Tom Shales on TV: Taking a Look at 'Saturday Night Live'

Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 8, 2009

We should all have the kind of problem Lorne Michaels is facing: The TV series he produces and co-founded was such a tremendous success in its 34th season that it'll be tough to do as well in its 35th.

The show, of course, is "Saturday Night Live," NBC's epochal weekend satiricom and cultural institution that has been up and down in ratings and quality (never falling as low as it has risen high) over the decades, but which every four years gets a boost and bequest from democracy. Presidential election campaigns have always been good to "Saturday Night Live," but last year's seminal, splashy clash between Barack Obama and John McCain pushed "SNL" over the top and off the charts.

It was a gangbusters, blockbuster year for television's greatest still-running entertainment show, whose season premiere arrives Sept. 26, with Megan Fox hosting.

Last season "SNL," riding the wave of excitement over the election (while helping to create it), enjoyed its best overall ratings in 11 years and its best Nielsen numbers in the targeted 18-to-49 demographic in five years. That amounted to an increase of 34 percent in total viewers -- up to 9.1 million from 6.8 million.

The late-night show has had better ratings than every prime-time show on every network on Saturday nights since 2006. It gets more viewers at 11:30 Eastern time than do all of the NBC prime-time shows that air ahead of it between 8 and 11 p.m.

The 2008 opener, hosted by Olympic superstar swimmer Michael Phelps, was the second-most-watched episode in the history of the show, and the season finale, hosted by "SNL" alumnus and movie star Will Ferrell, scored the best numbers (7.3 million total viewers) since May 2005.

Still, for Michaels, the good news can barely hide a world of worry. "It comes and goes like everything else," he says, with his usual nonchalance, of the show's success. But this season seems predestined to be worrisome. There's no election, for one thing. Even more potentially troublesome: Tina Fey is locked into her prime-time hit "30 Rock" (produced by Michaels and based on the tribulations of doing an "SNL" sort of series) and can't come back on any sort of regular basis to do her smashing impersonation of Republican vice presidential nominess Sarah Palin, even though Palin has shown a knack for keeping her name in the news.

That single impression made a stupendous impression on viewers; public opinion expressed via e-mail and shouts on the street decreed Fey perfect for the part. "On the same day, the doorman of my building said to me, 'Mr. Michaels, what a gift, huh?' " of the Fey-Palin matchup, "and Robert De Niro, who I passed on the sidewalk, said, 'Hey, what a gift, huh?' "

The gift has gone back to the shop. And Fey's sister in comedy, the uncannily versatile Amy Poehler, also has a prime-time series, "Parks & Recreation," that will keep her off "SNL" most of the time. "When Amy did the show hosted by Josh Brolin, she was nine months pregnant," Michaels marvels, and he's not usually one to marvel. "There's nothing that woman can't do, and this was her magical season."

Two new women who will have the status of featured players -- Jenny Slate and Iranian-born Nasim Pedrad -- will join the cast, not as replacements for anybody, Michaels says, although cute Casey Wilson and glamorous Michaela Watkins have concurrently left. Watkins may have been just too classically pretty to be hilarious. Anyway, the absences of Fey and Poehler will be felt.

Dealing with cast changes is nothing new for Michaels -- he's been faced with these crises since Season 2, when Chevy Chase, the first huge star to emerge from the cast, left abruptly for a movie career. The Fey-Poehler one-two punch can be seen as exceptionally challenging, however.

In the aftermaths of many a previous campaign year, that old blues song "What'll We Do Without an Election" has been sung around the "SNL" offices. But again, this year's creative hangover might be more severe, partly because Barack Obama did awaken previously dormant political interest among the young, probably about the same time that the two demographic groups, politically aware youth and "SNL" viewers, crisscrossed. (The show became especially attractive to younger viewers: Among 18-to-49ers, it enjoyed a 31 percent boost, from 2.9 million to, by the latest count, 3.8 million.)

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