A premature autopsy of 'Saturday Night Live,' brought to you by the Try Guys

staff notes

This week I’ve been thinking about “Saturday Night Live” — specifically its absolute mess of a skit about the Try Guys.

For those of you who have better things to do with your life than care about niche online scandals from last month: the Try Guys —  as their name implies — are a group of guys who film themselves trying things for their YouTube channel. A few weeks ago, their original posse of four shrunk to three after one of the guys (Ned Fulmer) had an extramarital affair with a Try Guys employee and was kicked off the show. Relatively tame, if depressing, fare for the Internet grist mill. And not particularly high-profile — with a few million followers, the Try Guys have a sizable fanbase but haven’t exactly permeated the national consciousness.

Why “Saturday Night Live” decided this was a cultural touchstone momentous enough to riff on is a question without an answer (although one popular theory points to Fulmer’s friend from college who works in the SNL writers’ room). More puzzling still is how the resulting sketch, which aired October 9, managed to be so freakishly out of touch.

Episode host Brendan Gleeson’s character, a CNN anchor, interrupts a news segment on the Russia-Ukraine war to announce that the Try Guys have released a video speaking out against Fulmer. Mikey Day, Andrew Dismukes and Bowen Yang proceed to reenact said video (a parody of the Try Guys’ real statement), ranting about how they hope Fulmer is “somewhere on his back with a bullet in his brain and belly” because “he committed the heinous act of having a consensual kiss and not telling us — his friends!” Fellow newscaster Ego Nwodim questions whether Fulmer’s firing was warranted (and why anyone should care).

The butt of the joke is not Fulmer publicly cheating on his wife with his subordinate (and most likely costing his company hundreds of thousands of dollars in the process), but rather the Try Guys somehow “overreacting” by…  handling a case of workplace sexual misconduct swiftly and professionally? In any case, the Internet didn’t laugh — the skit provoked waves of online backlash.

A “Saturday Night Live” sketch falling flat isn’t unusual in and of itself; with the sheer number of jokes that make up each season of SNL, there’s bound to be a few real groaners sprinkled in. But it becomes more interesting when you look at it in the context of the show’s downward trajectory. Last season’s premiere saw the lowest ratings in the show’s 48-year history; this season’s premiere marked the departure of eight cast members, SNL’s largest turnover since 1995. Over the two weeks and change since Season 48 began, its writers have been accused of plagiarizing sketches, creator Lorne Michaels and longtime cast member Kenan Thompson have hinted at the show’s imminent end and audiences nationwide were forced to sit through Try Guys hell.

This is not to say that “Saturday Night Live” is on its deathbed. People have been making that claim, and have been repeatedly proven incorrect, ever since SNL first premiered. But I do see a widening disconnect between SNL and its audience — and I think the Try Guys sketch is a case study that might be able to explain why.

To break the show’s appeal down into the sum of its parts: when people kick back on the couch and turn on “Saturday Night Live,” they’re hoping to see celebrities they care about and hear timely jokes that make them laugh. So, in this day and age, who do people consider to be celebrities? And what do they find relevant and funny?

The first red flag for SNL’s business model: celebrity culture is dying, or at least changing so as to be unrecognizable. As we’ve shifted away from traditional forms of mass media (radio, cable TV and print news) and towards the Internet and streaming platforms, we have more entertainment options to choose from than ever before, and thus the number of traditional “celebrities” — people whose entertainment most of us have collectively consumed — grows smaller every year. The cult of personality surrounding this shrinking group of celebrities has grown weaker, too, hastened by social media (which provides a running commentary of everything every celebrity has ever done wrong) and the pandemic (during which many celebrities’ out-of-touch statements of “solidarity'' made them appear privileged and unrelatable). 

The result? One of SNL’s key draws – the use of celebrity gossip and guest appearances – is no longer as effective as it once was. The old guard have lost much of their magnetism; most new-era celebrities (including online content creators and TikTok stars) have just a fraction of the fanbase of the movie darlings of old, and thus are a riskier bet when it comes to using their likenesses to attract viewers. This makes it difficult for “Saturday Night Live” to predict which celebrity namedrops will make them appear cool and hip to viewers, and which will seem stale or go over people’s heads – exactly what happened with the Try Guys. (When you have to spend more than half of your sketch about the Try Guys explaining who the Try Guys are, you might not be in tune with what your audience finds relevant.)

As SNL’s crucial 18-49 demographic becomes increasingly made up of Gen Z viewers, it faces another problem. It can’t seem to figure out what the new generation finds funny — and, when it tries to do so, it often falls short of the mark or overcorrects. SNL sees Gen Z’s appreciation for dark humor based on political discontent, and responds with dull tirades about how our government is going to hell and we’re all doomed. SNL sees Gen Z slang and responds by appropriating AAVE. SNL saw both the #MeToo movement and Gen Z’s commitment to comedy that punches up rather than down and responded with a sketch about how it’s totally cool to cheat on your wife with your employee. — Jules Kourelakos, staff writer


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