Despite stumbling through much of the 1980s, NBC's Saturday Night Live returned to its place as a comedic touchstone in the 1990s. The ratings and critical response at the time didn't always show it, but in retrospect it's hard to argue with the results. Revisit the roster of talent that passed through the halls of 30 Rockefeller Plaza during the decade and names like Chris Rock, Tina Fey, David Spade, Adam Sandler and Will Ferrell immediately jump out at you. And from "Wayne's World" to a request for "more cowbell," numerous sketches from the time still resonate in the cultural consciousness of today.
Fans of that golden age of SNL get a treat this Sunday at 9 pm/ET, when NBC airs Saturday Night Live in the '90s: Pop Culture Nation, a two-hour documentary intermingling the show's best sketches with personal stories told by the people who put them on. It's the third SNL retrospective from writer/director/producer Kenneth Bowser. Having made Live from New York: The First Five Years of Saturday Night Live and Saturday Night Live in the '80s: Lost and Found, the filmmaker was more than qualified to take on the decade that gave us Hans and Franz and the Spartan Cheerleaders.
"Having looked at 500 shows in a row starting in 1975 and going through the end of the '90s, I think the '90s is the funniest decade, hands down," says Bowser. "Pound for pound, it was the most interesting cast across the [entire] 10 years. The first five years [of SNL] were one piece and the '80s were very broken up — but not necessarily in a good way. The '90s was a lot of really strong talent."
A cast member from 1991 through 2000, Tim Meadows remembers having a sense of awe when he joined the show. But trying to secure airtime alongside the likes of Dana Carvey, Mike Myers and Phil Hartman proved to be a daunting task. "My first year, it was all heavy hitters," recalls Meadows. "It was like being put on the Olympic Dream Team. I was like, ‘I'll play guard.' ‘Uh, no. We have Michael Jordan to play guard.' ‘I'll play the other guard, then?' ‘No, we have Larry Bird to do that. We just want you to bring the ball up the court and get it out of your hands as quickly as possible.' It was hard at first. But at a certain point, the performer in you comes out."
While Saturday Night Live in the '90s: Pop Culture Nation touches on the show's early-'90s resurgence, crediting the Wayne's World phenomenon for much of the renewed interest, it also deals with the more difficult times. The ratings bottomed out during the 1994-95 season, even though the cast included names like Chris Farley, Sandler and Spade. Suddenly, "Saturday Night Dead" headlines began to appear, as they had in the 1980s. "It was very hard to accept that kind of criticism," says Meadows. "We were trying to carry on the torch of the show, so it was difficult to feel like you're responsible for killing something you really love."
Under pressure from NBC brass, executive producer Lorne Michaels overhauled the cast for the '95-96 season. Fresh talent like Will Ferrell and Darrell Hammond brought strange new characters and spot-on impressions, respectively. Bowser's documentary also cites this period as an important time for women on the show. Previously looked at as a boys' club, SNL was now being fueled by the daring and uninhibited contributions of Molly Shannon, Cheri Oteri and Ana Gasteyer.
Saturday Night Live in the '90s also delves into topics like the controversial firing of "Weekend Update" anchor Norm MacDonald, and the tragic deaths of Chris Farley and Phil Hartman. Those offstage stories tend to be just as compelling as the sketches are laugh-inducing.
"The show is by its nature somewhat autobiographical. People will reveal their issues and their frustrations and their happiness in the course of these sketches," says Bowser. "Because the show is being done every week, it's bouncing off the press' reaction to the show. It's bouncing off what's going on in the headlines. It's bouncing off the personal lives of the people doing the show."
In addition to revealing the personalities of its creators, looking back on SNL provides cultural insights from a time when events like the O.J. Simpson trial and the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal grabbed national attention. "It's part of our culture," says Bowser. "Sometimes it's reflecting the culture when it's commenting on what's going on politically or in celebrity. Sometimes it's creating culture, whether it's Rob Schneider's Richmeister or the Ladies Man. But it always stays 'now.'"
For Meadows, SNL in the '90s simply represents a time in his life when he was honing his craft and cracking up with his buddies. "I had a lot of fun with Will, with Chris Farley, Mike Myers and Adam. We always tried to make each other laugh and we always tried to bring fun to it. Will would change things on the live show and do something different or look at you different. Farley would do things off camera and you'd try not to laugh. Sandler just had this look on his face when a joke didn't work. So we'd just be there dying together or succeeding together."
As Leon Phelps, Meadows rarely died. And while The Ladies Man movie didn't exactly break box-office records or win any Academy Awards, the character and sketches left a lasting impression on SNL fans. "I can honestly say there's not a day that goes by where somebody doesn't come up and tell me how much they love [the Ladies Man]. It happens every day," laughs Meadows.
NBC is hoping that love for the not-ready-for-prime-time players will have audiences tuning in throughout the weekend. To round out the SNL highlight parade, the network is also airing a best-of show for the 2006-2007 season as this Saturday's regular broadcast. Now that's something to cheer about, Spartans!
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