see air (the one that I miss the most is probably Steve Martin's Christmas wish monologue).

SNL is certainly somewhere in an upswing right now, and once again it's as though it's suddenly emerged, with all the haters and fairweather fans, but regardless, I think I'll hold on to the season tickets and know that the metaphorical stands will surely be roomier again.