Critics who blasted Saturday Night Live for allowing Donald Trump to host last week’s show are missing the point of the enterprise. The SNL that exists today is not leading the golden era of political satire any longer. Instead, its writers rally together each week to write jokes for visiting politicians and celebrities who want to soften their public image and come out looking stronger in the end. Perhaps the show became too important of a cultural presence over 40 years to maintain its role as a satirical powerhouse. Perhaps audiences are tiring of socially-conscious sketch comedy meant to inspire more self-reflection than laughs.
The opportunity for tonal experimentation has been seized by alternative sketch shows, whose teams have clearly been influenced by SNL’s prolific history. But shows like Inside Amy Schumer, Key & Peele, Portlandia, Kroll Show, and most recently, Netflix’s Mr. Show reboot, W/ Bob and David represent alternate routes that a landmark production like SNL simply can’t risk. The success of offshoot sketch programs highlights a need for alternative voices in the comedy arena, and considering its all-time lowest viewership in 2015, SNL is no longer the best source available. Though SNL remains, for many, the nucleus of American sketch comedy, new programs are quickly filling in its blind spots.
Smaller sketch shows allow their creators to focus on aspects of comedy which SNL can’t quite flesh out, at the risk of alienating its viewers. Inside Amy Schumer followed a lukewarm first season with a second season focused on contemporary feminist topics like women in the military, feminine beauty standards and a specific type of male aggressor the show deemed “m’ladies”. The show’s success made a progressive icon, and a leading lady, out of its host.
In comparison, the most progressive sketches SNL has released on gender in recent years are big-budget takedowns of topics meant to be relatable without hurting anyone’s feelings: homemakers, taking boyfriends home for the holidays, and the way Lena Dunham talks.
Inside Amy Schumer was, of course, uneven in tone and quality, but in a world where most viewers simply stream each show’s highlights the day after their airing, smaller productions still yield more memorable stand-alone sketches than SNL each week. Key & Peele, now defunct, gained viewers for its playful, self-deprecating material on race relations. Their race-humor sketches enjoyed critical acclaim while not receiving the same backlash SNL’s feeble attempts at race jokes often get. Notably, Leslie Jones’ SNL monologue on the bodies of American slaves inspired an angry tweet barrage at both the comedian and SNL, but Key & Peele’s auction block sketch, lampooning the exact same topic, is often included on rankings of the show’s greatest pieces.
Releasing W/ Bob & David is a nod to wackier, more abstract sketch shows like Mr. Show, which were not completely focused on topical humor; The Mitchell & Webb Look, Mad TV, Upright Citizens Brigade, Kids in the Hall, The Whitest Kids U Know, and Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! all worshipped the bizarre, as opposed to the contemplative. Rather than producing comedy as a takedown of celebrities and political figures, shows like Tim and Eric called the viewer out instead, practically daring its fans to find meaning in its chaos.
In hosting W/ Bob & David, Netflix apparently believes in a demographic of comedy fans who are not interested in biting satire so much as pure lunacy. As we know, Netflix compiles and analyzes a stunning amount of viewer data, which seems to confirm that fans of comedy are yearning for something different than what a mainstream platform like SNL can offer. Even the trailer for W/ Bob & David satirizes the call for “smart comedy”, “sharp wit” and “biting satire”.
In reality, Odenkirk and Cross’ new show allows them to occupy roles both zany and relevant. The trailer shrugs off our modern desire for constant political and social commentary from comedians, but the show does include sketches that range from bizarre, imaginary worlds to gags which seem intended to comment on societal and cultural norms. One sketch in episode three skewers the archetypal “gifted asshole” detective protagonist in shows like Sherlock and House, while a sketch in episode four directly lampoons the Burpo family who helped their son produce the asinine Heaven is for Real memoir. Fans of Mr. Show’s more abstract humor won’t be disappointed, as other characters, like the poker buddy who can’t stop eating red meat, and the uber-sensitive “bad cop” stereotype, round out the series.
W/ Bob and David finds a balance between harmless, goofy humor and the trippy tone employed by sketch shows like Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! and Tyler, the Creator’s Loiter Squad. The very fact that Odenkirk and Cross have been able to return to the playing field and churn out more material — the show’s cold open shows them stepping out of a time machine, from the moment Mr. Show was cancelled — is a testament to our collective tepid response to sketch comedy as it currently stands. If we’re still looking for a world beyond SNL, sketches like the one in which Bob Odenkirk simply eats messy ribs while working at a dry cleaning company might be part of the solution.