Academic journal article Journalism History

"Saturday Night Live" and Weekend Update: The Formative Years of Comedy News Dissemination

Academic journal article Journalism History

"Saturday Night Live" and Weekend Update: The Formative Years of Comedy News Dissemination

Article excerpt

"Saturday Night Live" is a television institution that has played a pivotal role in cultivating American television satire with its main target for the last thirty years being politics and politicians, particularly on its Weekend Update segment. Using interviews with some of those involved with "SNL" as well as other primary sources, this article examines how this "newscast" was developed over its first five years, with attention paid to its role and purpose, how its material was selected and written, and the limitations placed on it by censors and the nature of the show. This shows how Weekend Update expanded the parameters of what is allowable on network television as well as how those putting together this segment had to pay close attention to the traditional news media, resulting in the "SNL" office in many ways resembling a real media newsroom.

The television show "Saturday Night Live" is an institution that has played a pivotal role in cultivating American TV satire. Much of the time, it has taken aim at political targets, and every U.S. president from Gerald Ford onward has had to wonder if that week's mispronounced name, stumbled step, or foreign policy faux paux would be magnified and ridiculed at 11:30 on Saturday night. The show has changed the way political campaigns are run, and that far-reaching impact is exactly what its creator, Lome Michaels, intended. The ultimate goal of "Saturday Night Live" is to make its viewers laugh a lot while learning and thinking at least a little. If it were not possible to do both, "my life would be meaningless, wouldn't it?" Michaels said in 2003.1

At the center of the show's striving for a place in the top tier of entertainment sources is the news parody segment called Weekend Update. In its twenty original episodes per year for more than thirty years, actors and actresses have sat behind the Weekend Update desk to tell the world what it is doing wrong. The segment helped rejuvenate television creativity and expand restrictions from censors. Between 1975 and 1980, Weekend Update reached an audience of about 30 million people,2 disseminating alternative points of view on the sometimes important and sometimes outlandish events of, the week. The writers and producers who filled the segment each week were in positions to have a great impact on the American social consciousness at an important time in the country's history. The comedy news, at times on purpose and at others not, became a news outlet for viewers, especially younger ones, and became influential on the political scene.1 Because of the segment's nature, the supervising writers had to pay close attention to the traditional news media, but the "SNL" office in many ways started to resemble a real newsroom.

This article examines how the key players (the writers and producers) constructed the first five years of Weekend Update, including how they viewed the segment's role and purpose; how the segment's concept was developed; how the newscast was put together each week (such as how stories were selected and jokes were written); and what limitations that censors and the show's comic nature had on the segment. To judge the segment's impact, the reactions of national media and political figures also were considered.

Most of the creative talent that founded "SNL" in 1975 left the show after the 1979-80 season, including creator, executive producer, and writer Lome Michaels, so this provides a natural bookend to study the early period of the show. There had been some attrition of the cast during the first seasons. Writer and performer Chevy Chase left after the first season to go to Hollywood, and performers John Belushi and Dan Akyroyd followed two years later.4 But when Brandon Tartikoff took over as president of NBC Entertainment in January 1980, it set in motion the changing of the guard on "SNL."5 Michaels and his crew left because Tartikoff and NBC wanted more control of "SNL," and Michaels wanted the challenge of doing something new. …

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