saturday night live, institutionalized laughter and garbage can comedy

If you are honest with yourself, you have to admit that the typical moment in an SNL broadcast is lame. Audience silence, sketches with no pacing or point, comedians way out of their league. At the same time, SNL keeps churning out really memorable comedy, from the icky, to the sublime, to the sorely needed. What explains this bizarre skew distribution of output? How can a show that is so predictably lame have such a long tail?

My explanation is two fold: SNL relies on institutionalized audiences and produces occasional gems with a garbage can model of comedy production. On the first point, SNL is a classic institutionalized organization. It’s continued survival is not accounted for by its output. Just check out fan discussions. Even die hards will admit there have been stretches of *years* where the show’s quality is atrocious. The show is peppered with a ream of horrible actors and incompetent guest hosts. And don’t get me started on all the horrific SNL movie spin-offs such as It’s Pat, The Ladies Man, and Coneheads. The show is a comedy Chernobyl.

The forces of capitalism should’ve put this puppy to sleep ages ago, but the show retains non-laughing audiences who boost ratings. I guess the show’s occasional high points and path breaking past are enough to keep executives from axing the show. People must feel an institutionalized desire to watch the show. It’s just what you do on the weekend and you just tolerate it and pretend it’s all ok.

This brings me to my second point. The show’s halo effect helps it last long enough so they can gather the people needed for it’s garbage can style production system. In organization studies, we call an organization a “garbage can” if stuff gets done when streams of people and events randomly come together. SNL is well known for hiring a bunch of people and just having them write a bunch of sketches. Unlike most television, the actors, the writers, and the producers are often the same people. So everybody is rushing and just writing about a whole crazy range of things. They throw themselves at the political issue of the week, or various pop culture trends, or whatever. And if you throw enough comedians at enough issues with 90 minutes of time to fill, you will surely generate the occasional zinger, even though make a lot of junk.

This makes me glad that I have the Internet. In the 1980s and 1990s, I would actually have to watch an entire show hoping to find that precious sketch that worked. Too many times, I’d sit around at 1am , all disappointed and ask – that’s it? But now I can let other people distill the weekly 1.5 hour SNL broadcast into what it truly deserves to be: a five minute youtube clip.


Written by fabiorojas

December 9, 2009 at 12:38 am

15 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Clearly, Fabio needs a DVR to fast forward through the bad skits. Orgtheory fundraiser?



    December 9, 2009 at 3:17 am

  2. So I haven’t watch SNL since I was a kid and haven’t owned a television in 7 or 8 so I don’t feel particularly informed on this topic but I suppose that never stopped anybody…

    Isn’t SNL on late enough that it’s basically competing against informercials? That’s certainly my recollection and basically the only reason I ever watched it. Maybe they’ve just cornered the market on bored kids, at home on a Saturday night, whose parents won’t pay for cable.

    Seriously though, if the opportunity costs in terms of airtime are low enough, and if they don’t spend much on the actors-writers-combos (another cost saving measure, I’m sure), maybe it just doesn’t need to be all that successful or funny that often.

    Or maybe I have no idea what I’m talking about. :)


    Benjamin Mako Hill

    December 9, 2009 at 3:33 am

  3. Tina: This is your chance to give back to orgtheory…

    Benjamin: I think your point is on target. Far as I can remember, SNL has only had one serious competitor, Mad TV, which shut down a year or two ago, despite being better on the average and launching the careers of real stars like Jim Carry.



    December 9, 2009 at 3:41 am

  4. Fabio, I was with you until the Mad TV thing. In spite of the fact that people complain about SNL being bad, I think Mad TV underscores how the “garbage can” SNL model might actually be better. Mad TV was recorded, polished, had a lot of quality comedians and yet WAS NOT FUNNY in the very least (their highlight was a white woman playing on an Asian stereotype). So I’ll take a little more cowbell over or even a heaping plate of “Schweaty balls” over Mad TV any day of the week and twice on Saturdays. (btw, I found it curious that two of your SNL highlights were all Andy Samberg recorded videos; those are fine and have become “viral” among the kids [although “Natalie Raps” can still make me cry laughing] , but my sense is that true SNL classics are those live skits that end up hitting the magic spot and that usually had Alec Baldwin, Will Ferrell, or Christoper Walken in them).

    Note: Jim Carrey’s carrer was launched on In Living Color not Mad TV (Let me tell you something!). I don’t think any of those Mad TV comedians actually have a career at this point.

    P.S.: I’m sure some commenter is going to react by singing the praises of Mad TV. I preemptively overreact against your overreaction to my overstament. Mad TV SUCKS.



    December 9, 2009 at 11:50 am

  5. Those “Best of…” dvds are hilarious though. Over the weekend I introduced my kids to Chris Farley and they were rolling on the floor with laughter at his motivational speaker skit. My personal favorite was anything having to do with The Chris Farley Show. Man, I miss Chris Farley.

    I think a lot of the perceived lameness has to do with variation in taste. I noticed that the person you linked to about “horrible actors” hated Tracy Morgan, but I personally thought Tracy could be very funny (e.g., Brian Fellows). Not as funny as Mike Myers or Will Ferrell but still funny.

    As a side note, wasn’t Jennifer Lopez a dancer on In Living Color?



    December 9, 2009 at 1:16 pm

  6. I have nothing to add except that I find it very funny that the “horrible actors” link confuses Colin Quinn for Brady Quinn.



    December 9, 2009 at 5:23 pm

  7. Omar: Thanks for correcting me. I was thinking of In Living Color, not Mad TV.

    But let me add two notes:

    – Mad TV got cancelled because it was horrible. SNL has had similar stretches of nastiness (the early to mid 80s) but just keeps chugging along. That’s the mystery. We might have a selective memory for great material like Fey/Palin, but SNL defenders forget the hours of Mad TV like material. Why does one get a pass and not the other?

    – even though Mad TV definitely was a bottom dweller, it did have occasional gems. For example, I posted on two good Mad TV satires of Steve Jobs ( I also enjoyed the Forest Whitaker rap (

    Not only did I find both of these Mad TV gems funny, but each was a bit edgier than anything I’ve ever seen on SNL. For example, on SNL, was there ever such a biting indictment of the Iraq War like the Jobs “i-Raq” parody? Or do people ever get into the racial politics like the Whitaker rap? Basically, SNL aims for a lot of low hanging fruit.



    December 9, 2009 at 6:00 pm

  8. “So everybody is rushing and just writing about a whole crazy range of things. They throw themselves at the political issue of the week, or various pop culture trends, or whatever. . . .

    “And if you throw enough comedians at enough issues with 90 minutes of time to fill, you will surely generate the occasional zinger, even though make a lot of junk.”

    Oh, *comedians*. For a minute there I thought you were talking about blogs. Whew!


    Peter Klein

    December 9, 2009 at 8:25 pm

  9. Beware of the American Ninja Corps, Peter Klein…



    December 9, 2009 at 9:13 pm

  10. I think it is true that there are long stretches of crap on SNL, but I think that’s related to fluctuations in the talent pool; when the really talented hit it big they go (or in the old days used to overdose on drugs like Belushi and Farley); essentially like it used to be in the old days at Arizona Sociology (not the Coke, but the talent leaving). Other shows don’t really have to deal with that type of uncertainty (in both In Living Color and Mad TV the casts were relatively stable through the duration of the show). SNL has the advantage of having an experienced talent scout at the helm (dont’ forget that Michaels was also behind such cult classic comedy as Kids in the Hall), and a virtually endless supply of highly talented hopefuls from the Chicago and LA improv circuits.

    So once again regardless of the fact that the show goes through Jim Breuer-goat-boy-and-Joe-Pesci-show-type periods, it is undeniable that very few shows can boast having had the talent that SNL has had: Chris Rock, Eddie Murphy, Chris Farley, Phil Hartman, Mike Myers, Dana Carvey, Will Farrell, Amy Poehler, Adam Sandler, etc., etc., etc. Execs will be patient with years of crap is one of those luminaries will be guaranteed to pop up, which I think adds to the “halo effect” that you identify. Oh, and don’t get me started on who I think is the smartest comedy writer on Television: Tina Fey. I don’t think I’ve seen a comedy as well-paced and as imaginatively funny (even when it goes the bathroom humor way) as 30 Rock in a while, and she was the show’s headwriter for a few years (and the fact that she picked Tracy Morgan does suggest some support for the notion that in the right environment he can be hilarious).



    December 10, 2009 at 1:19 am

  11. Omar: Since you & I agree on the good/bad ratio in SNL, I’ll address some other issues.

    – I think I agree with Mako’s comment that SNL has a slot where the competition is usually infomercials. This leads me to a hypothesis that the tolerance for garbage can comedy is only sustainable when the competition is extremely weak. Execs can only tolerate garbage if they option is infomercials.

    The other television form that employs the garbage can production model is soap operas. There you have the same structure: day time competition is either infomercials, local news, or game shows. So you put on an endless low quality drama and you hope you can pull the right actors to spark it up. They do the same thing that Lorne Michaels does. Just employ a bunch of local talent and eventually some will have the gift.

    On the average day, all my children (or whatever) has extremely weak performances, but there are legendary cohorts of actors associated with various soap operas.

    – In support of Mako’s point, note that when there is real competition, Michael’s productions look like normal TV shows. Kids in the Hall and SCTV both had finite life spans with (a) consistently high quality and (b) a specific group of actors/writers who developed the show, not an endless rotating cast. These shows also have distinct identities, while SNL really does lunge from topic to topic garbage can style.

    – The follow up question is: there is a lot of soap opera competition and no producer has a day time lock like SNL’s lock on its time slot. Why? My guess is that few producers are willing to spend the resources it would take to win that time slot – my guess is that ad rates are insanely low.

    In contrast, people successfully challenge Lorne Michaels shows when they are in regular time slots. Many Michaels movies flop when people have to pay to watch (exceptions: Wayne’s World & Blues Brothers). People will only tolerate SNL material if it’s free and late night. In other words, competition works.

    – Finally, I agree that Fey is amazing and that she’s at the top of the class. But (a) you are missing the denominator (130+ cast members), (b) you have to add weights – (one cast member killed himself after his career melted down on SNL – Charles Rocket) and (c) shows with shorter time spans have also spawned cohorts of high quality alumni.



    December 10, 2009 at 3:43 am

  12. […] to those posts but related to an earlier discussion on the decline of SNL, Fabio Rojas at orgtheory wonders how such a crappy show survived so long and declares it fits in the “garbage can […]


  13. Only tangentially related: I find the afterlife of In Living Color deeply depressing. There was so much talent on that show, and it was so funny and daring– and the unfunny white guy on it went on to become one of the highest-paid movie stars ever (I’ll admit that, other than Eternal Sunshine, I’ve never enjoyed Jim Carrey in anything, ever) while the Wayans brothers ended up making Scary Movie part 74 over and over again.


    Jacob T. Levy

    December 14, 2009 at 2:02 am

  14. I don’t understand what is such a major issue. They sounded really good anyway.


    Cindie Jarvi

    February 13, 2010 at 5:31 pm

  15. oh well, chris rock is damn funny. i like his corny jokes and stuffs `~~


    Adelle Rapose

    November 24, 2010 at 9:50 pm

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: