The Decline of Comedy

What Ever Happened to the Evening TV?

Back-to-school, 2013. Through the flurry of sepia sweaters and pumpkin-flavored everything, notebooks are sold out at every office supply store, seasonal candles are being placed on every shelf. Miley Cyrus and Katy Perry are at the top of the Billboard Hot 100, and prime time just ended on the living room TV. Millions of Americans at home are switching the channel to NBC, catching the tail end of their local broadcasting to see the first episode of season 39 of the classic sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live. It’s September 28, and as America watches Tina Fey give her opening monologue, smiles still upturned from Aaron Paul’s cameo in the cold open, not one person stops to realize that this is the beginning of the end.

It’ll be easy to find that “Weekend Update” anchor’s memoir at any consignment store where teens dump those books they didn’t quite care for.

More Cowbell!

No one can talk about comedy without bringing up Saturday Night Live.

Since the 70s, SNL has been a cornerstone of American culture, and since 2013, there has no doubt been a symbolic drop-off in not only quality, but popularity — especially among high school students, a crowd which was once among the most enthusiastic about comedy. These days, the average highschool student couldn’t name a single SNL staff member, spare the offhand mention of Pete Davidson, who’s been touring the covers of People magazine on-and-off for the past few years due to his various romantic escapades, most notably his canceled engagement to Ariana Grande in 2018, and in recent years, his whirlwind relationship with Kim Kardashian. A common trend can be identified when talking to highschoolers. Sowrya Chiluvuri, a junior, doesn’t currently watch SNL, and couldn’t come up with the name of any featured players currently on the show. A Denmark Unleashed correspondent inquired Chiluvuri if he could name any past cast members to which the response was: “I know, that one who dated Kim Kardashian. I forgot his name.” Cut to Akshay Sogerwal and Sanay Garud, who answer with a humored no when asked if they watch Saturday Night Live, as if the real humor is in that someone in high school might watch something so irrelevant. In response to being asked if they could name any current cast members, or any past ones, Sogerwal laughs and says, “No, I’m feeling like no.” Garud answers with a similar effect: “Absolutely not.” To top it off, Sogerwal questions, “I think they have a band?” (CORRESPONDENT: “The Lonely Island?”) “I don’t know, I’m sorry.”

Whereas just a decade ago, Saturday Night Live was still holding on to its place in high schooler’s senior quotes, references in the classroom flying by, all the conversations now go like this: Gia Ippoliti says she’s never seen the show, never will (CORRESPONDENT: “Do you know what network it’s on?” IPPOLITI: “Probably Channel 2 or something.”), Nirv Sayam asks, Is that the Jimmy Kimmel show? (“No.”) Is that the Pete Davidson show?

For a show that once defined the reason a freshman stayed up past midnight, it serves a stark reality when only a few students can even come up with the most popular frontrunner of the past few years, who happened to depart from the roster just last year. Even staff members like Mr. Hollis can attest to SNL’s irrelevance and decline.

Mr. Hollis, who stopped watching NBC’s pride and joy in 2010, agrees that around that time, things began their downward slope. Apart from sketch comedy, network humor, and adult animation, Mr. Hollis also mentions that late night talk shows have accompanied this downfall. “I used to watch The Tonight Show, with Jimmy Fallon,” he says, somewhat sheepishly, which is the same way he mentions that he watched SNL up until 2010— as if these aren’t things he could imagine doing these days, which unfortunately seems to be the same way a majority of other Americans feel. According to IMDb, the people’s database for all things big screen ratings-and-review, of the top ten best rated episodes, only one passes 2013: Eddie Murphy hosted in 2019, with musical guest Lizzo. And no, this episode isn’t ranked this high (at number 3) because the jokes were all the sudden so much better than they’d been the past forty-five years: it was for two completely unrelated events. One, this was the first time Murphy, one of SNL’s most legendary alums had hosted since 1984. This set a new record for the longest time between hosting appearances, but Murphy returning to the show also brought wildly higher viewership than SNL had received in the past few years. This was due to audiences highly anticipating a cast member from the golden era coming back to revitalize the spirit of the show, just for one night. The ratings come from pure nostalgia — one IMDb user says, “Eddie Murphy and his friends should be in charge of SNL from now on!”

Beyond that, Murphy dropped a certain colorful word on air during his performance, which may have skewed the ratings… but just a little bit. The entire rest of the top 10 list contains episodes from seasons that all come to a halt at the end of 2013. The truth was, things were only going to get worse — and it wasn’t just at 30 Rock.

What, Me Worry?

Reflecting back on old SNL “golden era” moments is a little bittersweet— it’s the type of phenomenon that makes someone wonder, “Where did it all go wrong?”

It’s human nature to look for a good laugh, and before and after the days of television sketch comedy, people had been trying to create a snicker anywhere they could. Interviewing Coach Jones, the topic of MADtv came up — some might call it SNL’s snide little brother, some might call it genius, and some might recall its roots, which are grounded in the iconic satirist magazine Mad. It’s hard for someone to explain the influence of Mad magazine without going on a truly “mad” rant. Everything in comedy is connected — Mad inspired generations, from The Simpsons to anti-war activists in the 60s. The age of humor magazines are long gone — like SNL, these flagship periodicals once beloved by teenagers now are only greeted by a face that asks, “What?” when brought up in conversation.  National Lampoon and Mad’s witty spreads were the type that made the average highschooler’s face hurt from violent cackling — but that was in the 70s, and the Lampoon, which had heavy ties with SNL’s “Not Ready For Prime Time” club (especially Chevy Chase and John Belushi, who made cinematic history in National Lampoon films like Animal House, Caddyshack, and the National Lampoon’s Family Vacation series) and SNL’s early writers, ended publication in 1998. In 2019, Mad announced they’d cease the distribution of new materials, except for specials. It’s impossible to see now, but there was a time where people said they only recognized their own success when the comic magazine parodied them (this includes stars such as Michael J. Fox, who needs no introduction, and Terence Winter, the writer and producer of The Sopranos). The question posed is louder than ever: What happened?

It’s a variety of things, the internet playing a large role in homogenizing comedy (goodbye CollegeHumor, goodbye to when The Onion was special) and sowing the seeds of American divide. In an age where cracking jokes is a game of trying not to crack an egg, certain topics get hammered into the ground after one laugh, and uprising comedians are constantly chasing that collective “It’s okay if you joke about that” from the audience. Election years have always been the trees that provide low-hanging fruit to comedians season-round, but up until 2016, there would be a slight lull in the political jabs after the election is said-and-done. Mad parodied themselves on the cover of one of their 2017 issues, their cheeky mascot Alfred E. Neuman holding up a misleading sign: in large, blaring red letters, it reads “NO TRUMP IN THIS ISSUE” — but, preceding that, small print states, “Believe us — we really, really wish there was…” They had become self aware, and so had a few other popular comedy powerhouses, but that doesn’t matter; there was already no denying that American culture had entered a new era filled with endless repetitive jabs over their newfound “goldmine” of jokes. In this new era of comedy, finding an outlet for content that doesn’t make someone collapse asleep after getting beat with the phrase “beating a dead horse” is almost impossible. Those which paved the way for the format of modern American comedy, such as formative television programs started back in the mid 70s (must the specific one be mentioned?), now drag behind in a sorry attempt to keep up with the times. In the age of YouTube and social media mediums such as TikTok or Instagram Reels, anyone can be a comedian — the question now is if anyone should. It’s not all dreary, though; comedy is a volatile art form, and its high waves and low shores come and go. If using SNL as a symbol once again, anyone could watch an episode from the early 80s, during creator Lorne Michaels’ hiatus from the show, and ask, “THIS is what this article’s been praising?” and it’ll be clear to see that this isn’t the first time it’s fallen. Don’t make like David Spade: it isn’t time to say buh-bye to hopes for a better comedic landscape.