How do you keep a show running for 45 seasons? For scripted narrative shows, it’s impossible (we hope). But a sketch-comedy show with talented new cast members and writers constantly coming aboard has a chance. That’s been the winning Saturday Night Live formula since 1975.
Checking the list of cast members, you find many of the great comedic performers of the past five decades. The list begins with John Belushi, Bill Murray, and Eddie Murphy, but SNL only got warmed up by the ’80s. Dana Carvey, Chris Farley, and Will Ferrell reigned at various points of the ’90s.
By the early 2000s, the show’s ratings began to decline from the high points of the late ’70s and the blockbuster ’92 season. (Chris Rock and several other stars played on that cast.) From 2006-08, SNL posted its worst ratings ever. But the show has continued to stage comebacks.
As in ’92, the highest-rated season of the past 20 years came in an election year. It was the year Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump vied for the presidency.
The 2016-17 season was a highlight of the past 2 decades
When Forbes ran down the high- and low-water marks of SNL ratings, the peak years couldn’t have been a surprise. With Belushi, Murray, Dan Akroyd, Gilda Radner, Chevy Chase, Jane Curtin, and Garrett Morris working together in the late ’70s, the show became a smash hit.
In fact, the four seasons from 1977-81 still stand as the best for the show in its 45 years on the air. After that, you can see a pattern in the show’s top-rated seasons. The stellar ’92 cast got an extra boost from Carvey’s George H.W. Bush impression, and the ’08 election had its own ratings bump.
And the highest-rated show of this century came in the 2016-17, when Kate McKinnon starred as Clinton and Alec Baldwin did his famous Trump impression in a recurring guest-star role.
Despite the popularity of McKinnon and Baldwin’s work, the formula didn’t keep SNL on the same sort of roll in recent years. The ratings dropped (as expected) the following year. It wasn’t until Murphy’s December ’19 appearance that the show matched its ’17 numbers.
The ‘SNL’ ratings in context in 2020
As noted above, it’s unrealistic to believe SNL could remain dominant in the ratings after all these years. Every change in cast and writing team has an impact on the production (however slight). That said, the recent seasons have featured some unusual shifts in the show’s dynamic.
For starters, while McKinnon shines in just about every role she plays, many of the leading parts go to guest stars like Baldwin (and ex-cast members) rather than current SNL regulars. Whether that reflects a lack of confidence in this ensemble or not, it changes the show’s energy.
Of course, you have to point to the writing team as well. Since the 2017-18 season, when Michael Che and Colin Jost became head writers, the show hasn’t maintained the level of quality of the seasons that brought the show’s best ratings.
Will the 2020 election season — which for SNL begins in September ’20 — bring another big bump? We’ll have to wait and see.