Boston College professor Matt Sienkiewicz will appear at the Brookline Booksmith, 279 Harvard Street, Saturday, October 5th at 7:30PM to discuss the book Saturday Night Live and American TV, which he co-edited with Nick Marx and Ron Becker. I spoke to Matt by phone to talk SNL and its extraordinary run that shows no sign of slowing.
Brookline Hub: How did you and your fellow editors approach this book project? How did you decide on essay topics and assign them to the right writers?
Matt Sienkiewicz: We began with the observation that there were no scholarly texts about a seminal television program that's been on the air for almost forty years. It's like it had fallen through the cracks. We [Marx, Becker and Sienkiewicz] had all grown up with the show. We're all professors of media history. We thought it would a fun engaging way to show how SNL essentially stayed the same show while media has changed. We went from three TV stations to a thousand channels. People were recording their favorite Mr. Bill sketches on VHS and now they're posting them to YouTube. We wanted to look at the social and technological changes through SNL, as well as issues of race and gender. We chose scholars from those areas who also knew the show.
BH: What are some of the strengths of Saturday Night Live that have allowed it to survive in an age of distraction and competing media? What can other television shows learn from SNL's example?
MS: They are simultaneously tied to certain elements of television and also flexible. There are certain tropes of the show—the format of a sketch comedy, the cold open, the presence of Lorne Michaels, the musical guest—that are tried and true. But they also can take new angles and incorporate new technologies like creating interesting digital shorts. They are a duel threat: classic TV of the past and Internet viral hit. Other shows are more set in their ways, formulaic, old and stale. And it doesn't hurt that SNL rotates its cast.
Also, remember that SNL is a live show. Anything can happen and you get that feeling when watching it, even though it's rare for something to go wrong. There was that time musical guest Sinead O'Connor went off script and ripped up that picture of the Pope. Other shows aren't live because that requires a lot of manpower, shifting sets, and costume changes. You need a fleet of people and that's not financially efficient.
BH: Why does television still matter in the Internet age? Do you think the end of TV is near?
MS: Well I'm being speculative here, but I think it's our intense desire for shared moments. Television is the only medium where we can get that. A big, live broadcast is very powerful. It has immediacy when you can see it when it happens and visually share it. A large part of the American mainstream wants to share those moments.
BH: Are you surprised that SNL is still going strong even after the introduction of other popular, satirical comedy shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report?
MS: I think in certain circles your view can be skewed. There is still a big difference between broadcast TV and cable shows. Not everyone has cable. Not everyone watches The Daily Show. The big networks still have an institutional advantage. Of course you could be a student at Wellesley talking with your friends about the latest Colbert video you saw, but this won't be true of the whole country. Cable has a more fractured audience.
BH: Saturday Night Live is known as a launching pad for up-and-coming comedy stars. It has been said that minority and women comedians are notoriously underrepresented in the cast, yet there have been many minorities and women who have gone on to very successful careers: Kristen Wiig, Tina Fey, Tracey Morgan, Eddie Murphy, Amy Poehler, and others. Do you think their success is in spite of SNL's casting bias or because of it?
MS: I think it's both. The show has a tendency to shy away from minorities and women, and when they do cast them they're careful to pick really great people. They hold these cast members to a very high standard, while there is a long list of white guys on the show that you've probably forgotten. A lot has been written about the "Boy's Club" nature of the program, especially among the writers. Most of what you see on the show is from a white male perspective. So I think minority and female writers and cast members have also succeeded in spite of the show.
BH: I looked up the new cast members for the Fall 2013 season, and they're four white males and one white female, Brooks Wheelan.
MS: Yeah, and there's no one whiter than the AT&T guy! SNL likes to play it safe. They worry about their brand and are slow to change with the times. They're clearly not taking an affirmative action approach. But they're also not pandering to the audience.
BH: Tell me about your Brookline Booksmith event on October 5. What do you have planned?
MS: I'll start with an entertaining intro about why SNL is a great way to talk about cultural studies. I'll show some clips. Everyone has his or her favorite moments from the show, so I want to encourage interaction. I'll be an expert moderator of the discussion.
BH: Which leads me to my final question. What is your favorite SNL sketch? Your favorite Not Ready for Primetime player?
MS: It's recent but I have to say Lonely Island's "I Ran So Far Away." It's a digital short with Andy Samberg and Fred Armisen, playing Mahmoud Ahmadinejad [who was in New York at the time and who, during a talk at Columbia University, made controversial remarks about the holocaust and homosexuals]. It's a play on an 80's song and it has Adam Levine from Maroon 5 singing the chorus. Samberg is singing this love song to Armisen's Ahmadinejad, who's a pretty homophobic guy, and it's a touching song. It's a perfect storm of irony and great music and it was made for the viral web. SNL is at its best when they take a moment in time in the world and they really nail it.
My favorite player is [the late] Phil Hartman. He is one of the few public people I really miss. I loved his "Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer." It's a parody of the ever-present courtroom drama. In a hundred years, when we have courts in space, they'll still have the trope of the rogue lawyer who wins with his naïveté and sincerity.
-- Jennifer Campaniolo