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

By Josh Jones

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.

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