TV Review – When Was SNL Funny? – Part 4 (of 9)

Lorne Michaels apparently saw it was time to inject new blood into Saturday Night Live, starting with the sixteenth season. He’d had a fantastic four years of a consistent cast; many performers are absolute icons when the show is discussed. This is the moment where SNL begins to become a brand. I don’t think it fully realizes that until the end of the 1990s, but it’s clear NBC sees this as a critical piece of their late-night line-up instead of what the show was like through most of the 1980s, a deadweight.

Of course, the episodes I watched for this section were the highest rated by users on IMDb. They were:
Season 16 – Patrick Swayze
Season 17 – Steve Martin
Season 18 – Bill Murray
Season 19 – Charles Barkley
Season 20 – David Duchovny

Season sixteen kept the same core cast (Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman, Jan Hooks, Victoria Jackson, Dennis Miller, and Kevin Nealon) with Mike Meyers being upgraded from featured. Listed as “also starring” were Chris Farley, Tim Meadows, Chris Rock, and Julia Sweeney. The featured cast was perennials A. Whitney Brown and Al Franken, joined this year by Adam Sandler, David Spade, and Rob Schneider.

In the Patrick Swayze episode, longtime fans of SNL would expect a particular sketch, the Chippendales sketch. However, on Peacock, this episode is edited down to 28 minutes. This means the music used in that sketch has caused it to be cut. Other sketches are missing, like a Hans & Franz bit, a Tonight Show sketch with Carvey as Carson, and even Swayze’s opening monologue. We’re left with Weekend Update, an ongoing series of sketches with Phil Hartman as Sam Walton, White Trash Bed and Breakfast, and Mouse Trap Seminar. That last sketch is actually one of the more brilliant pieces I’ve seen on the show, with Swayze playing an instruction at an adult night school teaching the students how not to get hurt by mouse traps while trying to take the cheese. I found the performers to be absolutely hitting on all marks; they play the sketch so earnestly but are asking the most absurd questions. A-tier comedy in that one.

Season seventeen upgrades Sweeney, Farley, and Rock to full-time cast. Dennis Miller has bowed out, and Kevin Nealon replaces him at the Weekend Update Desk. Meadows, Sandler, Schneider, and Spade, remain as “also starring” and are joined by Ellen Cleghorne and Siobahn Fallon. Featured players include Franken and newcomers Melaine Hutsell and Beth Cahill. For an episode, Robert Smigel is even featured. Unfortunately, Jan Hooks is not here for this season, and her presence is sorely missed.

The opening of the Steve Martin episode is one of my all-time favorite SNL bits. The musical number “Not Going to Phone it in Tonight” is an excellent piece of meta-humor that highlights things the cast was becoming known for. I especially love Phil Hartman’s bit about showing people the real him tonight and Martin advising he shouldn’t, Hartman quickly conceding, and then the song goes on. As a kid, I thought the Schmitt’s Gay beer commercial with Sandler and Farley was hilarious; as an adult, I’m not sure if the joke is being gay or about beer commercials being for gay people. However, I can’t help but think it isn’t an inclusive message with Sandler involved.

There’s a game show sketch called Sucker Punch that’s pretty dull. Meyers does Theatre Stories, which has Carvey doing his Mickey Rooney bit. We get Rock doing Nat X. Deep Thoughts with Jack Handey. There is an awful sketch about doormen with Nealon and Schneider, whose entire joke is that these men think about dressing as women a lot. They cut the Feliz Navidad bit with Frankenstein, Tarzan, and Chris Farley. I also found out there was a Full Metal Jacket parody cut from the Peacock stream. Beyond that opening musical number, this is an overall bland, unfunny episode.

Season eighteen saw Victoria Jackson depart (was anything really lost there?). The core cast was now Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman, Chris Farley, Mike Meyers, Kevin Nealon, Chris Rock, Rob Schneider, and Julia Sweeney. Also starring were Melanie Hutsell, Ellen Cleghorne, Tim Meadows, Adam Sandler, and David Spade. Featured players were still Al Franken (doing Update monologues or Stuart Smalley) and Robert Smiegel for an episode. Mike Meyers missed the entire first half this season while Carvey left around February.

This Bill Murray episode has been chopped down to 38 minutes on Peacock, leaving out some better sketches. One I remember from this episode is a parody of 1950s Westerns called The Whipmaster that had some great funny bits. Not here in this edit. We get a Coffee Talk sketch with Linda Richman (Meyers). There’s a pretty amusing commercial parody for Hibernol with Chris Farley where the cold medicine puts you to sleep for the entirety of the winter. Overall, a forgettable episode that leaned into repetition more than presenting clever new ideas. So much is cut this feels emaciated.

Season nineteen finds Michael McKean added to the core cast. Norm MacDonald, Jay Mohr, and Sarah Silverman are with Al Franken as featured performers. Phil Hartman is really hanging in there, but this would be his final season with SNL. About a year later, Newsradio would premiere on NBC, and that would be Hartman’s last gig when he was tragically murdered by his wife. I’ve always felt Hartman was one of the great SNL MVPs. While none of these episodes featured what I consider his best work, he was always dependable and never played a straight man who was absent of some element of humor. Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer will always be one of my favorite characters on the show.

Charles Barkley is the host for this episode, and I think the athlete’s appeal was his awkward, wooden line delivery. It’s definitely a case of a host staring off-screen at the cue cards. This one is 47 minutes on Peacock, so a little better. First, we have a cold open about Clinton (Hartman) and his health care plan. Next, there’s a pretty good Stuart Smalley bit with Barkley and Muggsy Bogues going to therapy. Then we get some repetitive character pieces with Coffee Talk (again) and The Gap Girls (Sandler, Spade, Farley). Finally, there’s a current events sketch about the marital trouble Burt Reynolds was going through at the time. This was a moment where the formula was becoming apparent. You had half the episode with recurring characters, and the rest were poorly written sketches.

Season twenty marked an ending point for this era of SNL. The core cast was overflowing with Ellen Cleghorne, Chris Elliott, Chris Farley, Norm MacDonald, Michael McKean, Tim Meadows, Mike Meyers, Kevin Nealon, Adam Sandler, and David Spade. Featured players were Al Franken, Laura Kightlinger, and Jay Mohr. Changes happened during the season with casting. Mark McKinney came over from Kids in the Hall in January while Meyers left the same month. Molly Shannon and Janeane Garofalo both joined the cast in late February. Morwenna Banks becomes a very short-lived cast member, joining at the beginning of April and not returning after the May finale.

The David Duchovny episode only comes in at 37 minutes, so a lot is cut from this one. The cold open is an X-Files parody with Duchovny investigating the Beastman of Studio 8-H. There is a pretty good skit with Farley and Sandler where they play a married couple going through the Zagat’s food guide. Farley is undoubtedly the star of this sketch and reminds us of how good he could be when working with great material. Weekend Update is being done by MacDonald and features his brand of anti-comedy. There is a monologue by Laura Kightlinger that just feels like she is doing a bit from her act. She’s one of THREE guests on Weekend Update joined by McKean as Adam West and Sandler doing a bit on single moms and sings one of his songs. There’s a sketch about a realtor played by Jay Mohr, a lead singer of a heavy metal band. It is a horrible sketch. Finally, with this being the finale and many people leaving, there’s a pretty good sketch with some of the guys jumping into the polar bear exhibit at the Central Park Zoo and getting eaten. This would mark the beginning of some significant changes to the show as ratings were falling again. That would lead to the next “renaissance” of SNL.

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