Since it came onto the air in 1975, Saturday Night Live has been a breeding ground for some of the best comic talent in the US, and has provided a steady supply of actors, writers and directors to Hollywood and to network TV. Hotel Transylvania, which was released last week, saw alumnus Adam Sandler in the lead role, while shows that have been developed by the cast are as varied as 30 Rock to Portlandia and have themselves given opportunities to new writers and performers. The recent That’s My Boy featured two former SNL stars in lead roles, while classic comedies such as Blues Brothers and Wayne’s World both developed from skits on the show. While the standard of SNL isn’t always particularly high, the mere existence of it has provided a cultural comedic touchstone for over a quarter of a century. Why then, has nothing remotely similar existed in the UK?
Although Channel 4 tried to copy the Daily Show with the pedestrian 10 O’Clock Live, the appetite doesn’t seem to exist to give new or up and coming comedians a chance to experiment with short sketches to a national audience. Instead, TV comedy is stuck in the perennial mediocrity of Mock The Week, where any new voice has to be male and able to reduce material down to a level that, in the words of Aaron Sorkin, appeals to ‘not even the smart 12 year olds. The stupid ones. The idiots’. We get the odd sitcom like Fresh Meat, but most comedy on TV is produced by a small roster of comedians and writers. There isn’t any room for a show where old and new talent can mix in the vein of Saturday Night Live.
Could a show in the UK have the same relevance or channel the same quantity of talent into the public consciousness? Yes, it probably could. It would be blessed to have someone like Sarah Palin as a target (see Tina Fey in 2008), but to have any programme like it would reduce the current reliance on panel or game shows and would massively improve the variety and depth of programme available.
Yes, we do produce the likes of The Inbetweeners and Blackadder, The Young Ones and The Day Today. But these shows emerge once every so often, and the public is denied the chance to see the talent developing week in – week out. A British attempt at a Saturday Night Live-esque show wouldn’t be a carbon copy, but it would allow far more exposure to writers and performers who might not get onto the TV or might otherwise fade away after failing to shine in the leaden environment of Mock The Week. Would it have to have a musical guest and a celebrity host? Not necessarily, but it would serve as a cultural touchstone if done right.
Look at the cult that has grown up around SNL, from shows based on it (30 Rock and Studio 60, both of which premièred in the same year) to the iconic status of former performers (John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Julia-Louise Drefyus, Tina Fey). 30 Rock grew out of Saturday Night Live and gave Community’s Donald Glover a writing role, while Parks and Recreation has made Nick Offerman an instantly recognisable face. Is Saturday Night Live perfect? Of course not, but it allows for experimentation and topical humour in an accessible format, something that nothing home-made does right now.
An attempt at something like this would represent a significant step forward for British comedy and might mean our collective TV habits were a little less reliant on US imports.