The embarrassing uncle of American comedy

For the past three decades, no show’s reputation has been quite as volatile as SNL’s, or quite as famously beside the point. At 36, the late-night comedy special seems virtually inviolable in its time slot, even as it churns out humor that’s notoriously hit-or-miss. It’s grown into a comic-entertainment brand; to many viewers, though, that brand’s virtues remain perpetually mysterious. (The New York Times, last week reviewing SNL star Kristen Wiig’s headlining debut, Bridesmaids, praised the movie first for being “unexpectedly funny.”) Unlike the razor wit and zany jujitsu of The Daily Show or The Colbert Report, SNL’s comic style seems targeted at somebody’s seventh-grade sleepover: To watch 90 minutes of the program straight through as an adult is to end up feeling as if you’ve eaten half a pizza and a hefty bowl of peanut-butter M&Ms. Although the show has flashes of zeitgeist importance—during the 2008 election, it was said to influence the tone of campaign coverage; this spring, Tina Fey’s memoir made SNL’s backstage life and gender dynamics topics of discussion once again—it’s hard to argue that SNL holds any stable role in this country’s dialogue with itself. How has this formulaic, famously mediocre comedy show outlasted everything else on TV?

The answer has less to do with the substance of SNL’s comedy than with its premises and style.