A salute to SNL: Now talk amongst yourselves

Normally I hate staying up past midnight. But there’s one big live-from-New-York exception. That’s when a new installment of “Saturday Night Live” rolls around.

Tomorrow night, “SNL” begins its 40th season, and I’ll be watching. No TiVo. No next-day streaming. Live.

I’ve been a fan as far back as the Killer Bees and Bass-O-Matic days. I remember gathering with friends around a black-and-white TV in the ’70s to watch what was to me a comedy revelation, week after week.

To this day, at 11:30 p.m., Saturday night, I feel the same thrill, even though I usually expect the worst.

Everyone gripes about “Saturday Night Live,” saying it’s not as good as it was during a) the John Belushi era; b) the Phil Hartman era; c) the Will Farrell era; d) the Tina Fey era; e) any time but now.

Everyone is right. The show has always been a subversive work-in-progress. Producer Lorne Michaels’ MO is to hurl sketches and characters against the comedy wall and see what sticks. Most slide off in a pile of eye-rolling goo —  the arm-pit sniffing Mary Catherine Gallagher, Drunk Uncle and Ladies’ Man come to mind.

But what sticks is comedy gold.

Nothing pulls me out of a funk quicker than Bill Hader’s Stefon touting the human bathmats at New York’s hottest club (“It’s that thing when midgets have dreadlocks and they lay face down on the floor”), Tina Fey and Jimmy Fallon at the Update desk, or Andy Samberg and Justin Timberlake’s infamous music video, whose profane title I can’t even hint at here.

I’ll think of Phil Hartman’s Frankenstein trashing the set while crying, “Fire bad!” Or Maya Rudolph as a drunk Donatella Versace screaming “Get out!” Or Will Farrell clanging away in the studio, while Christopher Walken demands “More cowbell!”

Curiously, over the years “SNL” has been surprisingly light on Jewish cast members. Despite the fact that its creator-producer (born Lorne David Lipowitz) is Jewish, the show has birthed relatively few Jewish comedy superstars.

Sandler, Samberg, Gilda Radner, Al Franken. That’s pretty much it, though Jon Lovitz, Rachel Dratch and Chris Kattan might make some favorite cast member lists.

Jews make up 2.6 percent of the American population, and the percentage of Jewish cast members over four decades hasn’t been much higher. Even so, the show has served up some immortal Jewish moments:

Sandler’s performance of “The Hanukkah Song” on Weekend Update, Robert Smigel’s black-and-white Claymation masterpiece “Christmas-time for the Jews,” Gilda’s classic “Jewess jeans” commercial, Jon Lovitz’s Hanukkah Harry,  Vanessa Bayer’s Jacob the Bar Mitzvah Boy and Coffee Talk with Linda Richman (starring honorary MOT Mike Myers).

I’ll give you a topic: All are as good as anything the show ever presented. Discuss.

I’m not complaining about the dearth of Jewish cast members or sketches. The show has served as a non-Jewish comedic counterweight to the “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” juggernaut. If “SNL” didn’t exist, the goyim would have had to invent it.

I admit to a mild chauvinism when it comes to Jewish humor. No one has contributed more to American comedy than the Jews. I’m proud of our comic tradition that starts in vaudeville, runs through the Borscht Belt and ends up dominating the vast wasteland of television.

But “SNL” proved non-Jews are funny, too. And their humor does not necessarily borrow from the caustic, outside-looking-in style that typifies the best Jewish humor.

Silly as it sounds, I see my devotion to “SNL” as patriotic. During election season, it’s must-see TV (think Farrell’s George W. Bush or Fey’s Sarah Palin). Two weeks after 9/11, it gave us permission to laugh again. And the show has spawned a few comic geniuses, Tina Fey chief among them, who have contributed immensely to pop culture.

Here’s the thing: The world sucks right now. ISIS and Hamas want to kill me. Social inequality, crumbling infrastructure and partisan paralysis have brought America to its knees. Climate change will soon drown us or fry us.

It’s sometimes too much to bear.

So, although television solves nothing, I will tune in tomorrow night and hope “SNL” throws a little “sukkat komediyah” over me. I’ll stay with it until the bitter end at 1 a.m. Sunday I’ll sleep in.

Dan Pine
can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a J. staff writer. He retired as news editor in 2020. Dan can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.