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Around two on the Sunday morning after the Saturday Night Live season premiere on September 30after the studio audience has filed out down the long photo-lined hallway outside Studio 8H and the cast has paused outside the NBC headquarters at 30 Rockefeller Plaza to greet fans and pose for picturesthe 11 members of this season's slimmed-down cast and their guest host, Dane Cook, head to the after-party at McCormick & Schmick's, a high-end seafood restaurant on Sixth Avenue a few blocks away. NBC News anchor Brian Williams is there with his family, celebrating his hilariously awkward "Weekend Update" cameo, while Kenan Thompson sits nearby in an oversize jersey with matching hat and shoes. At a table in the back sits Lorne Michaels, the show's 61-year-old executive producer and creator, joined by Seth Meyers, Andy Samberg, and a select few. People come and go from the table; Michaels stays there, holding court.
It's a fairly laid-back evening, wholly unlike the wild post-show parties that became the stuff of legend when Saturday Night Live exploded on the culture in the fall of 1975. Back in those days cast members Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi brought the party to their Blues Brothers Bar downtown and consumed impressive quantities of drugs and alcohol, as befitted the times and their role in shaping them. For years, SNL was synonymous with wild and crazy, not just in its comedy but also in its animating spirit; the dark side of that was discord and drug abuseto the point where, by the late 1990s, two cast members, Belushi and Chris Farley, had died of drug overdoses.
Tonight, those days seem especially distant. No one is getting smashed. No one is in the bathroom snorting cocaine. A few cast members come outside for a cigaretteAmy Poehler with her husband, Arrested Development's Will Arnett, Bill Hader, Will Fortebut that's about it. Inside, there's conversation and camaraderie on display, not overindulgent egos or out-of-control consumption. The guest lists for these events vary, but tend toward the chillit's more about catching up than throwing down. At a party a few weeks later, Parker Posey, Sarah Chalke, Paul Rudd, and Nia Vardalos join the group, along with former cast member Rachel Dratch and a group from 30 Rock, the NBC sitcom created by former head writer Tina Fey in spoofing homage to her former employer.
Sometime after 3 a.m., the crowd starts to break up, and a group heads down to the after-after-party at the Plumm on West 14th Street, called for 3:30 a.m. And why not? It's still SNL, after all, and at least until the sun comes up, it's still Saturday night.
After 31 years of making television history, where does SNL stand now? This summer, the show had a well-publicized budget crunch, and Michaels was told by NBC brass to cut episodes or cast members. He chose the latter, firing eight-year veterans Chris Parnell and Horatio Sanz, plus recent arrival Finesse Mitchell. With the loss of Fey and Dratch, this reduced the cast by almost 30 percent, from 16 to 11. The two SNL-inspired shows launched this fall on NBCAaron Sorkin's earnest Monday-night drama, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and 30 Rockhave both gotten off to a weak start, despite considerable hoopla and critical praise. Sure, network TV is in crisis everywhere (NBC itself just carved a deep swath out of the budget), but this doesn't change the fact that SNL's ratings have slipped over the last five years.
Meanwhile, the increasing popularity of programs like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report on Comedy Central has introduced another variable into the equation: competition. And with the proliferation of digital online content over the past couple of years in the form of viral video, blogs, and websites, plus stalwarts like The Onion (growing wildly online), there's another variable: choice.
This clanging death knell is nothing new, of course; the media have been declaring SNL dead since its second season. "Week to week, you're fighting it," says Michaels. "When people refer to it as an institution or part of the landscapethat's not the way I view it. I think every week you go up there to reinvent it."
Right now, says Michaels, the cast is in what he calls a "rebuilding" period, with few old familiar favorites to entice viewers and no big star like a Will Ferrell or a Mike Myers. True, stalwarts like Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph are familiar veterans by now, and in his 12th season, Darrell Hammond is officially the longest-running player still on the showbut there are no Billy Madisons or Tommy Boys, at least not yet. And while last December's "Lazy Sunday" short may have brought SNL a level of attention it has not been paid in years, Andy Sambergone of its starsis still frequently referred to as "Adam." (And look where it got Parnell.) Would you recognize Kristen Wiig on the street? If so, you're one better than all the Gawker Stalkers out there. She moves among them, invisible. Concedes Michaels: "They're not household names yet."
And yet these are Michaels's chosen few to drive SNL forward into the post-Fey, pan-YouTube unknown. This season, as the cast mills around onstage at the end of the show, the downsizing is obviousbut it's obvious, too, in the preceding hour and a half, because the same faces keep showing up in sketch after sketch. Without the Debbie Downers and Carols there's suddenly room for a Peter O'Toole and a Kuato and a couple of A-Holes. "With the amount of people on the show, and with Seth just doing 'Update,' suddenly it's allowing for these really interesting moments," says second-year cast member Jason Sudeikis. "Everybody is scoring, everybody is getting time." It's also obvious offstage in their clowning and kidding around. A third of their number is gone, and whatever alliances may have existed previously, whatever complacent ruts of familiarity or easy fallback partnerships they may have enjoyed have likely been shaken up. As they run scenes during rehearsal, hang after at the cast party, or high-five each other seconds before a cold open, there's a distinct sense of we're-all-in-this-together fellowship.