When Was the Pinnacle of Saturday Night Live? A YouTuber Watches One Episode from Each Season & Reports Back

How do we eval­u­ate a show like Sat­ur­day Night Live? And to what, exact­ly, can it be com­pared? Before its “lack­lus­ter” debut on Octo­ber 11,1975, noth­ing quite like it exist­ed on tele­vi­sion, and since that debut, every­thing resem­bling SNL exists because of SNL. The show has launched a few dozen careers, but it has also been a ver­i­ta­ble com­e­dy grave­yard. Co-founders Lorne Michaels and Dick Eber­sol both quit at dif­fer­ent times, both after beg­ging NBC to move to pre-record­ed con­tent because SNL’s pro­duc­tion sched­ule is so gru­el­ing. Whether or not its for­mu­la works dur­ing any giv­en episode, it’s tru­ly unlike any oth­er show on tele­vi­sion.

Giv­en its unique, and in recent decades, social­ly vaunt­ed, place in pop­u­lar cul­ture, we gen­er­al­ly judge Sat­ur­day Night Live by com­par­ing it to itself — or to ear­li­er iter­a­tions of itself, when it was fun­ner, edgi­er, less for­mu­la­ic, pan­der­ing, or what­ev­er the cur­rent crit­i­cism hap­pens to be. Is this a fair stan­dard? Are expec­ta­tions for the show’s polit­i­cal rel­e­vance or com­ic con­sis­ten­cy too high? The lack of any seri­ous com­pe­ti­tion for the time slot means that SNL exists in a league of its own. The stan­dards we apply to it are nec­es­sar­i­ly sub­jec­tive, and sub­ject to change giv­en chang­ing social cli­mate and the show’s increas­ing top­i­cal­i­ty.

“So much of what Sat­ur­day Night Live want­ed to be, or what I want­ed it to be when it began, was cool,” says Eber­sol. Try stay­ing cool for 45 years. So why do we still care? Maybe because every­one born in the last few decades has nos­tal­gic mem­o­ries of a gold­en age of SNL that just hap­pened to coin­cide with their ado­les­cence. But nos­tal­gia, says YouTu­ber Drew Good­en above, “is a drug that caus­es us to mis­con­strue our mem­o­ries.” We want Sat­ur­day Night Live to be “good again,” by which we mean fun­ny in ways it was. But mea­sur­ing its good­ness inde­pen­dent­ly of mem­o­ry proves dif­fi­cult.

Rather than assum­ing, as so many view­ers do, that the show peaked in the past (say the ear­ly 80s) and has steeply declined since then, Good­en hypoth­e­sizes that an accu­rate graph of its qual­i­ty might just as well look like a jagged line full of peaks and val­leys over the decades. Sat­ur­day Night Live, that is to say, has always been con­sis­tent­ly full of great moments and ter­ri­ble ones — with­in the same sea­son and often the same episode. It’s in the very nature of live TV that some ideas work and oth­ers don’t on the day, and the sketch­es and char­ac­ters we remem­ber from our youth may not hold up well ten, twen­ty, thir­ty, even forty years lat­er.

Good­en decid­ed to with­hold judg­ment on the over­all qual­i­ty curve of Sat­ur­day Night Live, his favorite show, before putting in the time and effort to watch at least one episode from every year in its run. See how the show comes out in his esti­ma­tion after the exper­i­ment. He may not change anyone’s mind about the best, and worst, sea­sons, episodes, cast mem­bers, and hosts. But he does demon­strate an admirable will­ing­ness to dig into SNL’s his­to­ry and give years of com­e­dy pos­i­tive­ly anti­quat­ed by 21st cen­tu­ry stan­dards a fair shake.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Sat­ur­day Night Live’s Very First Sketch: Watch John Belushi Launch SNL in Octo­ber, 1975

Cre­at­ing Sat­ur­day Night Live: Behind-the Scenes Videos Reveal How the Icon­ic Com­e­dy Show Gets Made

Clas­sic Punk Rock Sketch­es from Sat­ur­day Night Live, Cour­tesy of Fred Armisen

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (4)
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  • Greg says:

    Yo I love Dan­ny Gon­za­lez <3 <3

  • Keith Travers says:

    “Lack­lus­ter” debut of SNL? Even then, in 1975, on it’s very first show, it was obvi­ous­ly some­thing spe­cial.

  • Peri says:

    In Drew Gooden’s defense, the use of “lack­lus­ter” in this arti­cle is slight­ly mis­lead­ing as it’s ref­er­enc­ing a review writ­ten right after the show debut. Good­en him­self said he found it to be live­ly and fun, and with a good flow.

  • Tones says:

    SNL has­n’t been fun­ny for around 12 years now.…

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