Saturday Night Live Is an Important Part of American History. Why Is it So Hard to Watch Old Episodes?Photo via NBC/YouTube Comedy Features Saturday Night Live
Over the course of 44 seasons Saturday Night Live has served, for better or worse, as a reflection of American society at any given moment. A limited reflection, influenced by the voices of theater kids with privilege, but a reflection nonetheless. Between July 31, 1976 to May 18, 2019, there have been 871 episodes of Saturday Night Live. That’s roughly 43 years of commentary on the world, a priceless resource for comedy and history fans alike. And tragically, there’s absolutely no reasonable way to access the majority of the show’s history at the moment.
Do you watch the show on Hulu Plus? You’re only getting edited copies of the show, missing sketches and musical performances. Even then it’s just season 1 through 5, and 30 through 44. And hey, that’s a streaming site, so licensing is something to take into consideration. So what about when you buy a season? Obviously, if you purchase it you’ll get the whole show right? Well if you want to watch the show in its complete format you’re limited to DVDs of the first five seasons and… that’s it.
Amazon Prime’s digital video section has a few options but highlights the absurdity of streaming SNL right now. Seasons six through thirty are completely inaccessible. To its credit, Prime still has a historical listing for these episodes. It shows you the host, musical guest, and what important sketches are included, complete with a screenshot. Hell, they even include the run time of each episode so you know exactly what you’re missing.
Seasons one through five are available in an unedited state, from sketches to musical guests. Each of these seasons will cost you $1.99 per episode or $29.99 per season. That’s $149.95 for the first five seasons of the show in a digital format. Let’s jump forward to the next available block of the show, season 31. These episodes are edited and only available for individual purchase at $2.99 apiece.
Now that doesn’t seem so bad, until you look at how they’re edited. Steve Carell’s season opener has been cut down to 24 minutes. Jon Heder’s episode is 16 minutes. Catherine Zeta-Jones episode is 19 minutes. Steve Martin’s gets 20 minutes. Tom Hanks only gets 21 minutes. There are 19 episodes available for this season at $2.99 apiece, $56.81 before tax for the entire thing. In theory that’s roughly 18 to 19 hours of content, but if you buy each episode you only get about six and a half hours of programming.
Thankfully this issue only exists in two seasons of Saturday Night Live on Amazon, seasons 31 and 32. Starting with season 33 the episodes are no longer uncut, but they’ve been edited down to a much more reasonable 42 to 55 minutes apiece. Some are obviously more edited than others, with Gwyneth Paltrow’s January 15, 2011 episodes coming in at just 37 minutes. In the parlance of my southern culture, y’all that ain’t right.
There’s no excuse in a world of streaming for it be so hard to access something that, frankly, should be considered history. Watching Saturday Night Live during any given era tells you a lot about America during that time.
For all the criticism we direct at the show currently for its ham-fisted approach to Trump’s America, there’s something authentic about a bunch of rich liberals with no idea how to fight an enemy built on the same pop culture foundations that give them strength. When Saturday Night Live welcomed Trump into their home he was a joke, an outsider with no chance of taking the White House.
In many ways, their naiveté reflected that of the American people who took him as a joke until he became a terrifying reality. It’s what made having Kate McKinnon, one of the show’s most brilliant performers, performing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” after his election so caustic. After refusing to take him seriously, suddenly they were the resistance, ready to fight with us.
Of course, the show has also managed to be an important part of the American conversation for good. Take Chevy Chase and Richard Pryor’s legendary 1975 job interview sketch for example. In a world of Chappelle Show its easy to forget how revolutionary this bit was, an ugly and uncomfortable job interview between a black man and a racist boss. At the time the shifting power dynamic was unbelievable to see on TV.
As a young kid in the ‘90s with a tenuous grasp on what being gay was, “Schmitt’s Gay” was an important sketch to my development. But upon reflection, it shows a world slowly becoming more accepting of homosexuality while still mocking it for easy punchlines. Compare that to 2016s “Totinos” sketch, about a forbidden love affair between two women making snacks during a football game. Just watching the way the show’s views on sexuality changed over the course of 25 years is worth observing.
The weekly nature of the show makes Saturday Night Live an anomaly in pop culture. While Standards and Practices have certainly influenced the show over the years, the writers have had a level of freedom other shows have never experienced. Scripted, episodic TV has the luxury of ignoring what’s happening in the world because it’s shot in advance. Being forced to come up with an episode over the course of a week forced Saturday Night Live to dive head first into what was happening in the culture.
Even the musical guests are important. What about Sinead O’Conner ripping up a picture of Pope John Paul II on live TV while telling the audience to “fight the real enemy?” Elvis Costello playing “Radio Radio” instead of “Less Than Zero” against their record label’s commands and actively telling the live audience “there’s no reason for us to be playing (Less Than Zero) here.” Kanye West using the show as a pro-Trump platform.
At the moment the battle is getting access to seasons 6 through 30. Rights issues make it basically impossible to get the unedited episodes, though you’d imagine with all the corporate mergers in recent years it should be easier. Surely Comcast NBC Universal owns nearly everything at this point, right?
The most frustrating possibility is that NBC will shove the history of Saturday Night Live into its own streaming service. While that would be an awful solution, at least it would be a solution. I’d love to tell you more important moments from the last 43 years of American history brought to life by Saturday Night Live. Sadly, when I had the opportunity, back when Comedy Central played reruns and Netflix had the rights, I was too busy rewatching “Laser Cats” to take notes.
But as a 34-year-old rediscovering my love of a show that started a decade before I was born, it’s bonkers just how hard it is to catch up. You can’t just say “it’s a TV show, it doesn’t matter.” News archives only report, they don’t tell you about the culture the way a weekly comedy show does.
Currently Comcast NBC Universal is holding an important historical artifact hostage because they haven’t figured out how to monetize it enough. That’s their prerogative. But it does a profound disservice to both fans of comedy and history. As much as we’d like to think this problem is the work of “Saaaaaaatan,” in reality it’s something much worse and harder to defeat: a corporation that simply doesn’t give a shit.
There are no legal solutions to this problem, but there are solutions. We just long for a day when breaking the law and pirating these episodes doesn’t seem like a moral workaround. After all, we’re not just talking about TV, we’re talking about the historical record. And if they won’t let us see it, history has proven the black market will be happy to provide.
John-Michael Bond is Paste’s assistant comedy editor. He’s on Twitter @BondJohnBond.