Improv To Improve: How to Fix Saturday Night Live

Last night’s Saturday Night Live episode with host Donald Trump was the nail in the coffin of an NBC staple. For an episode that was clearly being used as nothing more than a grab for ratings, it did a piss-poor job of attempting to secure those fresh, new eyeballs for future episodes. The show as a whole was stale, boring and insipid — even the pre-taped bits felt labored and uninspired. When the only genuine laughs of the night come from Drunk Uncle, there’s clearly something wrong. And I’m not blaming Trump for this fiasco either; the show has been on life-support for several years now, without showing any signs of returning to what made it great in the first place.

But there’s hope. If Lorne Michaels truly wants to bring people back to Saturday Night Live without looking like some corporate shill who’s lost touch with anything that doesn’t highlight the dollar signs in his eyes, he needs to throw the political correctness rulebook out the window and follow these three simple steps that will go a long way in fixing the show’s current problems.

1) Ditch the Cue Cards.
I can’t stress this one enough. It is getting really tiresome watching the performers reading off cue cards and then waiting for the audience to laugh. The performers hardly look at each other any more and instead stare in the direction of the camera or off screen for the majority of skits. I realize it is a lot of work for the performers to create these skits every week, but by continually using the cue cards as a crutch, it makes them all feel extremely lazy and bland. There’s no spontaneity in any of the skits any more, simply because the performers aren’t willing to experiment or rely on their own wit. I take you back to the early nineties and Chris Farley’s Matt Foley character. Watch the first skit this character was in. Pay particular attention to the cast, as they actually look at and respond to one another throughout the whole thing. If they were looking at cue cards, it’s not evident at all. Watch as David Spade (and Christina Applegate) nearly crack halfway through. All of this makes it feel live and gives it a sense of fun. The performers hardly do any type of physical comedy anymore, and they hardly ever push their fellow comedians to go beyond what they’ve been practicing and try to get them to crack. Recently, Undateable tried something new and did a live episode to try and boost ratings. It ended up working so well, the producers made the entire show live, leading to some very crazy, very funny, very spontaneous bits. The reason — the performers do everything they can to get their fellow actors to crack. They occasionally mess up their dialogue, but are good enough at improvisation to run with it, which makes it all the more hilarious. And if one of the current slate of performers can’t hack it without cue cards, get rid of them. Which leads me to —

2) Half the Cast Should Be Improvisational Experts Who Buck Political Correctness
This goes very much along with #1. There are some very talented cast members on Saturday Night Live, there’s no doubt. Kate McKinnon, Taran Killem, Cecily Strong, Jay Pharoah and Bobby Moynihan — they all do what they can to make even the worst material work, and most of the time are the highlight of the show. But even they are hardly ever really challenged. When SNL first started, the group was called the Not-Ready-For-Prime-Time Players because they didn’t follow any rules. They were hungry for attention and didn’t care who they might offend and pushed the envelope every chance they got. To bring that feeling back, there needs to be an infusion of improvisational artists to help boost up those who may not be as good and give them something they can sink their teeth into. This way, when something isn’t funny, or isn’t working, the improv artists can turn things around by going off-script and coaxing their fellow players to come with them. Comedians are smart, and mostly work best on their feet when they’re not worried about whether or not they are going to offend someone. Basically, what this show needs are more Robin Williams’s and Jimmy Fallon’s, and less Kyle Mooney’s.

3) Showcase Up-And-Coming Comedians
Enough already with hiring hosts who are ratings ploys, have no clue about comedy, or are only there to promote their next movie or project. This hasn’t worked to boost ratings and it never will. People watch Saturday Night Live for the humor and the shock, not to see their favorite movie star, singer or sports athlete make a fool of themselves. This is why Lorne Michaels should only allow up-and-coming comedians to host the show for at least a year. Be the trend-setter rather than the bandwagon. Johnny Carson used to be a master at this, finding young talent and giving them a strong platform to show their stuff; if they weren’t ready, they weren’t booked on his show. How about this? Why not use it as a job interview. Of the 20 or so comedians that host over the year, choose the two or three best/most popular ones and hire them as featured players for the next year. It would give the public a chance to see new faces, and performers a chance to prove they can hold their own with the cast before being hired.

I say again, if Michaels is really sincere about returning Saturday Night Live to what it once was, while creating something fresh and new, this is where he needs to start. He doesn’t even have to make the leap into the deep-end. Test the waters. Carve out a couple of weeks where you give these three things a chance. It may turn out to be a train wreck, but I would bet dollars to doughnuts people would be talking about it in a positive way.

So, Lorne Michaels, if you’re listening, here’s what you do. One week, bring a veteran stand-up to host, such as Steve Martin. He’d do very well without cue cards and would show how it can be done in the right way. Then, the following week, bring on a young talent (may I suggest this year’s America’s Got Talent runner-up, Drew Lynch, who was not only hysterical, but was quick on his feet) to do the exact same thing. Those two episodes would bring a fire to a show that has been floundering in comedy purgatory for far too long.

Do you agree? Do you have any other suggestions that might help, other than the basic, hire a new cast or hire new writers?

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