Next fall, the children born the night John Belushi uttered Saturday Night Live’s very first laugh line in 1975 (”I would like to feed your fingertips to the wolverines”) will be old enough to vote. We bring this up not to make anyone feel old (although it sure does the trick, doesn’t it?). Rather, to offer incontrovertible proof that Saturday Night Live can no longer be called the voice of its generation without raising the question, which generation? The proudly hip baby boomers who grew up with the the show’s original cast members and who, like them, are now entering a wry and bemused middle age? Or the MTV-reared teenagers for whom Gilda Radner’s Roseanne Roseannadanna and Chevy Chase’s stumblebum President Ford now seem as antique as Watergate and Vietnam?
The answer — and the key to the show’s robust endurance — is both. In its 18th year, Saturday Night Live has, with the buoyant rudeness that made its reputation in 1975, reclaimed its status as the show of the moment, and refashioned itself as something big enough to embrace both ”Wayne’s World” and Wayne’s parents.
Give credit, first, to the show’s creator, executive producer, and godfather, Lorne Michaels, for overseeing SNL with a radar acutely attuned to national mood swings. In the ’70s, the show reflected the temperament of its youngish viewers — cynical, smart-ass, ironic, detached (”I’m Chevy Chase and you’re not!”). In the ’90s, the pace is faster, attention spans are geared to verbal shorthand (”I’m Chevy Chase… Not!”), and SNL has become the perfect program for the age of spin. Step one: Something happens. You know this because it’s on the front page of every newspaper. Step two: That something is permanently woven into the fabric of pop culture. You know this because it turns up on Saturday Night Live.
Clinton, Bush, and Perot. Gore, Quayle, and Stockdale. Woody, Soon-Yi, and Mia. Regis and Kathie Lee. They coexist, immortalized in mockery, alongside some slightly less real but no less famous names: Wayne and Garth; Hans and Franz, and Dieter (Have they ever met? Perhaps they should); Jan Brady; Nat X; Mr. Subliminal; Cajun Man; Opera Man; Middle-Aged Man; Queen Shaniqua; Stuart Smalley. These characters, and dozens of others, spring from the quicksilver imaginations of the ensemble performers of Saturday Night Live. They, and all of the multiple personalities they contain, are 1992’s Entertainers of the Year.
And a vintage year it was, by any standard, for Saturday Night Live. Measure the ratings: SNL draws more viewers than any given night of Jay and Arsenio combined, so put all this talk about ”the king of late night” to rest. Measure the prime-time specials: The preelection Presidential Bash compilation was a top 10 attraction in the Nielsens, drawing nearly 30 million viewers. Measure the prose: Tomes from the pop-culture-fried Wayne (Mike Myers), the giggly-creepy androgyne Pat (Julia Sweeney), the self-help victim Stuart Smalley (SNL writer-performer Al Franken), and the pseudophilosophical deep thinker Jack Handey (another of the show’s writers) all reached bookstores this year. Measure the grosses: $121 million for the blockbuster Wayne’s World. And measure the future: By this time next year, Saturday Night Live movies may not be coming just to a theater near you, but to all theaters near you. Wayne’s World 2 will go into production when SNL’s current season ends next May, and Paramount hopes to release it by Christmas. Columbia is hoping to have the buffoonish bodybuilders Hans and Franz (Kevin Nealon and Dana Carvey) on the big screen at about the same time. Sweeney has signed a deal with Fox to develop a Pat movie. Myers is planning to write a Sprockets screenplay. Even the old SNL is getting into the act: In late January, production will begin on The Coneheads, starring SNL founding father Dan Aykroyd as Beldar.
But it’s the immeasurable standards, the unquantifiables, that sent Saturday Night Live soaring toward pop nirvana this year. You can’t measure the show’s remarkable ability to have its controversy and eat it, too, as when Sinéad O’Connor tore up a picture of the Pope on the air, only to be mercilessly parodied by returning veteran Jan Hooks a couple of weeks later. You can’t measure its ineffable status as a celebrity watering hole, the delight when Madonna, Roseanne Arnold, and Barbra Streisand showed up in a ”Coffee Talk” sketch with Myers, or when Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro dropped by — on the air — to wish their pal Joe Pesci well. And you certainly can’t measure the degree to which Carvey’s history-making year imitating both Bush and Perot affected presidential politics, but it’s worth noting that both candidates were forced to put on big (if clenched) smiles, acknowledge Carvey’s devastating mimicry, and in Bush’s case, even invite him to entertain the White House staff. ”They’re not fools,” Carvey says of the varied victims of his impersonations. ”They have to have a sense of humor about it. They know if Saturday Night Live does you, it’s a big deal.”
There isn’t room to list the dozens of varied pleasures the men and women of Saturday Night Live offered us this year — the straight-faced groaners with which Nealon often begins the ”Weekend Update” (he recently announced that ”the first 1800 U.S. troops sent to Somalia today have just been eaten”), the splendid barbs of David Spade’s ”Hollywood Minute” (”There’s nowhere it can go but meaner,” he promises), the ebullient vocalizing of Adam Sandler’s Opera Man, or the week-in-week-out genius of Phil Hartman. We’ve left some people out, but not by design; it happens on the show as well. ”You can be in nothing one week and that’s okay,” says Mike Myers. ”You’ll be in 10 things the next time.”
Such jostling is inevitable in a crowded cast, which is why it’s so gratifying to realize that these days, nobody is in a hurry to leave. Carvey, who had planned to depart after the election, has instead signed a contract that allows him to take occasional time off for other projects. And when Myers missed this season’s first seven shows while finishing his upcoming movie So I Married an Axe Murderer and writing Wayne’s World 2, he says he felt ”like a hockey player out with an injury facing game-day blues. It was very hard watching on Saturday nights. I wanted to dive into the screen.” His return on Dec. 5 completed a remarkable ensemble — 13 men and women of a thousand faces. In a year brimming with ripe comic targets, their masterful marksmanship has earned a million laughs.