SNL from Behind the Couch

SNL 40 Weekend Update

I was five when Saturday Night Live began its run. At that time, my favorite book was still Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, my ice skates still had two blades, my bike still had training wheels (and tassels), and there was a really good chance my hair would be in braids, mostly because it was the only way to keep it from tangling.

My mother watched SNL from the beginning. I don’t think she watched it religiously, but she watched it. And I watched it with her, though she didn’t know I was. You see, I watched it from behind the couch. I’m pretty sure I didn’t understand a lot of the content back then, but I’m also pretty sure the rhythms and cadences of fast-paced sketch comedy were absorbed by my young brain and as-yet-invisible pores.

By the time I was ten, I sometimes dropped references to SNL in conversation with my mother and her friends, who would look at me with expressions that read, “Who is this child, and is she psychotic, or merely precocious?”

By the time I was fifteen, SNL had ceased to be my mother’s show, and had become mine. I stayed up late on Saturday nights to watch the whole thing, usually alone in the living room, my mother and step-father long since asleep. Every so often, in an attempt to form order from the chaos that has always made up my sleep patterns, Ira would come out to the living room and point out the time.

“It’s late,” he would say. “You should be sleeping.”

I would grin and reply, “So should you.”

He would agree that yes, he should, and sometimes he would watch with me for a few minutes. Then he would ask if I understood something, or if I really thought it was funny. We’d analyze a sketch, and then he’d wander back to bed and leave me to enjoy the mystique of being the only person awake in the house at 12:45 in the morning.

I’m willing to confess that I harbored a secret crush for Dennis Miller, but that was before we knew he was bat-shit insane – and not in a comedic way, but in a politically skewed way that seems to imply some kind of traumatic brain injury.

I stopped watching SNL, for the most part, when I moved to Texas ten years ago. It’s not that I don’t still find it funny. When I do catch an episode, I laugh at it.

Partly, I stopped watching because when I’m awake at that hour, now, it’s because I’m caught in a story that I’m writing, and don’t want to stop.

Partly, I stopped watching because while it’s still entertaining, I watch it now with the perspective of having done improv on stage for a bunch of years, and having interviewed a lot of writers and actors who came through Second City (still the proving ground for comedy writers and actors, still the pool from which many SNL cast members emerge). I analyze it. I pick apart the sketches. “Why is that word funny, when another one wouldn’t be? How would I change it?” And when they go for an obvious joke, or make a poor word choice, I’m as upset as a sports fan would be when a baseball umpire calls SAFE when a player was clearly OUT.

Mostly, though, I stopped watching SNL because I live in the Central time zone, and that means it starts at 10:30, which is too early for SNL. True, it’s not prime-time, but it’s not late enough to be late-night, either, and without that 11:30 start time, it feels like just another mainstream comedy show.

The humor is still there.

But the mystique is lost.

Maybe this means I’m getting old.

But maybe, just maybe, it means that I prefer my comedy a little bit dangerous, a little bit edgy, and if it’s happening at 10:30…it’s not either. (I could DVR it, and watch when I want to, but the thing is…I wouldn’t. It would be wrong somehow, to DVR something that’s supposed to have the element of risk associated with live performance.)

Still, 40 years is an impressive run. There’ve been good casts, great casts, and a couple of truly awful casting choices that were quickly rectified, but on the whole it’s remained a good barometer of what’s going on in our world.

Even so, I think it was best viewed from behind my mother’s couch, when I still had the innocence of a five year old.

If I’d known then what I know now, I’d have embraced comedy in general, and improv specifically, much earlier in my life.

CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 SNL from Behind the Couch by Melissa Bartell is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.