Here’s an ad for this weekend’s episode of Saturday Night Live. It’s the season finale, and it’s Tina Fey’s sixth time as host, and so this promo quickly recaps her 20-plus year history with the show and subsequent career as a top-tier comedy champ across various media. And it does it in cartoon form (mostly). It also reinforces yet again that, like most things that can accurately be described as an institution, SNL is way too into its own history.
I don’t remember when Saturday Night Live became almost cripplingly obsessed with its own past. Those early 1970s seasons were already widely venerated as the show’s heyday when I first started watching it in the mid ‘80s (I might be old now, but I was also very young when I started watching this thing, so I might not be as old as that nugget makes me sound), but that past had solidly passed by that point. The SNL of 1984 did not look, sound or feel like the 1977 SNL reruns I’d watch on cable. Even when Lorne Michaels returned to the show in 1985, and picked up as if the five year interregnum of the early ‘80s never happened, there was a clear disconnect between what was happening on NBC most Saturday nights and what had been happening there before. That second heyday of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the era of Phil Hartman and Dana Carvey and Jan Hooks et. al., was not often in thrall to the work of previous casts, and especially not with the frequency and regularity of today. Cast members would leave after a few years, new ones would change the tone and voice of the show (for both better and worse), and that made it relatively simple to distinguish between specific periods in its history.
At some point that dynamic changed, and I want to say it started during Fey’s tenure on the show, at some point between 15 and 20 years ago. I’m not saying Fey herself had anything to do with that whatsoever—she was just one more writer and performer plugged into the machine that Michaels had built. Cast members and writers have regularly come and gone since the late ‘90s or early ‘00s, but SNL has felt like a single unchanging monolith in that time, a Mobius strip where the names and faces change but everything else about the show feels exactly the same. That slavish devotion to formula gradually became a dependency on the past, as stock sketch ideas were endlessly recycled, and as former cast members started to show up more and more frequently, both as hosts and in unannounced cameos. Over the last decade the show has effectively portrayed its own regular weekly cast as inferior to a steady parade of repeat guests and returning veterans, reaching its nadir with the carousel of celebrity cameos that have made up the show’s version of the Trump administration. Alec Baldwin’s stultifying take on Donald Trump is the show in a nutshell, banking on recognition and familiarity for easy laughs. It’s afraid of the present and constantly reminding us of its past. SNL isn’t resting on its laurels because it’s working itself to death trying to dig them back up.
Tina Fey had a good career at SNL. She should look back on her time there with fondness. And it’s perfectly fine for a network promo to remind viewers that a once-beloved cast member is returning to the show that made her famous. This simple ad comes off as an unintentional reminder of how thoroughly Michaels has let the show’s past define it, though. Instead of looking forward to seeing this particular cast one last time, it tells us to get excited for the return of somebody who left the show over a decade ago—somebody who, between her hosting gigs, her regular appearances as Sarah Palin in 2008, and her various other cameos, has made more appearances on SNL since she left than many later full-time cast members made in their entire time on the show. If this institution wants to ever justify the attention it gets again, it needs to stop looking backwards so intensely.