By any measure, Saturday Night Live is one of the most successful shows of all time.
The NBC hit has lasted 39 seasons, won 36 Emmys and nearly two-dozen characters created on the show have been turned into movies (i.e. Blues Brothers, Wayne’s World, Coneheads). And year after year, it is one of the highest-rated shows in its time slot.
So what’s its “secret to success”?
Well, the most amazing part about SNL is that the only constants about it are success and creator Lorne Michaels. Writers and players have come and gone, the vast majority lasting less than five years, and yet it has still remained an American staple.
Most shows that are successful for a long time have a few great characters that serve as anchors, with everything revolving around that. For SNL to consistently stay on top, it has to consistently find great, previously-undiscovered talents that are both likeable and funny, an incredibly difficult feat to keep doing.
So, really, the secret to SNL’s success is really its outstanding hiring process. However, while the process has been successful so far, it is going to have to adapt for SNL to last another forty years.
How SNL Hires
So how does the Saturday night staple hire? SNL is infamous for never hiring established stars, instead searching for diamonds in the rough that first become famous through the show (i.e. Kristin Wiig, Eddie Murphy, Chris Farley, etc).
That said, there aren’t open auditions for the show. Instead, SNL talent scouts primarily find comedians through four improv comedy troupes: Second City, The Groundlings, Improv Olympic and the UCB Theater. Those troupes are primarily based in Chicago, New York and LA (although Second City has locations in Toronto and Amsterdam, as well).
If an SNL scout sees someone they think could thrive on the show, they’ll invite them to audition in New York. Some people who were invited first performed at a New York comedy club, but others said they were directly called into 30 Rock studios, where Saturday Night Live is filmed.
The audition is described by just about everyone who has ever done it as one of the most stressful and nerve-wracking experiences of their life. After all, these people are generally struggling comics who know that SNL is their ticket to fame, which leads to stress, and the audition format does nothing to quell that anxiety.
Some comedians who auditioned said they were told to come in at noon, but then the auditions didn’t start until Michaels showed up, which was generally around 7 p.m. That leaves the candidates to just wait and think for seven hours, as they undoubtedly second-guess every part of their routine.
Finally, they are called on SNL’s main stage, where they are given five minutes to perform (one candidate told a story where he was told he would be given 10 minutes, but than an hour before his audition, he was told he’d only get five). Prospective players can do traditional standup for their audition or launch into a few characters that would be suitable for the show.
Throughout the audition, Michaels and the other decision-makers watch on stoned-faced, rarely cracking a smile. After the five minutes, the prospective player leaves and the next one comes on. Eventually, the producers will get back to the prospective player, either with a yes or a no.
The ironic part is that, yes, SNL is an amazing opportunity for any comedian and it has catapulted hundreds into stardom. However, it is also an incredibly stressful, all-encompassing job where workdays generally end at 4 a.m.,sketches are routinely cut at the last second and guest hosts can be anything but easy to work with.
The Pros of the Process
Obviously, there is a lot to love about SNL’s hiring process. They seek people with experience in comedy troupes, so they know they can handle the rigors that come with the show; they seek only unestablished talent, so there is a real culture and no one is elevated above everyone else; and they put people through an incredibly stressful audition, to see if they can handle live TV.
Of course, the biggest thing SNL has going for it is its SNL. They can be highly-selective with who they choose and they can put people through an incredibly-rigorous process because they are Saturday Night Live, and a lot of people want to work for them.
The Cons of the Process
However, that leads directly to a negative of the process: while SNL is still a huge name in comedy, it isn’t the only name in comedy anymore, as dozens of other websites and troupes have popped up. Additionally, if someone really has talent, they can make it without being attached to any group, as they can use the Internet and YouTube as their platform.
And that could lead to a flaw in SNL’s standard operating procedure of primarily seeking out people who are in the four aforementioned comedy troupes. Yes, it makes sense to use those comedy troupes as a sort of minor league for the bigger show. But think of all the talent they are missing out on by focusing primarily on those four outlets for players.
Maybe it is time for SNL to start trying a more open approach, where videos can be sent in or they have recruiters searching YouTube for the next big star. Rather than focus on just a few troupes in a few American cities (mainly NYC, LA and Chicago), they can scour the globe for the absolute best people.
In the past few years, Wiig, Bill Hader, Seth Meyers and many of SNL’s established stars have left the show. And, frankly, the past two years at SNL have not been strong ones, as they haven’t really found replacements for that talent yet.
What SNL is going through is indicative of many of America’s biggest staples: they don’t have the power they once did. Yes, getting a job at SNL would be a dream job for any up-and-coming comedian. However, it isn’t the only avenue, or even one of a select few avenues, for comedians to become famous today.
Same goes for GE or Ford or dozens of other companies that were once the main place aspiring people in a field would go if they really wanted success. Today, with the Internet and the worldwide economy, there are literally countless paths people can take to become successful.
That’s empowering for people across the world, no doubt. But it is also troubling for the SNL’s of the world that once held a monopoly, or near monopoly, on improv comics.
There’s 39 years of evidence to believe that SNL will figure it out. However, one thing SNL can do right away to improve is open its recruiting process to more people.
Or Saturday nights could soon belong to someone else.
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