Saturday Night Live has, pound-for-pound, taken more shit than any other television show. Part of that is sheer longevity. The show has been on since 1975, when it was known as NBC’s Saturday Night. When you are around that long, you open yourself to taking more criticism in terms of sheer quantity. It’s also a sketch show, and sketch shows are inherently more uneven that, say, a sitcom or a nice hour-long drama. It’s a live sketch show, in addition, which only adds to the potential for things to go wrong. Furthermore, by being around for so long SNL has made itself a target for anybody with even a hint of nostalgic leanings. The old axiom is that everybody’s favorite SNL cast is the one from when they were 13. Due to its constantly rotating cast, and the inevitability of human aging, the show never remains the show you remember, and some people can’t handle that. The Simpsons has run into the same problem, but it hasn’t even been around as long as SNL, and Homer Simpson is always there while, say, Bill Murray is not.
Despite all this, Saturday Night Live has chugged along, bloodied but not broken by a constant barrage of disdain and complaint. It keeps churning out new comedy year-after-year, and it keeps breaking new comedic actors. Decades after the show debuted, we got the likes of Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig graduating from the show to big things, and it seems likely Kate McKinnon is likely to join them. Part of what makes SNL’s run so impressive is how it survived through all the shows that have tried to challenge it over the years, or at least replicate its success. Several shows have borrowed SNL’s late-night variety show formula, both direct competitors and prospective alternatives airing on other nights. None of them have lasted that long, yet Saturday Night Live marches on. Its rivalries have helped shape SNL’s legacy, and here’s a look back at some of the more notable rivals.
We should probably start with the show that is the reason Saturday Night Live was called NBC’s Saturday Night at the beginning. In 1975, ABC had a show called Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell. Yes, the longtime sports broadcaster, and frequent Match Game answer, was the host of a Saturday night sketch show. It aired in primetime, so it was slightly different than SNL, but it was a Saturday evening sketch comedy show. The cast, known as the Prime Time Players, included such future SNL vets as Bill Murray and Christopher Guest, and yes, this is the reason that SNL’s original cast was called the Not-Ready-For-Prime-Time Players. ABC’s little show had, weirdly, a big impact on SNL. It also died a quick death after 18 episodes, because Howard Cosell wasn’t funny. Not long after vanquishing its first foe, NBC’s Saturday Night became Saturday Night Live.
One of the most successful, at least critically, and in terms of future star quality, was Canada’s Second City Television, also known as SCTV. Comedy icons such as John Candy, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Joe Flaherty, Rick Moranis, Catherine O’Hara, Harold Ramis, Martin Short and Dave Thomas were among the actors who played denizens of the fake Canadian town of Melonville. The show had a nice run, going from 1976 until 1984, although it was only aired in Canada until 1981. That year NBC picked it up to air on Friday nights as a replacement to the music show The Midnight Special, and it was expanded to a whopping 90 minutes. Although not a direct rival to Saturday Night Live, it was NBC’s Friday night equivalent, and ran opposite the last half-hour of ABC’s own SNL knock-off, Fridays. (More on that one in a little bit.) And in terms of quality, it was a big step up from the SNL of the era, which was salvaged almost single-handedly by the presence of Eddie Murphy.
SCTV was a really good show, which is probably not surprising given that cast, and had a stronger comedic framework than SNL. Instead of just a series of sketches, it was all based around the concept of a TV station, through which it mocked much of the pop culture of the time. It even spawned a movie, Strange Brew, featuring Moranis and Thomas as their iconic characters Bob and Doug McKenzie. It’s a mediocre film, even though Max Von Sydow is in it, but that makes it par for the course with most SNL movies. In addition to the McKenzies, there were other delightful characters such as Flaherty’s horror host Count Floyd, Levy’s schticky comedian Bobby Bittman, and Short’s Ed Grimley. Despite its quality, it could not sustain itself for a lengthy period of time. Part of it is because NBC wanted to move them to Sunday in primetime, where it would have had to become more family friendly. As such, their final season was on Cinemax in the United States, with 45 minute episodes, and with a limited cast.
This is the issue that faces other sketch shows that SNL has managed. You can’t keep a cast together forever. Even when a show was able to assemble a good cast, those actors are going to want to move on to bigger and better things—and in this case, that sometimes means moving on to SNL. What has allowed SNL to survive and thrive for 40 years is that it keeps finding new talent, and recognizing talent from other shows worth hiring. It was thought that when the original cast began to leave SNL would come to an end, and yet it continually finds new people, in part because it has established itself as both a destination and a jumping off point. SCTV couldn’t manage that, and eventually lost some of its own talent to SNL.
At this point, we should probably address the main competitor SNL has faced in modern times. That would be Mad TV, which aired on Saturday nights for 14 seasons and 321 episodes. Mad TV began airing in 1995, arriving at one of the many moments when SNL was in a period of transition. That year was when SNL added the likes of Will Ferrell, Cheri Oteri and Molly Shannon to the cast, so perhaps that’s why Mad TV never quite overtook the older show.
The legacy of Mad TV is weird. Fourteen seasons is really impressive, but it never really felt like serious competition for SNL. Critics didn’t really like it. Nobody really seemed to like it. Sure, it had fans, obviously, but you never really heard anybody say they liked Mad TV. It didn’t have many iconic characters, or even memorable characters at all. Can you name one Mad TV character? Now, that doesn’t mean there weren’t talented people on the cast. Both Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele were cast members. Ike Barinholtz and Andy Daly and, briefly, Taran Killam were amongst the people on the show. Mo Collins, Will Sasso, Michael McDonald, Aries Spears, Bobby Lee, Debra Wilson, Frank Caliendo and others were bedrocks for many seasons. Despite having its fans, and lasting for over a decade, Mad TV felt isolated in its own little parallel universe, well outside of the pop culture mainstream. You can look at it like this: SNL has home run seasons and strike out seasons, while Mad TV just hit singles and pop fouls. Maybe, at first, SNL felt a little pressure from Mad TV—they were new and ready to challenge, but, eventually, one presumes SNL didn’t think about their Saturday night rivals at all.
One of SNL’s rivals with a weirdly outsized legacy is Fridays. Fridays really wanted to be Saturday Night Live. It debuted in 1980, when SNL was still fresh, and had a great window of opportunity, as Lorne Michaels and the original SNL cast had left and been replaced with a disastrous new crew. It had the same format, including musical guests and, starting with its second season, guest hosts. It was live. It aired 58 episodes over three seasons, ending in 1982. It never accomplished anything close to what SNL did, yet people still often talk about it in conversations about SNL’s rivals, perhaps because it was the closest in tone and format. Or maybe it’s because Larry David and Michael Richards were cast members, and Borat director and crucial Seinfeld writer Larry Charles was a staff writer. Yes, David was not just a writer but a cast member on Fridays. However, what people really remember is the Andy Kaufman episode.
If you are reading this, you are probably familiar with Kaufman, and his particular brand of “comedy.” Those scare quotes are only meant to be slightly derisive, because he was more performance artist than anything else. He was hosting an episode in 1981 and was in an admittedly banal skit about two couple at dinner sneaking off to the bathroom to smoke pot. Kaufman, though, refused to play along, on live TV mind you, saying he couldn’t play stoned. Richards, who was in the sketch, got up and threw the cue cards at Andy, who responded by throwing water at Richards, and then a fight broke out onstage. Of course, as was often the case with Kaufman, it was staged, though not everybody knew that. It was quintessential Kaufman, and you have to give him credit here. If not for him, and his fourth wall breaking performance piece, nobody would remember Fridays. Instead, it keeps getting brought up, mostly to tell that anecdote.
Despite the notoriety of Fridays, the quality and influence of SCTV, or the odd perseverance of Mad TV, none of Saturday Night Live’s would-be rivals can come close to matching its impact or longevity. Frankly, that might just be true because none of these shows were ever intended to have such longevity. They aren’t SNL because they don’t want to be, because SNL is an insane thing when you think about it. However, it is an admirable insanity. Many shows have tried to take on Saturday Night Live, or to do what it does, but none of them have been able to shake SNL from its place in the pop culture universe. Saturday Night Live has seen all its competitors and rivals fade in the rear view mirror, and it has shown no signs of stopping. It may not even stop when Lorne Michaels is no longer gracing this planet. We hear about new late night sketch shows every year, and we know, intuitively, they will not last. We know SNL will not die. It is the late-night sketch comedy show we all know, and, for many, the only late-night sketch comedy show we have ever known.
Chris Morgan is not the author of THE book on Mystery Science Theater 3000, but he is the author of A book on Mystery Science Theater 3000. He’s also on Twitter.