The Changing Nature of Saturday Night Live: A Forty Year Legacy
Updated: Jun 9, 2022
Final Project for Research Methods, GWU 2019
The Goal of my research is to assess changing themes within the content of Saturday Night Lives’ sketches as it relates to the nature of American society at any given time in the show’s history. To do this, I used sketches of the show itself, taken from fifteen different cold open segments since 1975. The cold open segment is typically a technique for telling a story without context before a show’s opening sequence, and often sets the tone for the proceeding show. Throughout my research, I consider answers to a survey I sent out asking respondents to share their attitudes and opinions on the current season of Saturday Night Live. Additional support for my research includes a detailed ratings chart of past and current Saturday Night Live episodes and seasons. While not conclusive, my findings reveal that Saturday Night Live alters its content during times of disunity within the United States. When there are moments in the United State’s history that are defined by strong rhetoric or widespread divisiveness, the content of the show and the themes presented in its sketches change, and remain changed until the next moments of strong rhetoric and division.
Saturday Night Lives’ legacy lies far beyond that of a late night comedy show. Having survived eight presidencies, countless national and international crises, and four decades of societal reformation, Saturday Night Live holds a powerful platform for rhetoric and commentary, and is often considered to be a form of satirical news. But is the series as influential as it once was? What are the implications of this influence? Saturday Night Live remains inspired by liberal rhetoric in regards to political and social circumstances, yet simultaneously remains a source of entertainment for a much larger population. Because of this, it is important to recognize significant changes that have been made to the show’s content over time as attitudes, demographics, and representation within the United States transform over the decades.
There has been extensive commentary on Saturday Night Lives’ changing content over time, but limited research has been done as to why these changes take place.“Which era is the best likely depends on the age of the person you ask, subjective to their comedic taste, how they watch the show, and when you ask them,” Jesse Fox writes in an article for Vulture Magazine (Fox). Along with fellow journalists, Fox’s efforts in defining the best era of Saturday Night Live were met with difficulty due to imminent subjectivity. Though the article did not reveal anything for my research, it did provide possible ways for defining and grouping the eras of Saturday Night Live. An opinions piece from The AV Club reads, “as the show became more successful, it became bigger, less intimate, and splashier, but it has also changed to fit the times,” (Dyess-Nugent). Though past commentary all agree that Saturday Night Live changes over time, little has been said about the nature the changing content itself, as well as what this might represent about society.
My research differs from past commentary in that I look at the content of the show itself to understand changing public perception of the show’s importance as it relates to discourse in American society. Rather than look only to the nature of altering political and social climates to understand Saturday Night Lives’ changing legacy, my research examines the relationship between the show’s targeted audiences and how this is reflected in it’s content. Assessing the content of the sketches themselves, I make note of themes that were both present and absent from defining eras of the show: politics, current events, social commentary, racism and taboos, and entertainment. Along with a reputable ratings chart of the show, a survey I administered, and my knowledge of basic history, my research evaluates the relationship between the content of the show, the purpose for this content, and the audience’s response to such content. In doing this, I can better understand Saturday Night Lives’ lasting legacy as its material is continuously adjusting itself.
My research focused on five distinct eras of Saturday Night Live, which I grouped by decade: 1975-80, 1981-90, 1991-2000, 2001-2010, and 2011-2019. In doing so, the eras are not defined by cast members, creators, or politics, but rather by time it. Taking the previously mentioned themes into account, my research shows that Saturday Night Live is viewed as more controversial during times of contention and political divisiveness within the United States. During these times, the show enters phases in which content is altered to appeal to and reach the largest audience at the given time. A null hypothesis of this would suggest that changing political and social climates over time has no effect in Saturday Night Lives’ content.
Saturday Night Live: Cold Open Coding
I began my research by categorizing the past 44 seasons of Saturday Night Live into five defining eras of the show: 1975-80, 1981-90, 1991-2000, 2001-2010, and 2011-current. Using NBC’s digital archives, I randomly selected three Cold Open sketches from each era. My research looked at fifteen sketches from different seasons and years, which I made my independent variable. My dependent variables looked at common themes and tropes that were either evident in or absent from these individual sketches, as well as for each era. I assigned either a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ whether a sketch had any of the following themes present: political drama, current events, cultural conflicts, racism/taboos, and entertainment/celebrity. This method of analysis furthered my research by visually depicting changing trends in content over time.
Public Perception Survey
As part of my research, I sent out a survey to gage attitudes towards the current season of Saturday Night Live. The survey was shared on multiple platforms to engage varying populations. Of these platforms, the survey was posted on my Facebook timeline, Twitter timeline, and shared by numerous family members. There were no limitations as to who could answer the survey. The survey consisted of ten questions of my own making, with the first three asking participants to reveal their age, race, and political identify. Six multiple-choice questions were asked about general feelings towards Saturday Night Live and which segments of the show they liked best. Additional questions asked participants to compare past seasons with the current one. The survey concluded with a free response question asking participants to describe their favorite moments from the show, whether that be a specific host, sketch, joke, or character. As my research is looking to find a relationship between the show’s content and its viewers, this survey helps me understand public perceptions of current content, which I can then apply to perceived attitudes of past eras.
Saturday Night Live: Episodes Ratings Graph
To better assess public perception of Saturday Night Live, I found an extensive chart detailing the ratings of each episode in the show’s 44 years history. Episodes one through 850 lie on the x-axis. The y-axis shows an auto scale of values 3 through 9, which represent overall rating for each show. A shape on the graph represents each episode, and each season is grouped by the same color and shape. The ratings charts helps further my research by visually displaying trends in overall attitudes towards specific episodes and seasons, which can be used to understand why defining eras produced certain content when they did, and why specific themes may have been present or absent from other eras.
Saturday Night Live: Cold Open Coding
To better understand my results, I first assessed the columns individually to see when specific themes appeared over time. The presence of political drama almost uniformly cycles throughout the eras, appearing in sketches for an entire era, but absent entirely from the next. The seasons that broke this trend were from the years 1980, 1990, and 2019. Current events are present in every sketch looked at except for the years 1980 and 1990. Aside from seasons 6 and 9, themes of cultural conflicts did not appear in any sketches until season 27, which aired in 2001. Themes of cultural conflict are present from seasons 27 through the current season. Content related to racism and taboos are present in all sketches except for those from seasons 1, 9, 16, and 34. There is no clear distribution as to when entertainment appears in the sketches, but the longest stretch without entertainment in the sketches took place between seasons 27 through 36. While there was an absence of entertainment in these sketches, the sketches still contained at least three other themes.
Next, I looked for concurring themes over time, and the distribution of each theme within specific sketches and seasons. There are only two sketches, which contain commentary on all themes, in Cold Open segments from seasons 4 and season 40. Seasons 1 through 15 (marking the first two eras of the show) reveal trends in which segments either discussed political drama, current events, and cultural conflicts simultaneously without mentioning racism, taboos, or entertainment, or, conversely, held themes of racism, taboos, and entertainment together with no mention of the latter. There was never any overlap or change in themes present during this time. Season 16 through 25, which make up the third era (1991-2000), show an absence of all themes except for current events and entertainment. From season 27 until the current season, individual sketches contain at least three of the themes in its content. Despite this, a sketch in which political drama is present sees an absence of entertainment themes, and vice versa. All other themes coincide at varying degrees.
Public Perception Survey
My survey gathered responses from 59 random individuals. Respondents’ ages ranged from 19 to 76, and 48 percent of respondents were 19. Mores o, 84.7 percent of respondents identified as white. When asked for party identification, 80 percent of respondents identified as ‘Democrat’ or ‘Lean Democrat’. Around five percent of respondents were either ‘Center’ or ‘Republican’, and the rest identified as ‘Other’. When asked if they watch Saturday Night Live, 50.8 percent of respondents replied with ‘Sometimes’, and 45.8 percent replied with ‘yes’. When asked if they like Saturday Night Live, 74.6 percent of respondents said ‘Yes’, and the rest either responded with ‘Sometimes or ‘No’. Furthermore, 54.4 percent of respondent’s placed this season’s cast as being equal to those in the past, and 33.3 percent answered that this cast is worse than those in the past. When asked which era had the best content, 43.9 percent of respondents answered with the era of 2001-2010. Alternatively, only 38.6 percent of respondents saw the current season as having the best content. All other eras were represented by at least one response. Half of the respondents answered that Weekend Update was their favorite part of the show, and just over 44 percent of respondents said that the Cold Open was their favorite. Over half (53.4 percent) of respondents do not think that this season is better than past seasons. Answers to the free response question asking for a favorite moment of the show widely ranged, but many of the moments involved character impersonations from the last two decades, or popular moments from the show’s history.
Saturday Night Live: Episodes Ratings Graph
Content analysis of the ratings chart revealed trends in attitudes towards Saturday Night Live over a span of 44 years. Most notably, seasons 22-30 received relatively lower ratings than other seasons, which correlate with the years 1997 through 2005. These seasons have consistent ratings that are a full unit below other seasons on the rating scale. Other periods of time in which the ratings appear lower are seasons 11 through 15 during the years 1985 through 1990. The highest rated shows were found in season 3 (1978), season 35 (2010), and season 39 (2013). The hosts of these episodes were, in order of appearance, Steve Martin, Betty White, and Jimmy Fallon. The lowest rated shows were found in season 24 (1999), season 30 (2005), and season 41 (2015). The hosts of these episodes were, in order of appearance, Cuba Gooding Jr., Paris Hilton, and Donald Trump. There were no ratings lower than a 4 before season 24. Additionally, seasons, which mark the end of an era, show a general decrease or stagnancy in ratings, but are consistently followed by seasons of increasing ratings. This ratings chart furthered my research by visualizing public attitudes towards Saturday Night Live at any given time, and shows clear changes throughout defining eras.
Although my research is not sufficient enough to justify or refute my hypothesis, my current findings support the notion that Saturday Night Live produces its most controversial content during times of political divisiveness within the United States. These times of discord are followed by a change in content to better reflect a reunifying nation, and content remains this way until the cycle ultimately repeats. Satirical humor is meant to be a form of artistic criticism of society and injustices within a population or institution. As such, the intersection of satire and social commentary can serve as sources of twisted news and can even influence public opinion in the same way that public opinion can influence the content, which the show puts forth. Thus, the legacy of Saturday Night Live lies in its recurring ability to alter content and humor for a society constantly transforming.
Saturday Night Live began in the 1970s as a simple late night comedy show: a comedian or celebrity was invited on the show to do standup comedy, and sometimes engage in sketches with the cast. Politics was acknowledged in the content of the sketches, but was done so in a way that mocked or parodied the character of political figures, rather than ridicule such figures’ policies or beliefs. A cold open sketch from season 1 depicts a poorly disguised Chevy Chase roughly impersonating President Ford. But rather than rely on verbal satire or rhetoric, Chase played on Ford’s known clumsiness and aloofness to bring humor to the sketch. Although the United States was emerging from the political scandals of Nixon and the Vietnam War overseas, Americans searched for a distraction from these events and turned to entertainment for this distraction. While content did approach societal matters of the time, it did so in a subtle manner. This trend of subtle political and social commentary remained prevalent until the early seasons of the following era.
Saturday Night Live in the 80s and 90s approached the show in a different manner, coinciding with public opinion of the show recurrently faltering and regaining influence. During this time, viewership dropped by over 3 million people, compared to earlier seasons of the show, continued to fall and raise by at least a million more throughout these decades. This era of Saturday is defined by its recurring characters that audiences have come to recognize define Night Live. Characters like the church lady and Wayne from Wayne’s World were reflections of the common viewer of the show, and sketches relied on situational humor to connect with the audience, rather than social commentary. In reaching the largest audience and demographic possible during this time, SNL had to attract predominantly younger and more Republican audiences, as Reagan and Bush shaped the political atmosphere at the time. Because these didn’t reflect the beliefs or ideas of the writers or cast, the show shifted away from political humor and aimed for situational humor and simple satire. During these eras, the United States was experiencing overwhelming financial stability, but was also nearing the end of the Cold War. Mentions of current events and matters involving racism or taboos were primarily absent from these sketches, which is understandable for a time when the average American viewer was concerned with their own financial wellbeing and prosperity. Thus humor was targeted to appeal to individuals rather than larger populations within society, and in doing so the content shifted towards a different form of humor.
In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on Saturday Night Lives’ hometown, and the presence of a dominant Republican government, there was a distinct separation in content containing either political drama or entertainment, as sketches would not mention both at the same time. During this time, anti-Arab sentiment and American international dominance were common narratives in the media. Saturday Night Live adjusted its writing to include more clever humor and satire, rather than aloof or simple comedy. Cold open sketches discussed matters of national and international significance within society as a whole, rather than rely on trivial characters and situational humor from previous decades. With fear and tension on the rise as a result of the actions of the Bush administration and imminent economic recession that would begin in 2008, Americans were left in a state uncertainty and disunity. A cold open sketch from season 31 shows the cast of Saturday Night Live relighting the Rockefeller Christmas tree but with aggressively secular and non-political songs. This content appeals to an audience looking to distract themselves from the nature of the world through alternative forms of media, as it directly references problems in the society at the time by avoiding any mention of these problems specifically. Ratings increased significantly in the second half of the decade, when during this time Democrats gained control of the house in the 2006 election. With Obama’s win for the presidency in the 2008 election, Saturday Night Live returned to more progressive content in its sketches. Frequent appearances by Democratic political figures, and extensive criticism on the faults in American society produced content that targeted a more liberal, young audience like that of early seasons. In a decade defined by major transformation within society, and representation growing with the election of the first African American president, humor heavily relied on existing political and social dilemmas for humor, rather than rely on the humor itself for effect. Abandoning traditional comedy for extensive political satire portrays just how Saturday Night Live constantly adjusts its content to strengthen the relationship with the show’s audience as the political and social motivations of the American people transformed.
Though this era has not finished yet, changes in Saturday Night Lives’ content are already evident. The election of Donald Trump in 2016, and the control of the Republican Party in government, amongst other thing, coincides with widespread disunity amongst Americans. Along with the rapid rise of social media usage and global interconnectivity, Saturday Night Lives’ content is adjusting to a period of rampant transformation within society. This decade includes one of the show’s highest rated shows in history, when Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake co hosted in 2013. Alternatively, it also includes the lowest rating show when Donald Trump hosted in 2015. Just as is in earlier seasons of the show, Saturday Night Live continues to intersect the institutions of politics and entertainment in its content, just as the two continue to interact in society. A cold open from the finale of season 40 covered all themes in its content, in a sketch, which parodied presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s attempt at appealing to younger demographics for their vote. Cast member Kate McKinnon portrays Clinton as aggressive in her methods of appeal, engaging the youth with useless gossiping about celebrities and poor attempts at Snapchatting. Technological and global advancements are transforming media platforms and the role of the media itself, as the divide between entertainment and information becomes unclear. As such, Saturday Night Live uses its powerful platform to comment on the strengthening relationship between Hollywood and politics, the nature of global affairs and international crises as it affects America, and movements or causes that are of importance at the moment. Widespread division amongst Americans, and the changing nature of America’s political and social climate are all factors as Saturday Night Live makes notable changes to its content in this era.
Despite convincing findings, which seem to support my hypothesis, I struggled with collecting data because of the magnitude of information that was available. In doing so, I had to continually remind myself of my objectives of my research, since my data provided me with more information than I needed. When collecting data, I was concerned about potential biases in my subjectivity of what I was assessing, as I was doing most of the research through my own findings. Although I clearly defined the themes in which I was coding for, these definitions can be different to other people who may not have seen the same themes present in the sketches as I did. Because of this, different results could potentially occur. The survey I administered is also subject to bias, especially because the demographics of those who answered were not reflective of America as a whole. For this reason, the answers do not provide substantial enough evidence for my research. Still, the answers the survey provided helped guide my research.
Much of my research looked at historical events and societal concepts with little detail, and was largely guided by assumption. While my assumptions did hold truth and did support my hypothesis, I would have liked to find more evidence reflecting this. The biggest limitation of my research was the time I was given. If I had more time, I would look at themes present in sketches from every season of Saturday Night Live. This would strengthen the independent variable by looking at content for shorter time periods, and can find greater correlations between historical events and other factors in relation to the show’s content. Further research should focus look for recurring trends in content over time and compare this to recurring trends in society and politics. More so, entertainment and media are reflections of society, as is the nature of marketing towards audiences. Further exploration should be done on the reversal of this relationship, to see if content in the media motivates society in particular ways. Saturday Night Live is an excellent show to research this, because of the vast topics and themes it covers over a large period of modern history. Regardless, my research shows how Saturday Night Live, throughout decades of criticism and fluctuating ratings, has continued to provide entertainment and news for a nation constantly transforming itself, and the content it produces follows.
1. Dyess-Nugent, Phil. Distilling 4 Decades of Saturday Night Live Down to Just 10 Episodes. Tv.avclub.com. 19 September, 2019. https://tv.avclub.com/distilling-4-decades-of-saturday-night-live-down-to-jus-1798233479. Accessed 8 May, 2019.
2. Fox, Jesse David. What Was the Best Era of Saturday Night Live Ever?Vulture Magazine. 31 May, 2017. https://www.vulture.com/2017/05/saturday-night-live-best-era-ever.html. Accessed 8 May, 2019.
4. Leano, Jessica. The Agenda Setting Power of Saturday Night Live. Elon University. The Elon Journal of Undergraduate Research in Communications • Vol. 5, No. 1 • Spring 2014
5. Miller, James. Live From New York: The Complete, Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live as Told by Its Stars, Writers, and Guests. Back Bay Books Little, Brown and Company: New York, 2015. Print.
6. “Saturday Night Live.” NBC, www.nbc.com/saturday-night-live.
7. "Television's Impact on American Society and Culture." Television in American Society Reference Library. . Encyclopedia.com. 5 May. 2019<https://www.encyclopedia.com>.
Code sheet of Cold Open Sketches
Questions From Survey :
Do You Watch Saturday Night Live?
Do You Like Saturday Night Live?
How Do You Place This Seasons Cast With Previous Ones?
Which Decade Had the Best Content?
What Is Your Favorite Part of a Saturday Night Live Episode?
Do You Think The Current Season Is Better Than Past Seasons?
Describe Your Favorite Moment From Saturday Night Live (Sketch, Joke, Host, etc.).