Twenty-five years ago today, Saturday Night Live introduced America to what was almost an entirely new cast of Not Ready For Prime Time Players. Stagnation and declining ratings (not to mention being painfully unfunny for much of the time) had almost doomed SNL the previous season, and Lorne Michaels (who considers that 20th season the closest he’s ever come to being fired) responded to the latest close call with cancellation by letting go of the majority of the cast, including some now considered iconic, like Adam Sandler and Chris Farley.
In their place, the sketch-comedy Svengali presented the world an assemblage of brand-new talent. Cheri Oteri, Darrell Hammond, David Koechner, Nancy Walls, Jim Breuer, and more were among the new faces of the show, and Molly Shannon, previously only a featured player, was upgraded to full cast member status. It was the biggest overhaul of onscreen performers since the show’s 1985 nadir season, and the group was eager to prove its comedic chops. But let’s be honest: When the history books recall that 21st season, it will mostly be known for introducing Will Ferrell to the world. That may seem like an obvious coup in retrospect, but at the time, things weren’t so cut and dried. In fact, the entire season is remembered in very different ways, depending on how you look at it. A.V. Club staffers Alex McLevy and Erik Adams debate the quality of this noteworthy season—and have some pretty significant disagreements.
Alex McLevy: Look, Erik, let’s get the obvious out of the way: No one disputes that Will Ferrell is one of the best SNL cast members in history. Along with Darrell Hammond and Molly Shannon, the 21st season of SNL brought the series some of its most talented performers in years, people who would go on to shape the comedic style of the late-night show in memorable ways. And behind the scenes, the change was just as momentous—this was the season that saw Adam McKay and Paula Pell join the writing staff, after all. McKay is arguably the biggest creative voice behind the subsequent half-decade of the show, including a two-season stint as head writer. These were enormously skilled comedians just coming into the zenith of their powers (it’s surprising to learn that McKay and the perpetually middle-aged-seeming Ferrell weren’t even 30 yet when they started), and they helped bring about precisely the kind of creative rebirth Michaels had hoped for.
Eventually, anyways. Because honestly? That season kind of sucked.
At least, the first half of it sure did. As a kid whose obsession with comedy rivaled your own (didn’t you memorize facts about comedians as a boy, or something?), I remember excitedly tuning in to the season premiere, thinking I was watching history in the making. A brand-new cast! What wonders would they unveil? What classic new characters would they introduce to the world? Which sketches would I memorize off the VHS tape I used to record the episode, in order to show up at school Monday morning and spout off quotes to my classmates, because I oh-so-naively thought that was a cool thing to do? My mind raced. After the cold open (O.J. trial, of course) and a brand-new credits sequence, I was greeted with an opening monologue of Mariel Hemingway passionately kissing the new women cast members as a “joke.” Even as a kid, it seemed weirdly gay-panic-heavy. No matter; I shrugged it off, and eagerly focused on the first live sketch of the night.
It may seem now like an early taste of Ferrell’s signature straddling of the line between wildly over-the-top and casually understated, but as the audience reaction demonstrates, it just didn’t seem very funny. There were maybe three laughs there, tops. And Ferrell’s overbearing hectoring suffused the episode. By the end, I didn’t even bother memorizing any sketches—there was nothing worth repeating. I was far from alone in finding it underwhelming: Entertainment Weekly voted Ferrell the “most annoying newcomer” and called out his performance as “intolerable.” They were right, at the time.
That continued through the entire first half of the season. Flop sweat seemed to drench every other sketch, performers often staring directly and hungrily at the audience as though begging them to laugh. The cheerleaders routine, a recurring sketch with Ferrell and Oteri now considered a beloved staple of the era, annoyed the living shit out of me. You know what’s not funny? A pair of overgrown cheerleaders making up clumsy routines with shouty, uninspired chants.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. This season began with almost nothing to suggest the show was going to improve. Yet apparently I, and the others who lambasted it at the time, are in the wrong. Erik?
Erik Adams: “Get Off The Shed,” unfunny? This quintessential display of Will Ferrell’s ability to jackknife between milquetoast pleasantries and searing rage? The bit that got him a laugh during an SNL audition, notoriously one of the toughest rooms in comedy? Sure, Hemingway never quite finds the register her scene mates are playing in (something that was less of a problem when the concept was revived for Christine Baranski’s episode later in the season), but as far as introductions to one of the show’s defining voices go, this is about as direct as John Belushi cocking an eyebrow, miming a heart attack, and pinwheeling to the floor. To quote a different, shouty character who was still in Ferrell’s future at this point: I feel like I’m taking crazy pills.
I also feel like I should back up a bit to illuminate the divergent paths that delivered us to these sketches, episodes, and new cast members. In the fall of 1995, I was a few years off from my peak SNL-viewing years—I was still young enough that watching it on Saturday nights (live) was something I only got to do as an occasional treat. But I was still following the show to a certain extent, even if that just meant learning about its uptick in quality from the same publications that, one year prior, had their knives drawn as the Bad Boys era came to its ignominious end. (I don’t know if I’m the youthful trivia-memorizer you’re thinking of, Alex, but I was reading more showbiz news than the average preteen.) I don’t think I actually got my first look at the repertory players responsible for those reversed fortunes until 1996’s Rosie O’Donnell-hosted Christmas episode, by which time the Spartan Cheerleaders, Mary Katherine Gallagher, and The Roxbury Guys—season-21 introductions, one and all—had become near-weekly fixtures on the show.
The quality of those recurring sketches is debatable (and I’m sure just such a debate is about to ensue), but their popularity was crucial to keeping Saturday Night Live afloat in the wake of its near-cancellation the previous spring and MADtv’s entree into the weekend late-night arena that October. They might not have passed your quotability test, Alex, but the cheerleaders scored with the SNL audience in a manner unseen since the heyday of “Wayne’s World.” And when I was finally able to catch up with season 21 in cable reruns, it turned out that the characters with the biggest merchandising and spin-off-movie potential weren’t even the funniest parts of these episodes. Not to trifle with you and the Hal Boedeker column linked above, but I’ve always loved the way Tim Meadows applies his smiling straight man routine to the cold open with O.J. Simpson’s confession-by-Telestrator. That episode, which aired four days after Simpson was found not guilty of killing Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, also features one of Norm Macdonald’s all-time great Weekend Update openers: “It’s finally official: Murder is legal in the state of California.”
But those are timely zingers. Comb through the first part of the season, and you’ll find enduring commercial parodies like “Grayson Moorhead Securities,” “Petchow Rat Poison,” and “Old Glory Insurance.”Are you really trying to tell me that this season “kind of sucked” when it has Sam Waterston earnestly warning elderly viewers about the imminent threat of robot attack? If so, I implore you to revisit the David Alan Grier episode from a few weeks later, which gave us “Wake Up And Smile,” an unhinged morning-show send-up whose Lord Of The Flies meltdown is temporarily paused so Jim Breuer can play the star of a sitcom who “can’t get those pots put away.”
The rebirth you alluded to is written all over these sketches—is it just being clouded by your memories of “Spade In America,” the season’s transitional sop to the rowdier, snarkier times that preceded it?
AM: I think we’re about to wade directly into the problem with disagreeing about the quality of season 21—two problems, actually: One is that, should we choose, we can both happily cherry-pick examples of sketches to support our respective positions. You want to throw the admittedly excellent “Old Glory Insurance” at me as proof of how awesome the season was? I will gladly retort with another commercial parody from that exact same episode. “Cydney” finds the guest host (Melrose Place’s Laura Leighton) stopping the black-and-white commercial they’re filming to complain about the “midget” staring at her. Cut to: all the male cast members on their knees, playing little people, for an extended bit where the entire “joke” is that it’s… funny to watch little people be insulted? This is dire stuff, Erik, so bad that it seems to have been scrubbed from the internet, but I have the transcript if you need proof it happened. In the meantime, here’s another godawful sketch indicative of the first half of that season, from the Quentin Tarantino episode:
But cherry-picked examples aside, the second problem is demonstrated by our differing positions on “Get Off The Shed”: Sometimes, we’re going to see the exact same thing and it’ll generate two very different reactions. Part of the issue with that sketch may have to do with the timing of when it appeared on the show; this is the kind of sketch that would probably work once Ferrell’s distinctive comic persona had been better established. The fact is, once you’re familiar with an SNL performer and have honed in on their particular sensibility, things can become funny that weren’t when they were being shouted at you by what was then still effectively a stranger. Hence the “most annoying new cast member” label that would slowly dissolve as the season progressed—once audiences could get on Ferrell’s uniquely warped wavelength, it became clear just how damn funny he was. (“Wake Up And Smile” was a good pull, I grant you.)
But since you mentioned the cheerleaders, let’s talk about those damn Spartan Cheerleaders (Ferrell and Oteri). Your claim that they helped keep the show afloat during this time—and that they “scored with the SNL audience”—doesn’t negate the fact that it’s only a mildly funny premise to begin with, and it got stretched into painful oblivion through the endless rehashed iterations that followed. “Hey, 10 million late-night TV viewers can’t be wrong!” is untrue; they can be, and are, quite wrong. If anyone wants to dispute that, feel free to sit through the following, where the studio audience laughs so uproariously at the randomness of the flailing performance, I’m half-convinced it’s a cheerleader-induced version of Stockholm Syndrome.
And that endless recycling of throwaway trifles—the Roxbury Guys aren’t far behind, to name but one—is a big part of the problem. There was just so much dross surrounding the gold. True, you could level that accusation at any season of Saturday Night Live, but the rose-tinted glasses through which this particular season is now viewed make me feel like I’m taking crazy pills.
Let’s go ahead and grant a couple of your points: Norm Macdonald is bulletproof. The season eventually found its footing. And there were some great commercial parodies. But can you honestly say you don’t find the recycling of increasingly unfunny bits across the season a bit excessive, even by SNL standards?
Erik Adams: You’re placing a lot of strain on that caveat: This is Saturday Night Live we’re talking about, and if a sketch gets laughs one week, odds are it’s going to book several return trips to Studio 8H. And while the show’s reputation is (somewhat incorrectly) staked to a sense of surprise and spontaneity, it was aiming for something viewers could rely on in season 21. “When executive producer Lorne Michaels set out to form a new cast before the current season got underway,” says one contemporary Chicago Tribune report, “one of his missions was to get people who could create characters the public could ‘get into’ as they did in the good old days.” After the hole the preceding season dug, coming up with any concept that people wanted to see a second time must’ve felt like the ultimate victory. And reading what was written about SNL in at the end of 1995 and the beginning of 1996, I’ve been struck by just how many of the recurring segments are credited with that victory.
And it doesn’t stop with cheerleaders Craig and Ariana, who were as divisive then as they are now—that aforementioned Tribune article dubs Craig and Ariana’s popularity “one of the mysteries of this television season” shortly after marveling at Mary Katherine Gallagher and Molly Shannon’s seeming invulnerability while playing her. Tom Shales, who’d been tracing SNL’s ups and downs from the very beginning, praised Darrell Hammond’s Ted Koppel and Bill Clinton impressions in a broadcast-season-in-review column. Before this conversation, I’d kind of forgotten about obsequious, powdered-wig fops Lucien Callow (Mark McKinney) and Fagan (David Koechner), but they received their share of fawning in the press, too—not bad for the the closest thing to a Kids In The Hall sketch McKinney ever got on the show (the off-model Chicken Lady sketch that closed the Hemingway episode doesn’t count).
This was SNL in survival mode. And while it might read as desperation to you, Alex, when I see the perspiration in those cheerleader sketches, or watch Shannon careening through the St. Monica’s scenery, it comes across as a group of performers not taking their spotlight for granted. Again, from that Tribune article:
Ferrell says the show’s writers have told him that the tightly choreographed cheerleader bit is “the type of piece that just wouldn’t have happened last year, because no one would have spent that much time getting that sort of thing down.”
With three new cast members coming from The Groundlings (Ferrell, Oteri, and mid-season addition Chris Kattan), two from The Second City (Koechner and Nancy Carell), and two from stand-up (Hammond and Jim Breuer), there’s an interesting mix of live comedy styles at play in these episodes, representing different approaches to fighting for an audience’s attention and affection. I think that combined exertion was necessary for getting noticed by viewers who’d turned their backs on SNL; it’s little wonder that the big, brassy personas favored by the Groundlings alumni—accustomed to honing characters in the same on- and off-stage tradition that produced Pee-wee Herman; Elvira, Mistress Of The Dark; and Tommy Flanagan, the pathological liar—were the ones that broke out. (It’s here I should note that January 20, 1996 marked the first time the words “Bill Brasky” were ever bellowed on air.) Season 21 has Big Theater Kid Energy, and I love it for that.
That energy found its ideal match—and its fitting payoff—in season finale host Jim Carrey. Look at it this way: At the beginning of the season, the pool of SNL guests had been reduced to returning cast members (Chevy Chase and Phil Hartman), returning hosts (Madeline Kahn, Christopher Walken, Alec Baldwin), or stars of other NBC shows (David Schwimmer, Anthony Edwards). Things had turned around so much for SNL over the course of 20 episodes that by May of 1996, it had regained the cachet to book the biggest name going in big-screen comedy. Watching the episode now, it’s so clear why this iteration of SNL hit when it did: Ferrell was destined to succeed Carrey at the multiplex, but he, Shannon, Oteri, and Kattan were doing late-night sketch comedy for a post-Ace Ventura world. Watch how readily the host plugs into the cheerleaders and Roxbury sketches (the latter of which might not have graduated to recurring status without his participation), or how much his high-pitched, very In Living Color Jacuzzi lifeguard matches season-21 oddballs like the vocationally hopscotching T-Bones (Koechner) or Winston Graff (Meadows), the jazz pianist who can’t stop spouting other people’s catchphrases during a recording session. I’d compare this season to the string of hits that had boosted Carrey to the $20 million Cable Guy payday he clowns on during the monologue: It wasn’t all Dumb And Dumbers (or “Wake Up And Smile”s), but it made an impression way back when, it’s fun to revisit now, and it set the stage for the more varied, interesting, and ambitious work that followed.
AM: I’m glad we’re ending in agreement. I’ve said this before, but the transition from the Bad Boys era to this big-and-broad time of outsized characters (to match the national Ace Ventura mood, as you rightly note) is very much in keeping with the cultural transitions of the time, as the slacker-and-sarcasm dominance of the grunge era gave way to a brighter, sillier—and yes, often cornier—pop culture. (Is it a coincidence that season finale musical guest Soundgarden broke up less than a year later?) (Yes.) That shifting public attitude was becoming more willing to go along with such lightheartedness without feeling the need to simultaneously mock it for being so frivolous—the way that, say, Adam Sandler’s characters often seemed to contain an element of too-cool-for-this-nonsense detachment, scorning the idiocy of their very existence. And by the back half of season 21, SNL’s new players had managed to hone in on a mentality and playfulness that stopped seeming so frantic, and became ebullient instead. It is, as you say, fun to revisit now.
So let us celebrate our similarities, Erik, and not belabor our differences. We may have started out in opposing camps (sorry, kids who won’t get off the shed, I’ll never like you), but we wind up in the same place—giggling at Jim Carrey and Will Ferrell demonstrating why they were two of the most compelling names in comedy. And marveling at how SNL, time and again, keeps bouncing back.