For years, Saturday Night Live viewers have been like dogs licking the bottom of an empty dish, in the wistful, futile memory of the delicious dinner that used to be in there. Once in a while, there would be a brief reward: a good Weekend Update segment, an Ashlee Simpson meltdown. But as in a substandard dog food, the meat-to-filler ratio has been awfully low. SNL survives on its momentum and memories anyway, but everyone who’s sat through a lame, rerun ad parody has had to wonder: wouldn’t it be great if there was a way to watch just the funny stuff?
"Lazy Sunday" showed us there is. The rap parody, about two white guys spending an afternoon in Manhattan eating cupcakes and going to see The Chronicâ€”what!â€”cles of Narnia, became a pop culture phenomenon last month, not from people watching it on the air but from video captures passed virally by e-mail. NBC made it available free through iTunes. Nowâ€”whether by coincidence or because a light bulb went off in someone’s headâ€”the network just announced that it will sell archived SNL skits through Apple’s entertainment hub for $1.99 a pop.
This is, potentially, the perfect marriage of TV and software. SNL has long depended on viewers sitting through 90 minutes of show for, maybe, one or two laughs. Isn’t your time worth more than $1.33 an hour? SNL, after all, has always been less a show than a confederation of independent mini shows. Why not let us buy, or subscribe to, the ones that are actually worth it? I often have better things to do than slog through an entire SNL, but it might be worth it to pay up for an iTunes-created Robert Smigel or Weekend Update channel. Theoretically, the prices could even be prorated by length.
In my dream world, this setup could improve the show itself, by allowing viewers to vote with their iTunes dollarson the quality of segments, writers and performers. And if anything, by spreading SNL content, as "Lazy Sunday" did, to people who long ago gave up on the show, the deal could boost, rather than cannibalize, the main show’s ratings. iTunes or no, viewers are still dogs. Throw us a treat, and we just might come back to the bowl, hoping against hope that there will be something tasty in there once again.