THE BIG PICTURE

December 26 2005

THE BIG PICTURE

December 26 2005

Two new shows succumb to Saturday Night fever

The classic comedy show has lost it's cutting edge. Two new efforts are set to mock, or maybe save, the original.

BY SHANDA DEZIEL • “Liiive, from Studio 7 on the Sunset Strip, it’s Friday night in Hollywood.” If that catchphrase sounds awfully similar to the opening words of Saturday Night Live, it’s supposed to. It’s from a TV pilot script, written by Aaron Sorkin (creator of Sports Night and The West Wing) and bought by NBC, about the inner workings of a sketch comedy show on a major network. And Sorkin’s done very little to hide his main inspiration. Studio 7 on the Sunset Strip is slated to be an hour-long dramatic series about a beleaguered producer, warring writers, a competitive, catty cast—including one performer who’s

openly Christian (like Victoria Jackson, an SNL player from 1986 to ’92)— weekly hosts and musical guests (Felicity Huffman and Counting Crows take on those duties in the pilot script), and network execs.

And all these people who work on the show (that is, the fictional Studio 7) seem to recognize it’s lost its status as the purveyor of contemporary comedy. In the first episode, the Lome Michaels-ish executive producer, Wes Mendell, is fired after interrupting the live broadcast with a meltdown rant:

“This show used to be cutting-edge political and social satire, but it’s gotten lobotomized by a candy-ass broadcast network hell-bent on doing nothing that might challenge their audience.”

Strange that NBC would buy a show that is so obviously taking shots at its own latenight institution, not to mention disparaging the network itself. Weirder still is the fact that Sorkin’s Studio 7 is the second show of its kind that NBC says it has in the works. The first is a Lome Michaels-produced untitled sitcom created by and starring Tina Fey as the head writer of a sketch comedy show (the same job she currendy holds on SNL) called Friday Night Bits. Tracy Morgan, a former SNL cast member (’96 to ’03) will co-star as an actor on the show-within-the-show. Considering Michaels and Fey are still so much a part of SNL, it’s hard to tell how far they’ll go in sending it up. On the other hand, no one knows the behindthe-scenes reality better than they do.

Both pilots are still in the casting stage and

have a lot of hurdles to clear before making it to air. Studio 7, despite being picked second, seems to have a leg up. NBC acquired the show after an expensive bidding war with CBS, and has made all kinds of unusual promises— such as ordering 13 episodes based solely on one script. The network has also agreed to a steep US$2-million licence fee per episode, a prime-time slot between Monday and Thursday, and a pricey penalty should it choose not to put the show on-air. Either NBC believes this is going to be a massive hit series, or it wants to control a show that, were it to run on another network, could easily embarrass

NBC and Saturday Night Live. Perhaps it even believes that two behind-the-scenes shows will renew interest in the original.

What never seems to wane is fascination with the backstage machinations at SNL—the personalities, the drugs, the parties. Recently, NBC and Global ran the special Saturday Night Live in the ’80s: Lost and Found. And there was the 2002 bestselling oral history Live from New York, as well as former SNL writer/cast member Jay Mohr’s Gasping for Airtime, an evocation of the toxic atmosphere behind the scenes, and Judith Belushi Pisano’s Belushi, in which she and others recount her husband’s drug-fuelled SNL escapades.

MBC and those involved with SNL, Studio 7 and Friday Night Bits won’t comment on how the established program and the new ones will all co-exist. But Barbara Williams,

the senior vice-president of programming at Global Television, which airs SNL in Canada, notes that the shows exist in two distinct TV realms. “The kind of decision-making that goes into what you think will be a primetime hit with your core audience is a very separate decision from what you think works in late night,” she says. “If it turned out that there was some sort of synergy between the two, that would be terrific for NBC. But my instinct is, you don’t play around with a primetime drama in the hopes that it might somehow influence a late-night show.”

an institution, “a steady, stable product” whose numbers have stayed pretty much the same throughout the years— with only minor jumps and drops depending on when there’s buzz around the cast. It continues to beat all other late-night shows among viewers aged 18 to 49, including Jay Leno’s and David Letterman’s. It’s arguable, though, that older viewers tune into SNL out of habit, while younger ones land there because it has very little competition. So people continue to check in on the show, in hopes that maybe this week it’ll be funny. “It’s redundant,” says former

funny. “It’s redundant,” says former SCTV and SNL player Robin Duke, 51, now a “professor of comedy” at Humber College in Toronto. She laughs when asked if her students watch the show or are impressed by her association with it. “It’s not relevant. I guess it’s just become the norm—it’s become the establishment. Oh great, see if I’ll ever be invited to an SNL party again.”

Certainly, Michaels and company are used to the abuse. Throughout its history, the show has been buffeted by waves of praise and panning. After Michaels and his original castDan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Gilda Radnor, Garrett Morris, Jane Curtin, Laraine Newman, Chevy Chase and, one year later, Bill Murray—changed the face of comedy during those first five years (’75 to ’80), they all left. And things were nearly run into the ground by the next executive producer, Jean Doumanian (best known for being a friend of Woody Allen). Dick Ebersol took over the show from ’8l to ’85—most commonly known as

the Eddie Murphy years. The rest of the cast—including Duke, Joe Piscopo and Julia LouisDreyfus, Brad Hall, Mary

Gross—were no match for the original notready-for-prime-time players, but they were sharp, experienced sketch comedians and, according to Duke, a very generous cast, without any of the competitive sniping. And they kept the ratings up.

But it was under Ebersol, who was more of a network suit than a creative guy, that SNL started to pander to the audience rather than dictate what’s funny. “With Dick, it was totally about the numbers—who was watching, the age,” says Duke. “Whereas I think Lome was more about the material, the content. Lome and the people around him dictated what the show would be, whereas Dick allowed the audience to dictate what it would be.” So when Duke would suggest doing sketches with or about rising stars, she’d often get shot down. “I remember when The Year of Living Dangerously had just come out and I

'SNL is redundant. It's not relevant. I guess it's just become the norm—it's become the establishment.'

put Mel Gibson into a sketch. They said, ‘Well, nobody knows who Mel Gibson is, Robin.’ They were thinking about syndication and that they had to make sure this guy was going to be a household name. Little did they know.” The same happened with Mr. T—Duke pitched him long before TheA-Team, but wasn’t able to do an impersonation of him until NBC was readying that show.”

The year after Duke left is considered SNL’s all-star year, as Ebersol convinced established comics Billy Crystal, Martin Short, Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer to join the cast—and characters like Crystal’s Fernando (“You look mahhhvellous”) and Short’s Ed Grimley (“I must say”) dominated pop culture. Today’s young comics, like rising star Dane Cook (who recently hosted the best episode of SNL in years), cite those performers, not the original cast, as sources of inspiration—and the reason why an SNL gig is still something to strive for.

But that was only one year. It wasn’t until Michaels returned in 1985 (he’d spent the interim producing a flop prime-time variety program called The New Show and struggling in vain to make movies) and paired slightly older guys like Phil Hartman, Kevin Nealon and Dana Carvey with young guns Mike Myers, Chris Farley, Chris Rock and Adam Sandler that SNL was able to get a true momentum again. And then there were some lows in the ’90s before Will Ferrell, Fey and Jimmy

HIGHS, LOWS AND IN-BETWEENS: (From top) Fey and Fallon in 2002, Cook hosting on Dec. 3, Pink with Tracy Morgan in 2002, Duke as Mr. T. with the real Mr. T. in 1985— there’s much raw material for the new shows

Fallon ushered in a new youthful crowd. These days, though, not much is working. The writing isn’t pushing any boundaries and the players, albeit talented, aren’t breaking out. The political impersonations of Bush and Cheney by Will Forte and Darrell Hammond seem dead-on, but there are few big laughs. And if you’ve never seen Horatio Sanz do improv outside of the show, you’d think all he can play is spazzy, fat or ethnic stereotypes—when his humour can actually be a lot more subtle.

“SNL is still making fun of what they were making fun of before,” Duke explains. “It was always the liberal voice. But now South Park is making fun of that liberal attitude.” According to Duke’s Humber students, South Park remains—even after eight years—the pinnacle of TV comedy.

Sorkin’s new project will likely lean liberal—he is, after all, the creator of The West Wing—but the script for the pilot suggests a show that will push all kinds of buttons. Wes has his on-air meltdown after a network exec won’t let a sketch called “Crazy Christians” that cracked everyone up in dress rehearsal go to air. Instead, the network’s standards and practices guy wants it replaced with a recurringcharacter skit called “Peripheral Vision Man”— which everyone agrees is not funny. “We’re just gonna keep doing that one till somebody laughs, huh?” a staffer asks rhetorically.

After Wes gets fired, the new head of the fictitious UBS network, Jamie McDeere (who’s reminiscent of Jamie Tarses, the former female NBC exec responsible for Friends and Mad About You), asks Matt and Danny, two former writers who are now making films, to return to the show as producers. Matt and Danny are reluctant to take on such a beaten-down entity, until McDeere promises a different atmosphere—starting with the fact that she wants them to run the “Crazy Christians” sketch. These two writers are thinly disguised versions of Sorkin and his production partner, Thomas Schlamme. Danny is battling a cocaine addiction and is dating a redheaded journalist—Sorkin was busted for carrying cocaine in an airport and has been linked to the New York Times’ fiery-haired columnist Maureen Dowd. In a very postmodern way, Sorkin has set up himself and Schlamme—a.k.a. Danny and Matt—as the saviours of SNL (a.k.a. Studio 7).

In picking up their show, NBC is playing along. Essentially it has brought in new guys to uncover the weaknesses of SNL and make a parallel version of it. That said, don’t count out Michaels—Saturday Night Live will no doubt carry on under his watch. And as executive producer of Fey’s Friday Night Bits, he has his own platform for reinvention. “Lome and Tina Fey, who are satirists,” says Duke, “can now satirize what the show has become. That’s smart, that’s their saving grace, that’s their redemption right there. That’s probably Lome’s brilliance. Please add that part—and I’ll be invited back to the party.” M