This week NBC confirmed that it’s airing special primetime editions of Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update” later this year. We here at Paste would like to offer up an alternative plan for NBC, a new approach that would better benefit both the show and the culture at large: not doing that?
SNL is historically hot right now. You can’t open an internet on a Sunday morning without seeing clips and reviews of the previous night’s show. Its decades-high ratings and combative relationship with Trump have been so widely reported that even Grit and Pro Wrestling Illustrated have probably written about them. It’s the most popular and relevant the show has been since the Dana Carvey / Jan Hooks / Phil Hartman era, and it makes sense that NBC would want to exploit that buzz while it’s still humming.
“Weekend Update” is rarely what people talk about when they talk about SNL today, though. What was once the primary home of the show’s political comedy is now almost an afterthought, arriving halfway through the episode after multiple Trump sketches and pretapes have already driven the political jokes into the ground. Almost none of the show’s viral success comes from its fake newscast, instead arising from Alec Baldwin’s regular appearances as Trump, Melissa McCarthy’s genuinely great version of Sean Spicer, or the filmed bits that are usually funnier and sharper than the live sketches. “Weekend Update” feels archaic in the current political comedy landscape, like a glimpse into a more innocent world where George W. Bush was still the worst president of all time.
The segment’s hosts remain part of the problem, as Seth Simons discussed here at Paste earlier this season. Colin Jost and Michael Che might regularly tackle the latest bit of unbelievable Trump business, but by this point the two are pretty firmly established as not being the most politically focused or motivated comedians around. This just makes the already weak political material on their segment feel even less vital and perceptive. They tell jokes about Trump because that’s their job (and increasingly the job of every comedian) and they approach it with all the enthusiasm of a divorced mattress salesman. A half-hour of Che and Jost dispassionately telling stale jokes about Trump and Paul Ryan in August, when these specials are scheduled to air, seems like a worse use of primetime hours than that show where Steve Harvey awkwardly sticks mustaches to little kids’ faces.
“Weekend Update” also struggles to remain relevant in the increasingly political world of comedy because there’s so much competition now. Intelligent comedians who are invested in politics, like Samantha Bee and John Oliver, dig deep into real-world issues every week. Stephen Colbert has finally found his late-night voice by returning to the political roots that CBS seemingly made him avoid his first year on the network. Seth Meyers has effectively continued his own long-running “Weekend Update” tenure on Late Night—he replaced his monologue with a news segment at his desk every episode, and it looks and sounds like his superior version of “Update” with a different backdrop. The Daily Show, while rarely exceptional these days, continues to lambaste the news every night. As we mentioned, SNL itself has embraced political humor more thoroughly than ever before, often running three or four blatantly political pieces an episode before “Weekend Update” even starts. Even if its hosts were more engaged in politics, “Weekend Update” would have to get a lot sharper than it’s traditionally been to compete with the new political comedy landscape.
This isn’t the first time NBC has ran “bonus” episodes of “Weekend Update” in primetime. It happened during election season in 2008 and 2012, when Meyers was still the regular host (Amy Poehler co-hosted with him in 2008). “Update” was stronger then than it is now, these episodes aired at the height of the presidential campaigns, and they didn’t have to contend with a surfeit of political comedy all across the television schedule, and yet these episodes still felt unnecessary and bloated. How is an already forgettable segment going to stand out in a glutted marketplace in the middle of August?
We can look back to last year’s political conventions for an idea of what these specials might look like. Jost and Che popped up on MSNBC’s coverage of both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions last summer with special “Weekend Update” segments. If you don’t remember hearing about this at the time, that’s because you probably didn’t. In the past eight months these two clips have gotten a fraction of the YouTube views that the political sketches from last week’s episode have gotten in under a week. When you watch them, it’s easy to see why they didn’t break out: they’re not that smart and not that funny. They’re more proof that “Weekend Update,” with its current hosts and writing team, just can’t match up to the best political comedy on TV today.
Last week Jesse David Fox, who covers SNL in detail for Vulture, wrote about how the show’s cast and writers are already struggling with the show’s newfound focus on politics and the expectations that’s created in the audience. These “Weekend Update” specials will be airing between seasons, and probably with a somewhat different crew of writers, so whatever political burnout they might be feeling now, in the final quarter of a politics-intensive season, may not be a problem by then. Still, if even the people who make the show are getting tired of its political humor, what creative sense does it make to produce even more of the segment that’s most consistently political despite having little actual interest in politics? It makes obvious business sense for NBC, even though it’s another example of the networks routinely overscheduling a hot show to death, but for comedy fans, there’s little to celebrate about this news.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy, games and wrestling sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.