In 2011, The Hollywood Reporter referred to Lorne Michaels as the “all-powerful Oz” of NBC late-night. Michaels is the unimpeachable Executive Producer of The Tonight Show, which averages about two to three million viewers per night, and the majordomo of Saturday Night Live, which can pull in between five to eight million viewers.
With a growing digital audience, there’s no telling how many pinned eyeballs are at the mercy of Lorne Michaels. When accounting for total audience size of The Tonight Show, SNL, and their respective subscribers on YouTube, you discover that Lorne Michaels has the reach of a media tycoon like Rupert Murdoch. Let that sink in, and then reflect on the fact that Michaels has a monopoly over sketch comedy on network television; a genre of comedy that now dispenses political propaganda with the same irresponsible gusto as the cable news.
In the same way that Jon Stewart used real broadcast journalists to help The Daily Show with fact-checking and research, it seems Lorne Michaels has staffed SNL with writers who have a duel function as liberal activists and satirists. SNL’s ideologically uniform writing room is the product of a monocultural view of politics and the arts.
This is not how SNL has traditionally disseminated sketch comedy, but we’re no longer in the age of “rebels with sweaters,” when the philosophy of SNL was to attack the establishment, not to act as its surrogate.
In 1975, Lorne Michaels was a bratty and caustic maestro of a form of sketch comedy that seemed as beautifully nihilistic as the mind of Richard Pryor. Lorne Michaels stopped being that person when The Daily Show proved that partisan political satire is a ratings draw. Since the presidency of Barack Obama, SNL has essentially abandoned their tradition of being the anti-establishment comedy troupe in favor of pandering to their audience of monied liberals.
The cause of this shift is complicated, but The Daily Show seems to have blurred the lines between satire and the cable news in such a way that satire became more effective at political propaganda than the cable news. Vanity Fair once suggested that Tina Fey’s SNL parody of Sarah Palin “possibly helped derail Palin’s bid and put Barack Obama and Joe Biden in office.” Several studies have supported this theory, which is why you should expect almost every pre-credits cold-open in 2020 to focus on Trump, Pence, or the GOP.
This is only funny if you’re a Democrat.
SNL is what happens when the Sex Pistols become the faces of an environmentally conscious credit card company. SNL is now an antiseptic to the sort of beautifully raunchy and fully liberated comedy that exists in the clubs and the Netflix specials of Dave Chapelle and Bill Burr. As comedy becomes increasingly polarized between woke and anti-woke comics, SNL has not yet been able to adjust their recruitment efforts or comedic identity. Studio 8H is defined by a neutered and mimetic view of satire — informed almost entirely by mainstream media tropes that rely on the view that every platform must be used to resist the GOP; escapism and any notion of a “fairness doctrine” in their writing room is as passé as the notion that a late-night host should be a host, as opposed to an activist. This is why Jay Leno is the last late-night host — this is also why Leno will never host today’s version of SNL.
The problem isn’t that SNL is anti-conservative; the problem is that there is no alternative for Americans who view SNL as either political propaganda or the empty political satire of New York elites that even the far-left view as lazy limousine liberals. I am not arguing that SNL should be more conservative or hire more conservative comedians — I am arguing that SNL shouldn’t be the Standard Oil of sketch comedy. Lorne Michaels shouldn’t be able to singlehandedly crystallize how late-night viewers view Justice Kavanaugh, for example.
Any challenge to Michaels’ supremacy over sketch comedy has failed miserably. MADtv (which launched as an opportunity to recruit the audience that had abandoned SNL) never had the promotional support of Fox and appealed to a cult audience; In Living Color couldn’t find a balance with Fox executives; The Dana Carvey Show failed because it was staffed by misanthropes and stoners, and The Dave Chappelle Show collapsed because Chappelle isn’t Lorne Michaels.
SNL is successful precisely because Lorne Michaels offers the perfect balance of soulless corporate executive and comedy writer. The reason we may never have a legitimate threat to SNL is that funny people generally aren’t as gifted at political maneuvering as Michaels — whom we can picture lunching with Hillary Clinton. And Lorne Michaels has no peer; ABC, CBS, and Fox do not have an equivalent to him. The only threat to his cultural supremacy is time. “There is not competition for Saturday Night Live,” NBC executive Dick Ebersol once said, “except sleep.”
The liberal bias of SNL exists because Michaels is savvy enough to know that the suits at NBC want SNL to validate their worldview and funding efforts, not to challenge it. SNL rarely mocked President Obama’s arrogance because they viewed him as a sacred cow. He was a protected property. When they do mock Democrats such as AOC and Hillary Clinton, they never humiliate them with the same degree of spite they use to absolutely destroy Sarah Palin, Trump, and Kellyanne Conway. There’s always a wink-wink and degree of respect when Kate McKinnon parodies Hillary Clinton as an unrelatable Devil Wears Prada executive, as opposed to revealing much uglier facets of her political persona.
When you place political boundaries around satirists, you remove their ability to indiscriminately play with language, stereotypes, and tropes. Generally speaking, a good joke “kills” and a bad one “dies,” but on SNL, a good joke is whatever the mainstream media can use to advance their discourse on Monday morning. At least that’s what it feels like for most Americans.
Conservatives and leftists may want to redirect their frustration away from SNL’s corporate liberal bias, and towards entrepreneurial efforts to fund, produce, and promote alternatives to SNL that produce sketch comedy that is at least willing to staff its writers room with as many ideologically diverse as racially diverse voices who can sack the antiquated empire of a 74-year-old Canadian who now functions as the William Randolph Hearst of late-night.
Art Tavana is an arts and culture critic based in Los Angeles. He is a former columnist at L.A. Weekly and Playboy.