Of the many things I've been forced to defend during my time on Earth – culottes, chick lit, Kanye West – Saturday Night Live consistently ranks near the top of the list.
"It used to be funny, but it's not any more."
"That's still on? Oh my God, why?"
"Who even watches that thing?"
This is what I get when I argue in favour of my long-time, late-night mistress.
My love affair with the show, which celebrates its 40th birthday on Sunday with a star-studded, three-and-a-half-hour live taping at NBC's Studio 8H in New York, began in 1991, when my family arrived in Canada from Germany and Poland. I was 10 years old and didn't know any English (really, none). The wacky, open-hearted show quickly became a form of family bonding. In what was back then still a very strange land to us, SNL served as a warm, wry, wild introduction to the things that made North America tick: sports, politics, sex. Between laughs, we talked to each other about what was on screen – current events, world leaders, the absurdity of real life.
Warts and all, the show offered a non-threatening gateway to this new place we suddenly found ourselves in. It was a comfort, and it has remained one – as I've grown older, as my life has changed, it has been a constant, consistent companion. And while it has been a years-long standing date for me in a world that's taken to dismissing, even ridiculing, appointment viewing (yes, I often still rush home to watch it live at 11:30, though by now it's mostly on a host-by-host basis), it's also driven our culture more broadly, changing not just our understanding of news and entertainment, but how we consume both of those things, especially together.
In particular, Weekend Update, the show's weekly mid-broadcast newscast, has had a huge cultural influence. Update set the bar for laughing at the news, showing that you have to understand something in order to make fun of it in a smart way, and is easily identifiable as a blueprint for Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and the many men and women now lampooning current events every night with a knowing wink. In a bizarre twist, embattled NBC news anchor Brian Williams, who was recently suspended for six months without pay for "embellishing" the news surrounding various events, including the Iraq War, is the only anchor so far to host SNL and has been vocal about his enthusiasm for its particular brand of irreverence. ("I was … proud to get a writer's credit on that show," he is quoted as saying in an oral history of the program that I'll get to in a minute.)
SNL has been inspiring, for me and others, in myriad other ways, too. A case can be made that it is in fact the ultimate Canadian success story, especially if you subscribe to the theory that Canadians aren't appreciated at home until they've made it in America (I do). Think about it: Canadians are known the world over for being what? Cold. And funny. And we owe much of that storied rep to Lorne Michaels, himself an inspiration.
The Toronto-born Michaels, 70, the enigmatic cultural force who literally made the show, has been touted as the inspiration behind both Mike Myers's bald, pinkie-sucking Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers films, and Alec Baldwin's obtuse, ambitious network boss Jack Donaghy on 30 Rock. (Incidentally, a 1970 CBC sketch and variety show dubbed The Hart and Lorne Terrific Hour, which starred Michaels, feels like an early prototype for what would eventually become NBC's Saturday Night Live.) By 2015, Michaels's sphinx-like genius – he recruited many Canadians for what became a globally beloved platform for their humour – is a matter of fact, and he is often cited on lists of bosses who are as respected as they are feared. In short: a well-spoken, ass-kicking role model.
My love for the show rolled on through the years, and as I started thinking about what I might actually be able to call a career, I began to consider what made SNL, the institution, so magnetic, and how I might be able to get the feeling I got watching the show while doing a job that didn't entirely suck.
In 2002, with the publication of Live from New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live, as Told by Its Stars, Writers and Guests, by James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales, my fascination with the show turned into a kinship. By then, I'd realized my path in life was winding toward journalism. Whether I liked it or not (often not, considering the stress and anxiety that comes with putting yourself out there on a daily basis), writing and rewriting and editing and coming up with wild ideas for ways to cover the news of the day just stuck with me. The book, which was reissued and updated late last year in time for the 40th anniversary, was full of the show's writers, cast members and hosts, as well as Michaels, talking in their own words about what makes, and what's made, the show. It read, to me, like everything I could have written about being a young journalist. The stress, fear, sleep deprivation and occasional despair. The blood, sweat and tears of working on something you really believe in; the toll it takes – and why it's ultimately worth it.
The thing that served me most during this mostly uphill climb toward a viable, challenging career? The harried, brilliant women of SNL. From the early, wacky days of Gilda Radner and Jan Hooks, to the latter-day pop-culture glory of the likes of Maya Rudolph, Kristen Wiig, Amy Poehler and Tina Fey, these women's brave, strong voices and faces kept me going whenever I felt like what I had to say didn't matter as much as what someone else had to say, or when I felt like I couldn't say it as loudly. They were (and are) each unique, brash and fearless. In the writers' room and on the SNL stage, there was no paper-doll archetype, no expectation of playing "the girlfriend." These women wrote for themselves – and of themselves – and, ultimately, for me.
The Saturday Night Live 40th Anniversary Special airs at 8 p.m. ET, Sunday, Feb. 15 on Global and NBC.
THE SNL FORMULA
In a busy, indifferent world, it's nice to have something to rely on. The 11-part SNL formula, which you can still set your watch by 40 years later, is as follows:
1. The opening skit, usually political, skewers the biggest news of the week that was.
2. A lucky person gets to shout, "Live from New York, it's Saturday Night!" as the credits begin.
3. The host's monologue, sometimes literally a song-and-dance number, is followed by the same words each week: "We have a great show for you tonight. [Musical guest] is here, so stick around, we'll be right back."
4. Fake commercial or soon-to-be-viral digital short a.k.a. the original music video.
5. A skit.
6. First song by musical guest.
7. Weekend Update.
8. Another skit or two.
9. Second song by guest.
10. One more skit, if time. (Tip: Sketches closest to 1 a.m. are often the night owl's reward, as they are usually some of the craziest and most memorable.)
11. The goodbye: Host, cast and musical guest mingle on stage while a piano and sax play them out.