Phil Hartman's diminished role this season is only one of many problems plaguing Saturday Night Live. Sketches go nowhere, jokes fall flat, viewers doze off. The once-sacred weekend ritual of watching the show has turned into an arduous ordeal, fodder for unkind water-cooler commentary on Monday mornings. The ratings are down 13 percent from last season, and even the studio-audience members seem to be talking amongst themselves during some of the program's especially painful moments.
But this is far from the first time SNL has gotten stuck in a comedic rut and it's always managed to rescue itself before. As the show approaches its 20th birthday next year, we offer these 20 helpful ideas on solving the SNL crisis.
1 Give ''Weekend Update'' to David Spade. Anchor Kevin Nealon is still stumbling over his punch lines after four seasons. Spade could bring the same snide sensibility to current events that he does to showbiz in his ''Hollywood Minute'' (''My Father, the Hero? Gerard Depar-Don't!'').
2 Enforce a moratorium on SNL-based films. The first Wayne's World was a happy fluke, but it sapped Mike Myers' enthusiasm for his TV work. Coneheads stank, and Julia Sweeney's big-screen It's Pat project sounds like a stretch for a one-joke character. Stop before we're subjected to Rob Schneider in The Copier Guy: The Movie.
3 Learn the difference between the boldly groundbreaking and the merely disgusting. Hint: Gags about child molestation, yeast infections, and date rape fall into the latter category.
4 Produce a new TV commercial parody for every new episode. The fake ads for HiberNol narcotic flu medication and Schmitts Gay Beer were funny the first three times.
5 Show more short films. Remember Mr. Bill and Albert Brooks? We do.
6 Book hipper musical guests. Quasi-alternative bands like Counting Crows and Crash Test Dummies belong on Late Night With Conan O'Brien, not SNL.
7 Ban cue cards for cast members. Hosts may need them, but now even the regulars often look to the wings for their lines. What's the fun of doing a live show if you're working with a net?
8 Make cracking up on the air a fireable offense. It was cute when Tim Conway and Harvey Korman did it on The Carol Burnett Show, but it seems amateurish when SNL-ers laugh at their own lame skits.
9 Ask Adam Sandler to perform a new song every week. His goofy tunes either as Opera Man or as himself (''Lunchlady Land'') never fail to charge up the crowd.
10 Teach Melanie Hutsell a new facial expression a second one, that is. Her contorted smirk of scornful incredulity works for a few characters (Tori Spelling) but not all of them (Charo?).
11 Send guitarist G.E. Smith to Sinead O'Connor's barber. We're sick of his constant, pre-commercial mane-tossing.
12 Sign up the brilliant cast of Fox's failed Ben Stiller Show. Stiller slipped through SNL's fingers, but it's not too late to snag Janeane Garofalo (if her scene-stealing turn in Stiller's Reality Bites doesn't make her a star), Bob Odenkirk (who writes occasionally for SNL), and Andy Dick (if his Get Smart spin-off on Fox doesn't fly).
13 Refuse to indulge Myers' U.K. obsession. Enough with ''Simon,'' ''All Things Scottish,'' etc. ''Coffee Talk'' is one of the rare bits Myers does with an American accent anymore.
14 Retire the Gap Girls. SNL's women have little enough to do without Spade, Sandler, and Chris Farley taking their parts.
15 Stop booking athletes to host the show. From Fran Tarkenton to Charles Barkley, they've always been awkward (okay, Barkley versus Barney was amusing). Nancy Kerrigan will get big ratings, but she's not a noted cutup.
16 Use more politicians. They're natural actors (Jesse Jackson reading Green Eggs and Ham was genius). Bob Dole and Ross Perot have sharp wits and need to lighten up for '96.
17 Raise the standards for new cast members. The original Not Ready for Prime Time Players cut their comic teeth at Second City and in National Lampoon's stage shows much more useful training than hosting an MTV game show (Jay Mohr).
18 Quit wasting Tim Meadows and Ellen Cleghorne. Both are superb mimics (Ike Turner, Whoopi Goldberg), but too often they're given insulting token roles.
19 Require Farley to keep his shirt on. He's a huge talent, but exposing his corpulent physique for laughs is a cheap stunt.
20 Hire efficient writers. With up to three weeks between shows, SNL's 17 full-timers can't turn out quality material. David Letterman's 12 writers deliver the goods five nights a week.