Graham: Reoccurring characters, once 'SNL's' lifeblood, disappearing

Wayne and Garth wouldn't make the cut on today's Trump-centric 'Saturday Night Live'

Adam Graham
The Detroit News
John Belushi, left, Chevy Chase and Gilda Radner perform as the Killer Bees on “Saturday Night Live.”

Last week on “Saturday Night Live,” Kate McKinnon returned with her chain-smoking alien abductee character, telling wild tales of the various humiliating acts she was subjected to during her most recent paranormal encounter.

It followed the typical beats of past versions of the sketch, right down to McKinnon getting the host — in this case Liev Schreiber — to break on camera and burst into a fit of laughter.

But it stood out because in “SNL’s” current landscape, McKinnon’s Ms. Rafferty is one of the few reoccurring characters on the show.

“SNL” was built on the backs of reoccurring characters, from the Killer Bees to the “Wild and Crazy Guys,” up through “Wayne’s World” and Canteen Boy, to the Cheerleaders and even Chris Kattan's Mango.

Those were the characters you’d tune in every week hoping to see (or in the case of Mango, hoping not to see). While the sketches followed a blueprint, each incarnation allowed for a different wrinkle in the fabric — through current events or the particular traits of the host — and these characters built a following, developed a catchphrase and often went on to star in their own films.

That’s not happening anymore. Not that Hollywood is exactly crying; for every “Wayne’s World” success at the cinema, there are several “It’s Pat” or “Stuart Saves the World” movies to remind audiences that “SNL” characters are best kept to “SNL.” (The economics of Hollywood have also shifted greatly, and mid-budget character-driven comedies have largely fallen by the wayside.) 

Somewhere along the way, not only did “SNL” characters stop graduating from Studio 8H to the big screen — "MacGruber," in 2010, was the last "SNL"-to-screen adaptation — they stopped appearing at all.

What happened?

In a word, Trump.

In the lead-up to the 2016 election, “SNL” went from a show that covered and skewed politics to a show that was consumed with politics. “SNL” has always been topical, but with Trump the show went all in on all things political, and everything else — including reoccurring characters — got squeezed out to the sides.

In recent years, the show’s most popular (and most frequent) reoccurring character has been Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump. His appearances often open the show, and they pull in celebrity cameos from the likes of Robert DeNiro (who plays Robert Mueller), Ben Stiller (who has played Trump lawyer Michael Cohen) and other big names. (Melissa McCarthy lost an ace gig when Sean Spicer resigned as White House press secretary.)

Trump's gravitational pull is so great that it has all but taken up the show. "SNL's" other reoccurring characters have been relegated to Weekend Update, including Keenan Thompson's LaVar Ball, Heidi Gardner's teenage film critic and Pete Davidson's, well, Pete Davidson.

Another reason "SNL" is less reliant on reoccurring characters is the show has put more emphasis on digital shorts in the years since the Lonely Island brought the show into the 21st century. Current castmembers Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett, whose comic brains are most attuned to the Lonely Island's sensibilities, seem less interested in doing characters than they are making the weirdo sketches that air late in the show when the casual viewer has tuned out. They're the antithesis of the reoccurring character model. 

Some of the show's most popular reoccurring characters belong to individual hosts. Jonah Hill brought back his Adam Grossman character, a 6-year-old whose inappropriate jokes can be laughed off because he's 6, during his hosting stint earlier this month, and David S. Pumpkins — the biggest character "SNL" has launched in years — belongs solely to Tom Hanks. (Pumpkins appeared just once on the show, but that one appearance made such an impact that it feels like he's a staple of the show.) 

Maybe the character model is dated in our modern world, as the Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer might put it. In the past, if you didn't catch "SNL" you'd hear about it from friends at work or at school the following Monday, and maybe you'd catch whatever characters they were talking about the next time around. Now, every episode of "SNL" is dissected and reviewed online, the clips are shared all over the internet and if anything catches fire or makes news, it's everywhere all at once. There's less room for characters to grow, and graduate from the 12:40 a.m. slot to the 11:50 p.m. position. 

Comedy has changed, and "SNL" is simply keeping up with the times. So when McKinnon jacks up her jeans, lights up a smoke and tells another tale of alien indignity, it's a bit of a throwback to the show's past. But it's a reminder that "SNL" is still doing its job and making people laugh, hosts included.