Throughout its 41-year history, “Saturday Night Live” has sought to incorporate the location of its filming (Manhattan) as a “setting” for the show even as the actual contents of the show—its comedy sketches—have been more likely to take place elsewhere. In this sense, every “SNL” sketch has two settings: the setting of the fictional comic narrative, and the meta-setting of the real-life creative enterprise undertaken by giddy young comedians, eager to make names for themselves by performing live in the Big Apple.
Nothing about where or when “SNL” is filmed should matter, yet somehow the opposite is true: its New Yorkness is paramount to its thrill, and its producers have sought to stylize the program so that the cultural significance of its provenance is impressed upon every viewer: the jokes exist as a showcase of New York, a point of access into an edgy, urban culture, a mass-distributed “nightlife” for those places that have no weekend nightlife of their own.
On “SNL,” the jazzy theme song, the intra-commercial cuts to in-progress set construction, and the widely tolerated fits of giggling with which cast members regularly break character all exist to remind you that you’re watching not just a series of comedy sketches but the live production of a Manhattan-based comedy show full of cool, up-and-coming performers. Most importantly, there’s the opening credits sequence, which roots the viewer instantly in the hipness of NYC.
“Saturday Night Live” revamps its opening credits every couple years—traditionally employing still portraits of its cast members and, later, incorporating active footage of the performers “out and about” in the city as the announcer reads their names. This latter tactic—of introducing the actors in their “natural habitats,” allowing them to show off their nocturnal habits and hobbies—is especially appealing in its capacity to present the succeeding show as the almost inadvertent “spillover” of the collective creative energy of New York.
I’ve never lived in New York, but lately I’ve been studying the images within recent “SNL” credit sequences to determine whether young people who do live in New York really have better, cooler existences than I do. To this end, I’ve jotted down a season-by-season recap of the last five years of “SNL” openings, identifying each activity performed by each cast member during the credits sequence.
In Season 37, we see Fred Armisen glancing at a Sex Pistols album while shopping in a record store; Abby Elliott tousling her hair and crouching in a sexy pose in the middle of a boulevard; Bill Hader losing goodnaturedly in a chess match in Washington Square Park; Seth Meyers chatting with a blond-haired woman; Bobby Moynihan asking to touch the badge of an NYPD officer, who grants the request; Andy Samberg drinking sake with Japanese businessmen; Jason Sudeikis playing outdoor pickup basketball; Kenan Thompson high-fiving a cyclist on the Brooklyn Bridge; Kristen Wiig hanging out near a fire-breathing woman at the East Village bar Whiskey Town; Vanessa Bayer eating at an upscale pizzeria; an unhelmeted Paul Brittain riding a fixed-gear bicycle without brakes; Nasim Pedrad sitting outside a small grocery store; Taran Killam exaggeratedly celebrating a ping-pong victory; and Jay Pharaoh dancing in the street.
For Season 38, the credits switched back to the earlier still-portrait format; however, each headshot is preceded by an NYC street scene by which we can abstractly infer the personal style of the cast member to which it’s attached—e.g., people walking through Times Square (Fred Armisen), a subway train passing through a tunnel (Vanessa Bayer), a pint glass with a painted-on mustache (Bill Hader), some policemen on motorcycles (Taran Killam), a bag of recyclables (Seth Meyers), a cook slicing pastrami at Katz’s Delicatessen (Bobby Moynihan), a DJ manipulating a turntable (Nasim Pedrad), an Asian man carrying a tuba (Jay Pharaoh), two women wearing red high heels (Jason Sudeikis), children playing with light-up toys (Kenan Thompson), a scantily-clad female entertainer (Aidy Bryant), a dance club (Kate McKinnon), food cooking over a diner’s fiery grill (Tim Robinson), and traffic in Times Square (Cecily Strong).
The opening credits of Season 39 remained essentially the same, albeit with new shots added for the new cast members: a digital American flag display in Times Square (Beck Bennett); the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum at Pier 86 (John Milhiser); an auto garage (Kyle Mooney); a purple-haired woman blowing a kiss (Brooks Wheelan); and an unidentifiable streetscape (Noel Wells).
In Season 40, “SNL” returned to fully live-action credits, with Vanessa Bryant laughing uproariously at Schiller’s Liquor Bar; Aidy Bryant drinking champagne; Taran Killam playing arcade games; Kate McKinnon playing a guitar; Bobby Moynihan knocking down seven out of ten pins at a bowling alley; Jay Pharaoh dancing again, this time at a rooftop party; Cecily Strong on a balcony at the Hotel Chelsea; Kenan Thompson leading a group of friends down the High Line; Beck Bennett at a karaoke club; Michael Che receiving a thumbs-up from the cook at Katz’s Delicatessen; Pete Davidson passing Grand Central Terminal; Leslie Jones chatting with friends; Colin Jost hanging out with firefighters; Kyle Mooney watching street performers execute aerial gymnastics in Union Square; and Sasheer Zamata at a fancy bar.
Season 41 added footage of new cast member Jon Rudnitsky in Chinatown with four preppie-looking friends, one of whom slaps him repeatedly on the chest; otherwise the sequence looks identical.
It’s not so much any particular behavior that creates the idea of New York; it’s the notion of everyone doing all of it all at once. Therefore, for the individual, living there is presumably the same as living anywhere else, except insofar as it imparts the ability to imagine one’s behavior as part of a larger, more vibrant canvas. But this exciting idea of New York comes through just as clearly on television; you don’t really need to be immersed in it—in fact, no one ever truly is, I would guess.
I mean, if the “New York” of “SNL” really existed, wouldn’t “SNL” be less terrible?