Ever since Seth Meyers left Saturday Night Live for Late Night, the sketch show’s longtime centerpiece has become one of the show’s biggest problem areas. After getting off to an inauspicious start—when Michael Che replaced the short-lived but beloved Cecily Strong—new anchor team Che and Colin Jost are about to embark on their final shows of 2014.
With that in mind, staff editor Hillary Busis and senior writer Natalie Abrams take a look at how they’re doing so far—and offer a few tips on how to fix the once-sucessful fake news franchise.
NAT: Let’s start by going backwards—to Colin Jost being added to the Weekend Update desk in the first place. Obviously, Lorne Michaels was desperately trying to recreate the male-female dynamic that was so successful with Jimmy Fallon/Tina Fey and Seth Meyers/Amy Poehler—but Jost and Cecily Strong were just plain stale. There was seriously no banter going on. Maybe that’s because Strong barely had time to get her footing before Meyers left, and Jost was really green—but they just couldn’t find a rhythm. And before they were even really given a chance, Michaels gave Strong the boot so the monotone Michael Che could join the boys’ club. What is up with that guy? He’s like that Will Ferrell SNL character who couldn’t change the tenor of his voice! Does he not understand inflection? I have no idea when he gets to the punchline.
HILLARY: For the most part, Natalie, I agree with you about Colin Jost. Even almost a year in, he seems more like a watered-down Seth Meyers than an anchor with his own discernible personality—and that creepy, half-smile-smirk thing that popped up every time he tried to land a punchline on his early shows still makes an appearance every now and then. (Watch his face, especially in this season’s first Update, and you can watch his mouth muscles twitch with the effort not to do that. It’s kind of hypnotizing.)
That said, while I agree that Lorne chose to keep the wrong anchor, I do think there’s still potential in the team of Che and Jost. True, Che’s delivery can err on the side of being too understated—but his laid-back confidence is a nice contrast to Jost’s nervous energy, and the two show a few sparks of life when they interact with each other (something that happens all too rarely). As underwhelming as the two of them are, though, I still think Update remains SNL‘s best showcase for its strongest characters—people like Drunk Uncle and whichever politician Kate McKinnon’s lampooning that week. I have a feeling you’re gonna disagree.
NAT: I do not disagree that Kate McKinnon is the MVP of Weekend Update sketches in recent years. And Drunk Uncle is a safe bet for comedy, even if it’s become a little repetitive. What the show needs is a new batch of regular characters, because its Stefon-sized vacancy is becoming more and more apparent. Even if it’s just a small regular gag, a la Land Shark—by far one of my favorite bits from the old days.
I could actually do with a complete Weekend Update makeover, especially since this year marks SNL‘s 40th anniversary. Why not ditch the regular co-anchors and bring in a revolving door of guest hosts—namely, alums who have sat behind the desk before? Everyone from Jane Curtin and Bill Murray to Norm Macdonald to Poehler and Fey could take a turn. Forget the comedy; viewers would be tuning in just to see the guest anchor.
HILLARY: The guest anchor idea is definitely intriguing—but I think Update works, in theory, primarily because it’s so stable. Anchors have their own personae (Chevy Chase’s charming smugness, Fey/Fallon’s hot teacher/impish student duo, whatever Colin Quinn was doing), but they’re by and large playing the straight man; it’s the desk’s visitors, be they Roseanne Roseannadanna or The Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation at the Party With, who really bring the personality. And while I will always, always giggle at Drunk Uncle, I can agree that the show needs to find folks to replace Stefon and Fred Armisen’s Gov. David Patterson.
NAT: What if—and roll with me here for a moment—Saturday Night Live really shook things up and made Weekend Update a sometimes thing? Let’s be honest: More often than not, their jokes don’t quite land. Why? Because they have to do this same thing week in and week out. But if we looked at Weekend Update as a sketch—something that only recurred every couple of shows—that would take the pressure off of Jost and Che to churn out content on a weekly basis. Plus, then viewers would actually watch through the first musical performance to see if that week included an edition of Weekend Update. It would make the franchise exciting again.
HILLARY: Yeah… I can’t get behind that. First of all, it’s too integral to the structure of the show. SNL can neatly be divided into two distinct categories: the mainstream/topical pre-Update stuff, and the weirder/more hit-or-miss post-Update stuff. Secondly, the difficulty of coming up with topical material every week shouldn’t be an excuse; The Daily Show and The Colbert Report manage to come up with new stuff to talk about every night. And most importantly, as I was saying before, Update gives SNL‘s (non-anchor) cast a chance to indulge in purely character-based comedy. This makes Update an oasis for viewers tired of fake game shows and political cold opens and pre-taped shorts and sketches designed so each performer can do one celebrity impression, the typical stuff that fills the rest of the show—it’s a place designed to accommodate a different comic format altogether, which gives each episode some much-needed variety. Moreover, Update’s best characters aren’t just great—they’re characters who couldn’t exist anywhere but Update. They tried launching Stefon by putting him in a regular sketch; it didn’t work. The same would’ve been true for Dana Carvey’s Grumpy Old Man or Kevin Nealon’s Mr. Subliminal.
NAT: Fair point. Although, Kristen’s Wiig’s Gilly and Penelope both could’ve been characters that found success on Weekend Update and instead thrived in sketches, so I think it works both ways. In fact, one of my favorite Update regulars was Wiig’s film reviewer Aunt Linda, who wasn’t as wildly popular, but found success with repetition. Same goes, at least for me, with Stefon, who I didn’t necessarily like in the beginning, but he grew on me because they used him so much. Did the character get better, or did I just give in? Maybe that’s a bad example, since Stefon is so beloved—but you have to admit that sketch was the same tired format with new variously random club aspects every single week.
HILLARY: But that’s the whole point! As pretentious as this is going to sound, writing a bit for one of Update’s best recurring figures is like writing a sonnet—it’s an exercise in varying the content without varying the form. The trick is hitting on the right form in the first place—finding something that’s both easily replicable and capable of staying interesting after the second or fifth or twentieth appearance of that character. (Something like “New York’s hottest club is…) It’s a tough balance to strike, and one that nobody but The Girl Who… has really been able to accomplish in recent years—but when it works, it makes for a character who’s simultaneously both familiar and potentially surprising.
As much as it sounds like I’m defending Update as it is, though, I think what I’m really defending is Update as an institution. The bones are there—but I’m with you in thinking that right now, they’re not really dancing.