I felt like I should pay tribute to Saturday Night Live as the 40th anniversary was the talk of the town this weekend. But this is one of the few instances where I actually have no idea what to say. SNL has always been in my life and more importantly, been a part of my life. I’ve never known a world without SNL and frankly, I don’t care to. It feels a bit weird to make such adamantly sentimental and loving statements about a show that is so often looked down on – accused of either being past its prime or never having been funny at all – but I can’t help how I feel. “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!” takes me to my happy place. I honestly don’t know who I would be if I didn’t hear those magical seven words every Saturday night growing up.
I have vividly clear memories of watching SNL for the first time. It was the spring of 1996, I was 10 years old and up with the flu and a fever. My younger brother was tucked away in bed and I was being tended to by my parents in the living room. My mom spread a sheet out on the floor for me (she would sleep on the couch in case I needed anything during the night) and I can still remember how cool and refreshing the sheet felt against my fever-warm skin. 11:30 rolled around (though it seemed much later to a delirious 10-year-old) and my father turned the muted TV to Saturday Night Live, as (I’d later find out) he often did. I was familiar with the show only by name and reputation – I was a fan of Nickelodeon’s kid-oriented sketch shows, Roundhouse and All That, and knew that those shows were based on that model. And I knew it was something I was not allowed to watch, a fact I had learned 2 years previous when Nancy Kerrigan (I was obsessed with figure skating for a few years in my childhood) hosted and my parents tuned in and told me about it after the fact.
But for some reason, this night was different. As fate would have it, Jim Carrey was hosting and my parents were tickled by The Mask. By monologue’s end, Dad had unmuted the TV. Mom was still attending to my illness, pressing a cold washcloth to my forehead, but her attention slowly began to shift from me to the television. The first sketch was Carrey joining in on Will Ferrell and Cheri Oteri’s Spartan Cheerleaders routine. It was weird, it was manic, it was… amazing? The next sketch was the soon-to-be-iconic sight of Carrey with Will Ferrell and Chris Kattan’s Roxbury Guys. Incredible. The third sketch featured Carrey as an overzealous lifeguard supervising Will Ferrell sitting in a Jacuzzi. The three of us were in hysterics.
Even in my feverish haze, I remember feeling like I was getting away with something. Did my parents forget I was in the room? Is this a treat because I’m sick? Do they figure I’m not retaining any of this because I’m fuzzy from the cold medicine? Anytime any joke or event happened that I knew (or extrapolated) was “inappropriate,” I would squint my eyes (squint, not close. I obviously wasn’t going to stop watching!) and pretend to have fallen asleep, not for fear of embarrassment but for fear that my Dad would feel pressured to change the channel. There was no way he could change the channel.
I didn’t see another SNL for nearly 2 years (and only through sly subterfuge – oh, the lies I’ve told in the name of Sarah Michelle Gellar). The era of “The Ambiguously Gay Duo,” “The Ladies’ Man” and the show’s well-publicized satire of the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal didn’t exactly help sway my parents’ opinion that this was no show for our nice Christian family to enjoy together. I remember seeing sketches here and there, either by chance or if there was something particularly noteworthy, my parents would record reruns and curate a highlight reel of sorts for me (highlights included various installments of “Goth Talk” and Mary-Katherine Gallagher, “The Partridge Family vs. The Brady Bunch,” and the still-often-quoted-in-my-household “Get Off The Shed!”).
And of course anytime there was a sleepover at Grandma’s on a Saturday night, it was a known fact that my cousins were not to disturb me from 11:30pm – 1AM. In fact, many sleepovers were ruined during this time as my cousin/best friend Heather could not have cared less about SNL, would beg and plead that we not be forced to stop our sleepover shenanigans so I could watch the show and would often passive-aggressively fall asleep around midnight to protest the party interruption. (In a fun twist of fate, she grew up to marry a SNL super-fan and the three of us now spend family gatherings in a corner, power-ranking the latest cast and sketches.)
By mid-2000, my burgeoning SNL fandom could no longer be denied. *NSYNC, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera all made appearances and my parents knew better than to come between me and my popstars. One episode turned into the next week’s episode and the next week’s… and here we are 15 years later. (In the past 15 years, I’ve only ever missed one episode: the 2004 Robert DeNiro/Destiny’s Child Christmas show. It aired on my 19th birthday and I was at my Grandma’s house for my party. Some long-absent cousins of my Gran’s dropped by and the family chatted away until the wee hours of the night for some reason. I returned home to find our VCR had failed to record AND MY BIRTHDAY WAS RUINED. The Christmas shows were rarely repeated out of season and I didn’t see a repeat until years later.)
This new-found freedom coincided with the start of Jimmy Fallon and Tina Fey’s Weekend Update tenure and I pretty much instantly fell in love with both of them. I was 14 and he was a mop-headed dreamy goofball and she was a funny, smart lady with GLASSES who not only got to hang out with the dreamy goofball but often one-upped him. Dream team.
Thanks to Joss Whedon’s early seasons of Buffy, I had recently become fascinated with writing and finding out about SNL‘s creative process blew my young mind – this entire show is conceived, written and produced in less than a week? EVERY WEEK?! Learning Tina Fey was the boss of it all (the first and still only female head writer) cemented her as a capital-H Hero and the show as something to be obsessively studied. I began recording each week’s episode in early 2001 and transcribing my favorite sketches or Update jokes for later reference. In the early 2000s, Comedy Central began showing daily reruns, allowing me to catch up on episodes my archive was missing. I had an entire tape dedicated solely to Weekend Update. There are at least a dozen boxes of VHS tapes in my parents’ storage shed that have nothing but SNL episodes on them. In 2008, we switched from a VCR to a DVD recorder, resulting in this collection:
(I still record and archive SNL every week, which may seem weird in the digital age but music rights often prevent sketches -and obviously the musical guest’s performances- from making it online and have actually halted any future DVD releases of the series.)
My habit of hoarding television episodes (sadly?) wasn’t limited to SNL and my archives gained me a bit of notoriety in high school (nothing cooler than a girl who is weirdly obsessive about television, especially sketch comedy, right fellas?), with my classmates often asking me to loan my tapes out. This was a tad risky in my private Christian school, resulting in some slick maneuvers to get my contraband in the hands of those who needed it. Pro-tip: an empty Bible cover can fit 3 VHS tapes inside it! While most people were interested in my Gilmore Girls or vintage TGIF collection, my friend Hazel was the only patron of my SNL library. We developed a routine that consisted of me slipping her the tape of that weekend’s episode during Monday morning chapel service and her swiftly returning the tape to me in the girls’ bathroom before class on Tuesday as we’d excitedly compare our favorite sketches and discuss who was cuter that week: Jimmy Fallon or Seth Meyers? These covert exchanges are some of my fondest high school memories and it was ultimately fitting that Jimmy Fallon departed the SNL cast the same week I graduated high school. It was truly the end of an era. (Hazel and I lost touch a few years later but I recently found a January 2006 comment from her, thanking me for posting the link to “Lazy Sunday” on her MySpace. The more things change, right?)
SNL‘s influence also led to me taking a creative leadership role in drama class my junior year of high school. The overall objective of our class was to perform previously written one-act plays for the early morning chapel services. The material was often super-cheesy, super-dated Christian morality tales that everyone was embarrassed to read aloud, much less perform in front of the entire school. Our teacher was keenly aware of this and decided to allow my best friend Grace and I to rewrite our assigned material. And by rewrite, I mean expand on this earnest, pandering religious material until the entire piece was so filled with Christian buzzwords and unreasonably pious sentiments that our classmates eventually caught on that we were being satirical while the administration just thought we were being model students. This continued and we “rewrote” and produced one play a month for the entire school year. Our smaller assignments for the class were often to write and stage a short sketch in class based around a weekly theme. Grace and I continued to work together and came up with some truly inspired (often bizarre) works. She was the Poehler to my Fey but sadly Grace was a grade ahead of me and I was on my own the following year.
Our class format was altered in my senior year and we were asked to stage a full-length play for the chapel before Christmas break. I barely remember anything about the play now except that we were playing residents in a nursing home (?) and my character was a has-been actress with delusions of grandeur – it’s occurring to me now that I was basically a cross between Kristen Wiig’s “Don’t make me sing!” character and Kristen Wiig in “Secret Word.” My scenes were mainly with two other classmates: Hilary, a sweetheart of a girl I’d known since Kindergarten who (to my delight) laughed at literally every humorous comment I ever murmured, and Patrick, a sophomore who often came to school dressed as Ace Ventura (?!) and said I was the “coolest girl ever” because I was the only female he’d ever met who was familiar with Jackass and had seen Back to the Future.
We rehearsed for months, which should have been a tedious nightmare but ended up being some of the most fun I’d ever had. Patrick, Hilary and I had almost no blocking to learn (our characters were seated, trading dialogue over a jigsaw puzzle – retirement home, remember?) so our presence was not necessarily needed onstage and we were usually sent backstage to run lines. Obviously this would inevitably result in us running the scene once and then Patrick and I would improvise stupid bits for the duration of the class, seeing who could make Hilary cry-laugh first. (I don’t remember many specifics: I think there was a routine where he was a foul-mouthed parrot and I was his trainer. Lots of song parodies. And I have a vague recollection of my life flashing before my eyes when maintenance left a hand truck backstage and Patrick speedily “drove” me around on it – right off the stage.) You guessed it: he was the Jimmy to my Tina and we comedy-flirted the days away.
I never particularly enjoyed the performance aspect of our productions (I’m far too much of an over-thinker for the performing arts), but this was the most I ever enjoyed it and probably the most comfortable I ever was onstage. The safety net of being surrounded by people I loved being a fool in front of allowed me to act a fool in front of the entire student body. When graduation came six months later, my heartbreak at leaving my comedy family behind was eased by one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received: the underclassmen recorded a “greatest hits” video tribute to the graduating seniors, complete with impressions. My own original characters were being parodied! My own personal behavior was being parodied! I was the subject of my own SNL-lite sketch and nothing could’ve made me happier. I laughed, I cried, I laughed until I cried. (I also unofficially retired from comedy after that. I peaked too young.)
These past couple weeks leading up to SNL 40 have been interesting as VH1 Classic ran a 19-day, 433-hour marathon of the series, running in reverse-chronological order. The first few days were fun but nonessential viewing, as recent seasons are readily available on Hulu. It was getting into that 2000s era that hit my nostalgia sweet spot and made me start thinking about what the show has meant to me over the years and how intertwined it is with my memories of growing up. It was bizarre seeing sketches I hadn’t seen in years and yet I still remembered what every single word was going to be before it was said. (Also fun being scandalized at how many jokes I apparently never properly understood before. I watched some of these in the same room as my grandmother!) My brother and I were blown away at how many quotes and references we still use in our daily lives, origins long-forgotten, apparently came from SNL. It was like stepping into a time machine.
In a neat twist, as the marathon continued, it was apparently that way for my parents as well. The past week’s family dinner discussions have pretty much entirely been comprised of the four of us sharing our fond memories of the show. Dad remembers watching the premiere episode; he was 13. He started off watching by himself but by the next week his older brother had joined the fun. They knew an episode was going to be exciting if their parents decided to stay up. (Apparently Grandma and Grandpa were big fans of “The Wild and Crazy Guys,” a fact that will never stop blowing my mind.) Mom remembers staying up with her younger brother to watch and recording the episodes’ audio on her tape recorder for further study. (Like mother, like daughter.)
Which brings us to last night’s show. My 57-year-old mother and 52-year-old father sat down with their 29-year-old daughter and 23-year-old son and watched SNL 40; each one of us no doubt reflecting on our own personal history with the show. (In a cool symmetry to my experience in high school, my brother also found himself writing and performing in a comedy show at his college a few years ago. He was also in the house band but then again, he’s always been the overachiever in the family.)
It was a fun game seeing what cast members garnered what reaction from each family member. As in love as I was with Jimmy Fallon back in the day, I think my mom currently rivals me in the fangirl department, thanks to his work in late-night. Dad still gets a kick out of Steve Martin or Will Ferrell doing pretty much anything. Seeing Jane Curtain at the Update desk alongside Tina Fey and Amy Poehler made me unexpectedly verklempt (as did Emma Stone as Roseanne Roseannadanna. My sweet Emma! My sweet Gilda! Somebody hold me!) My brother was absolutely ecstatic to learn that “Tim Calhoun” was apparently part of Will Forte’s audition. And I think it was a family-wide four-way tie for the title of “most excited to see Bill Murray.”
Basically what it’s taken me nearly 3000 words to say is that SNL has given us many beloved characters and introduced us to some of our most treasured comedians but the greatest thing it’s given us is our memories. When I think of SNL, I think of trying not to fall asleep in church on Sunday morning because I stayed up until the very end of the show, I think of the “Happy Birthday To The Ground” birthday card my then-7-year-old cousin made for me a few years ago, I think of the plush Stefon my brother gave me for Christmas two months ago. Everybody’s answer is going to be different when asked what comes to mind when you think about SNL because it means something different to everybody. And then of course on a lighter note, everyone has their own favorite characters, cast members and catchphrases. That personal connection is a large part of what makes the show so great.
By that same token, it’s fascinating (and a little bit sweet) that so many people of varying ages feel a sense of ownership towards the show. My dad “discovered” the show the first time it aired but I’ve stuck by it for literally half of my life; it’s just as much mine as it is his. It belongs to me as much as it belongs to the youngster somewhere out there, staying up late for the first time, desperately praying that her father doesn’t change the channel. SNL is simultaneously each of ours and all of ours. And I couldn’t be prouder to call it mine.