This weekend, my social media streams were teeming with activity surrounding the Saturday Night Live 40th anniversary special that aired Sunday night. I grew up watching SNL, and my brothers and I still can fall into character from old skits like former members of some vaudeville troop. I watched all of SNL 40 live, and it felt like comfort food seeing all those old familiar faces reunited. For those easily star struck, that after party sounded like the most fun assemblage of comedians, movie stars, athletes, and musicians ever. Take any one segment of those subgroups and it wouldn't be nearly as appealing a gathering, but the intermingling of the four is something magical which only SNL has pulled off on a consistent basis.
Being on air for 40 years is a genuine accomplishment. Nothing else on TV has been with me for as long, SNL has spanned my entire life. The Simpsons is the only other show that comes close in that era, but it has fallen so far off its peak that fans are speculating that the past 20 years of the show have just been figments of a comatose Homer Simpson. The Simpsons is also an animated show while SNL has had to survive continuous turnover of real flesh and blood talent, something that adds to the degree of difficulty.
All that said, even as an unabashed SNL fan, the most powerful emotion I felt watching SNL 40 was nostalgia, and that's a feeling pointing the wrong direction. For much of the show, I wasn't laughing at anything on screen as much as I was chuckling at the recollection of funnier moments retrieved from memory. Some of the montages of clips were so cut up so fine that only an SNL die hard would know what some of the punchlines referred back to; it felt special, flattering even, to laugh at those remembered jokes considering the lineup of famous people we were sharing the laugh with. If only Chris Farley were alive, they could have run back an entire half hour of The Chris Farley Show, having him interview all the cast members there. “Remember that time when you were like...and then she was like...and then...? That was awesome.” Yes, we remember, and yes, it was.
Taken on pure comedic value, much of SNL 40 wasn't all that hilarious, and this season hasn't been the show's strongest either. The entertainment context has changed, and it's not a surprise that more and more of the funniest SNL bits each week are pre-recorded. Whereas in my childhood Saturday night was the only time all week one could watch comedy sketches, now they can be found around the clock online. Even on TV, shows like Inside Amy Schumer and Key and Peele and even, to some extent Broad City, have spread edgier and more viral sketches across the weekly calendar (and walk back the calendar a few more years, of course, and you'll find In Living Color, MADtv, and The Chappelle Show). Jimmy Kimmel and SNL alum Jimmy Fallon now produce comic skits on late night TV, something Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart, John Oliver, and the rest of the Comedy Central late night TV show posse have been doing for years now. Lonely Island brought digital shorts to SNL at the perfect moment given the rise of fat viral pipes like YouTube, but everyone has put that memetic infrastructure to good use. If I were to name the top 10 funniest videos I've seen the past few years, I'm not sure if SNL places one on that list.
When Louis CK came on stage during SNL 40 and pointed out that the pre-recorded material was often better than the stuff performed live, it was funny for being true. Yet the live performance is the one thing that continues to set the show apart. Andy Samberg and Adam Sandler's digital short on SNL 40 poked fun at the all the times SNL performers cracked up during live performances, something Lorne Michaels is said to have hated in the beginning, but that's become an endearing tic that reminds viewers of the loose, improvisational nature of the program. Even the live studio audience is a bit of an anachronism, but a charming one.
Of course, I don't watch SNL live anymore, but in my childhood, and even after our family bought a VCR, I often did. It felt like a real treat to stay up Saturday night to catch the program, and watching live felt like watching with millions of households in the country, all tuned in at once. SNL 40 drew 23.1 million overall viewers during the 8-11:30 time slot, reminding us of that age of TV when millions would watch something at the same time that wasn't a sporting event. Now it's easier to watch SNL the next morning on Hulu or off your DVR, giving social media overnight to identify the sketches worth watching.
As long as the inimitable Lorne Michaels has the energy to guide SNL, I have no doubt it can stay on air. Saturday night is a bit of a graveyard for television anyhow, so I don't see anything else rising up to seize that slot of the weekly calendar from SNL. Capturing one night of the week isn't what it used to be, though.
SNL's 40th anniversary happened to occur the same week that The New Yorker put out its 90th anniversary issue. For the great accomplishment that surviving on TV 40 years in a row is, maintaining cultural relevance as a magazine for 90 years might be an even more astonishing achievement. I've been a New Yorker subscriber since I was in high school, and it's the only magazine or newspaper I've read continuously that whole time. For all the troubles befalling the publishing industry, The New Yorker seems to be going as strong as ever, having built their brand not on something ephemeral, like a local monopoly on distribution or a niche perspective on a narrow interest, but on deep, world-class reporting on what matters in politics, science, medicine, technology, arts, and culture.
As with SNL, the stable of New Yorker writers and reporters has turned over many times over the decades, but while one might argue with a few of them, the assemblage of talent that has graced the pages of that magazine over the years is even more impressive than the gathering of performers on stage at the end of SNL 40. I can easily mention dozens of writers from The New Yorker that most people I know have never heard of that rank among some of the greatest journalists I've ever read.
Take for example Wolcott Gibbs. Read Backward Ran Sentences for a sampling of his brilliance. Like many of The New Yorker's best writers, he was so smart and such a gifted writer he could cover just about anything. And he did. He wrote fiction and non-fiction. He covered theater, but later he reviewed books and movies. He could profile the famous one week and capture the most notable details of an everyday moment from his own life for The Talk of the Town the next week. Much like Phil Hartman or Will Ferrell, he was just another versatile genius you wanted to see in action no matter what he applied himself to.
Of all the magazine's qualities, perhaps none elicit more of my professional jealousy than their famous house style. I have yet to find a comprehensive guide that outlines it in detail, but read enough New Yorker pieces and you know it. Tom Wolfe once described it as such: “The New Yorker style was one of leisurely meandering understatement, droll when in the humorous mode, tautological and litotical when in the serious mode, constantly amplified, qualified, adumbrated upon, nuanced and renuanced, until the magazine’s pale-gray pages became High Baroque triumphs of the relative clause and appository modifier.”
It's notable that their house style was not for everyone. Nothing precise ever is. The magazine never published any of David Foster Wallace's non-fiction pieces, to pick one example. As John Jeremiah Sullivan (himself a great essayist) wrote in a review of DFW's The Pale King:
It's worth noting, in that regard, that The New Yorker, which published some of his best fiction, never did any of his nonfiction. No shame to Wallace or The New Yorker, it's simply a technically interesting fact: He couldn't have changed his voice to suit the magazine's famous house style. The "plain style" is about erasing yourself as a writer and laying claim to a kind of invisible narrative authority, the idea being that the writer's mind and personality are manifest in every line, without the vulgarity of having to tell the reader it's happening. But Wallace's relentlessly first-person strategies didn't proceed from narcissism, far from it—they were signs of philosophical stubbornness. (His father, a professional philosopher, studied with Wittgenstein's last assistant; Wallace himself as an undergraduate made an actual intervening contribution—recently published as Fate, Time, and Language—to the debate over free will.) He looked at the plain style and saw that the impetus of it, in the end, is to sell the reader something. Not in a crass sense, but in a rhetorical sense. The well-tempered magazine feature, for all its pleasures, is a kind of fascist wedge that seeks to make you forget its problems, half-truths, and arbitrary decisions, and swallow its nonexistent imprimatur. Wallace could never exempt himself or his reporting from the range of things that would be subject to scrutiny.
I can understand Wallace's refusal to bend to New Yorker house style. Plain style can smack of a false omniscience or objectivity when I disagree with the author. For example, I believe a lot of East coast magazines and newspapers write with some bias about the tech industry. Some of it may be some jealousy over West coast institutions like Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook, and Twitter rising up to challenge the cultural centrality of the East coast intellectual elite (hip hop and rap are not the only cultural battleground pitting the two American coasts against each other). Some of it may just be a lack of total understanding of the technology itself. In such pieces, the plain style can feel like wallpaper over faulty construction.
That quibble aside, most of the time, it is a wonder. Clean, clear, elegant. I consider The New Yorker's plain style to be a variant of what Steven Pinker calls the classic style. I can never think of what to say when people ask me which three people in history I'd most want to have dinner with, but I can say unequivocally that if I could choose one editor to edit my prose for the rest of my life it would be long time New Yorker editor Eleanor Gould. Upon her death, David Remnick said, “If it's true The New Yorker is known for the clarity of its prose, then Miss Gould had as much to do with establishing that as its more famous editors and writers.” If you need further proof, E.B. White thanked Gould in the credits of that bible of usage The Elements of Style: “The co-author, E. B. White, is most grateful to Eleanor Gould Packard for her assistance in preparation of this second edition.”
Someday I hope The New Yorker sees fit to publish a house style guide as a public service, to improve prose everywhere. Until then, we'll have to live off of the occasional scrap like this Wolcott Gibbs' memo. It includes such gems:
1. Writers always use too damn many adverbs. On one page recently I found eleven modifying the verb ‘said’. ‘He said morosely, violently, eloquently, so on.’ Editorial theory should probably be that the writer who can’t make his context indicate the way his character is talking ought to be in another line of work. Anyway, it is impossible for a character to go through all these emotional states one after the other. Lon Chaney might be able to do it, but he is dead.
2. Word ‘said’ is O.K. Efforts to avoid repetition by inserting ‘grunted’, ‘snorted’, etc., are waste motion and offend the pure in heart.
10. To quote Mr Ross again, ‘Nobody gives a damn about a writer or his problems except another writer.’ Pieces about authors, reporters, poets, etc. are to be discouraged in principle. Whenever possible the protagonist should be arbitrarily transplanted to another line of business. When the reference is incidental and unnecessary, it should come out.
11. This magazine is on the whole liberal about expletives. The only test I know of is whether or not they are really essential to the author’s effect. ‘Son of a bitch’, bastard’, and many others can be used whenever it is the editor’s judgement that that is the only possible remark under the circumstances. When they are gratuitous, when the writer is just trying to sound tough to no special purpose, they come out.
13. Mr Weekes said the other night, in a moment of desperation, that he didn’t believe he could stand any more triple adjectives. ‘A tall, florid and overbearing man called Jaeckel.’ Sometimes they’re necessary, but when every noun has three adjectives connected with it, Mr Weekes suffers and quite rightly.
15. Mr Weekes has got a long list of banned words beginning with ‘gadget’. Ask him. It’s not actually a ban, there being circumstances when they’re necessary, but good words to avoid.
20. The more ‘As a matter of facts’, ‘howevers’, ‘for instances’, etc. etc. you can cut out, the nearer you are to the Kingdom of Heaven.
23. For some reason our writers (especially Mr Leonard Q. Ross) have a tendency to distrust even moderately long quotes and break them up arbitrarily and on the whole idiotically with editorial interpolations. ‘Mr Kaplan felt that he and the cosmos were coterminous’ or some such will frequently appear in the middle of a conversation for no other reason that that the author is afraid the reader’s mind is wandering. Sometimes this is necessary, most often it isn’t.
24. Writers also have an affection for the tricky or vaguely cosmic last line. ‘Suddenly Mr Holtzmann felt tired’ has appeared on far too many pieces in the last ten years. It is always a good idea to consider whether the last sentence of a piece is legitimate and necessary, or whether it is just an author showing off.
25. On the whole we are hostile to puns.
28. It has been one of Mr Ross’s long struggles to raise the tone of our contributors’ surroundings, at least on paper. References to the gay Bohemian life in Greenwich Village and other low surroundings should be cut whenever possible. Nor should writers be permitted to boast about having their telephones cut off, or not being able to pay their bills or getting their meals at the delicatessen, or any of the things which strike many writers as quaint and lovable.
31. Try to preserve an author’s style if he is an author and has a style. Try to make dialogue sound like talk, not writing.
How much of anything lasts 90 years anymore, let alone remains relevant in the modern world? To endure for that long, it's enough to be stubborn, but to remain fresh and thrive for that long speaks to some evolutionary fitness. I'm not sure SNL will outlive me, but The New Yorker most likely will.