Give Me That Old Time Virality
David Gurney / Northwestern University

blues brothers

The Blues Brothers

When Ethan Thompson wrote his piece on Andy Samberg and Saturday Night Live for Flow in June 2008, he was drawing warranted attention to what was then the most potent force in Lorne Michael’s arsenal over the prior three seasons – a period that was otherwise notable for a decline in ratings and the loss of marquee talents like Will Ferrell and Tina Fey.1 Rather than solely integrating into the cast of featured players, Samberg (along with his Lonely Island collaborators Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone in mostly behind-the-scenes roles), have been regularly creating their own “SNL Digital Shorts” pre-shot and edited digital video segments. In a sense, the digital shorts function much like the early SNL short films by Albert Brooks, Walter Williams’s series of Mr. Bill sketches, or, more recently, Robert Smigel’s TV Funhouse cartoon parodies – as prefabricated content to be included in the SNL live broadcast, often immediately following a live skit but before going to a commercial break. However, the emphasis on these shorts’ “digital” nature is no accident, as they have gained much attention through and for their post-broadcast circulation (both legal and illegal) as viral videos.2

Since then, SNL has experienced a rather pronounced uptick due to its near relentless onslaught of political comedy focused on the 2008 US presidential election.3 From the beginning of the 34th season in September 2008 to the election in November, there were seven full-length episodes and three unprecedented half-hour Saturday Night Live Weekend Update Thursday episodes with very traditional political sketches and news reports parodying events along the campaign trail. With the serendipitous and inspired performance of former cast member Tina Fey as Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin at the foref, SNL’s ratings climbed, and the economic and cultural capital of the show increased considerably with recaps of and clips from the political sketches being discussed across various news media.

Whether this popularity boost experienced around the 2008 election will last is unclear, but at the very least, it might have some folks thinking that SNL is, despite its efforts to remain cutting edge, continuing to be defined by its old bag of tricks. And in large part, this is true. After all, as mentioned above, even “SNL Digital Shorts” appear to be only the latest incarnation of the various prefabricated segments that have always held some place in the sketch comedy format of SNL. Thus, an obvious lens to view the digital shorts through is one casting SNL as an old media industry property seeking to appropriate a designation of new media for the hip cachet and audience demographic it brings with it. While this is certainly a component of the story, to focus on it exclusively is to misapprehend the crucial (and continuingly relevant) role that SNL has played in the development of what we know as viral video.

Actually, to be clearer, what is getting lost when we frame The Lonely Island’s trajectory as a cooptation of new media by old media is the fact that their brand of viral comedy needs to be understood as having a rather important relationship with sketch comedy as a mode of expression. The majority of viral videos in their typically brief, typically comic nature belie their resemblance to SNL’s sketches, in addition to other sketch comedy television, the variety format in general, and, of course, the vaudeville stage. In all these mediated environments, short-form comedy has played and continues to play a constitutive role.

The unit of the comedy sketch is one that has long been transmedially mobile. Vaudeville routines were quickly appropriated by film, radio, and television as each of these then-new media emerged. Variety shows incorporating sketches became a fixture of early radio and television, and although that format seems to be suffering an extended period of declining interest and/or viability, SNL has maintained it through an emphasis on its comedy sketches and a integral/cyclical element of rebirth – i.e. a new host and musical guest each week and a changing cast each season (and sometimes cast changes during a season). The sketch as media form only supports this regenerative, adaptable nature. The notorious scheduling decisions that go on behind the scenes at SNL underscore their malleable nature. These units of content can be plugged in, pulled out, reformulated, or discarded as the timing of the live broadcast and the decision-making power of Lorne Michaels mandates. A sketch not used in one broadcast may be inserted into a later one. A sketch that gets a lot of laughs can be revisited as well, either through simple replay (as is often the case with SNL commercial parodies) or by revisiting its characters or situations in subsequent versions.

Perhaps even more importantly, the comedy sketch, which is typically organized around simple conceits – characters with socially awkward flaws, absurd scenarios taken to illogical extremes, parodic lampooning of public figures, etc., has always had a propensity for social circulation. Originating from stage or screen, the comic scenarios rendered in sketches are potent fodder for the gristmills of casual conversation. While this would certainly include any type of Monday morning synopsizing, perhaps the most obvious vessel of sketch comedy moving through the medium of public conversation is the comic catchphrase, of which SNL has popularized many throughout its run (e.g. “We are two wild and crazy guys!” “Consume mass quantities…” “Isn’t that special?” “Goulet!” “You betcha!”). These very small units of discourse, which we could certainly call memes, initially carry with them the themes of a sketch but can quickly break free and circulate through unanticipated and broad cultural channels.

As such, social transmission, or virality, has always been a goal and potential feature of sketch comedy, especially in the flexible domain of SNL through where new talent and ideas are constantly cycling. In this regard, is it any wonder that it has incorporated early makers of viral videos, The Lonely Island, into its fold? Of course, just because it makes sense doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t ask Thompson’s ultimate questions: Is this the best that can be expected for creative online videomakers? Is adoption into the MSM to be considered success? But to focus on these questions exclusively is to find ourselves mired in the well-worn narrative path of evil media industry cannibalizing and destroying the progressive potential of DIY mediamakers. Sketch comedy has always been a porous, slippery affair, at least in part because comedy has to be. While originality is often touted as an essential ingredient for getting laughs, in practice, it’s more about commonality, cultural legibility, and finding shades of authenticity in the inauthentic.

We can and should question the motives and operations of old media franchises like SNL when they plunder grassroots cultural coffers, but we also need to recognize that comedy itself is a restless and promiscuous enterprise. For The Lonely Island, starting from the position of independent makers distributing their own wares was always about accruing the credibility needed to gain access to other lucrative media platforms, and in that quest, they’ve been very successful. Finding space beyond video hosting websites on television screens, in movie theaters, comedy clubs, and now, thanks to the recent release of their Incredibad album (facilitated by the established viral popularity of many of its songs which began as shorts), radio airwaves and mp3 players, they have become emblematic of the viral nature of short form comedy. But that is hardly a first for SNL, which has, even since the original “Not Ready for Prime Time Players,” always been only one outlet for its cast and crew members’ creative output.

For the career-minded comedian, the impulse has always been and always will be to get to as many paying gigs as possible, and accordingly, viral video, which currently offers little in the way of direct compensation, will be used as a tool of self-promotion but probably not seen as a desirable final destination. Of course, new revenue models will develop in time, but for many viral videomakers, a career in entertainment is not expected or desired. For those active users, or produsers in Axel Bruns’s coinage,4 our criteria for creative or artistic success and relevance will need to be rethought and retooled, but given the propensity for short form comedy to circulate virally, it’s likely that it will find new paths of distribution in the future as well. How long those paths will continue to intersect with SNL is questionable, but given the program’s formidable and fluid position in late twentieth/early twenty-first century American comedy, its relevance is likely to persist, at least for a little while longer.

Image Credits:
1. Blues Brothers

  1. Ethan Thompson, “Convergence Comedy: Andy Samberg Vs. SNL,” Flow 8, no. 2 (2008), []
  2. John Biggs, “A Video Clip Goes Viral, and a TV Network Wants to Control It,” The New York Times (2006), []
  3. Bill Carter, “‘SNL,’ with Palin, Delivers Highest Audience in 14 Years,” The New York Times (2008), []
  4. Axel Bruns, “The Future Is User-Led: The Path Towards Widespread Produsage,” Fibreculture, no. 11 (2007), []

One comment

  • Jason Kelly Roberts

    It seems to me there’s another really interesting component of this discussion having to do with the way that comedians (and the programs they appear on) influence and borrow from each other. For example, SNL’s recent success seems attributable, in part, to their willingness to give up the ghost and chase the audience won by The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Luckily for them, Tina Fey bears a striking resemblance to that governor from Alaska (and also happens to be this country’s most gifted comedienne), and Americans appear to want a great deal of political comedy at the moment. Though Samberg’s comedy strikes me as only partially related to Stewart and co., clips from The Daily Show and Colbert Report also clearly made an impact on sites like YouTube, paving the way for SNL’s success with “viral” clips. Of course, the shadow of SNL’s own “Weekend Update” looms large over the comedy of Stewart and Colbert, and SNL itself borrowed from early examples of news parody on television in the 60s (and probably even earlier examples from the radio that I’m simply unfamiliar with). The recursive structure of aesthetic and ideological influences makes for a nice parallel with the way that viral clips appear in their “original” form, and then are frequently re-worked into new forms, especially when the initial clip resonates with audiences (or users, as the case may be).