Showbiz Commentary: Heidi Oringer

If everyone in the United States were to exhale completely, then in unison, inhale as quickly and fiercely as physically possible to their utmost lung capacity, that moment would not suck as much as Saturday Night Live does now.

The show launched what looks to be a dismal 27th season on Sept. 29. In light of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, the cast and writers tried to be compassionate and respectful. They opened with New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani addressing the audience surrounded by high-ranking members of the city's police and fire department.

Reese Witherspoon hosted. Alicia Keyes served as musical talent. Paul Simon gave a moving performance. The elements were all there, but understandably, it was still difficult to present a comedy show so soon after what had happened. I decided to give SNL the benefit of the doubt and lay off for a bit.

I can do this no longer.

In the weeks since, I have watched the show with a keen eye. As it airs on Saturday nights at 11:30 p.m. ET, I unfortunately find myself before the telly instead of cutting a rug with my imagined paramour Rick Springfield, or limo-ing from party to party with my close friends. (They go to bed early these days.) In my heightened state of viewing, I have kept an open mind, conscious of the difficult political atmosphere and the constant care with which these comedians and writers must deal with current events.

But still, it sucks.

Where's the Edge?

Many have said that Saturday Night Live lost its edge way back when they lost original cast members Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Jane Curtin and others.

Although I certainly agree the first ensemble cast was simply outstanding, they were not the only ones. The show has turned out countless talented people and remained a strong entity for large portions of its first quarter century. Some notable exceptions were when both Eddie Murphy and Lorne Michaels bailed in the early 80's.

At that time, they brought in third-string players like Jim Belushi (hardly a substitute for his late brother), Anthony Michael Hall (always the geek from The Breakfast Club) and Robert Downey Jr. (certainly not the hardee-har-har type … especially now!). This was along the lines of really bad decision-making, like when they added Cousin Oliver to The Brady Bunch. SNL did bring in Martin Short at that time as well, but he could not carry the show alone. I guess you could say he fell Short. (Hey … that's why I don't write for SNL either!)

Great talent and funniness prevailed again in the early to mid-'90s with the additions of Dennis Miller, Dana Carvey, the late Phil Hartman and younger comics like Adam Sandler, the late Chris Farley, Mike Myers and Rob Schneider. Molly Shannon and Cheri Oteri were also strong add-ons. Currently there are worthy cast members like Will Ferrell and Darryl Hammond, but cast alone does not make a sketch comedy show a success.

It's the writing that brings it home, but not no more! (See how bad that sounds … poorly written.)

'Gas Baby' Is No Gas

What has come forth over the past several years, and more importantly, the first few shows of this season, is bunk. It's so bad it gives me cramps similar to when I eat too much dairy. Either way, I have to get up from the TV many times.

Again, I am willing to forgo judgment on the first show of the season. Still, it's hard to erase the ridiculousness of a sketch about a baby with gas. Reese Witherspoon and Will Ferrell played the parents (using a doll so fake that a bulldog puppy would've been a better choice). This is an entire sketch whose premise is a farting baby. Between sound effects, there were uncomfortable silences, as the players did not know where to go or what to do with the failing (or flailing) sketch. But I promised I would not mention this particular show. (Oops!)

Overall, sketch ideas are consistently weak, while guests are not. Last Saturday's show featured host Drew Barrymore and musical guest Macy Gray.

As far as what the writers offered, here's what we got; a spoof of Crossing Over with Will Ferrell as John Edwards; a bank going-out-of-business sale with Will Ferrell as the bank president who reveals he's gay (it didn't fit in at all); and Chris Kattan as gay Hitler dancing with Ferrell as Neil Diamond.

The sketch ideas are not only lame and poorly written — they drag on forever. Admittedly, there is a bright spot with "Weekend Update," co-anchored by head writer Tina Fey and Jimmy Fallon. This always manages to offer some savvy one-liners. As a matter of fact, since its inception, "Weekend Update" has remained a highlight of SNL even if the talent has been uneven. (Chase and Curtin and Dennis Miller were great. Norm MacDonald and Kevin Nealon were duds). But a few minutes of pleasure out of a 90-minute session is just not enough. (Of course many of us are used to just a few minutes of pleasure …)

Still, Saturday Night Live survives year after year with little competition in its timeslot (there's Mad TV, which starts at 11 p.m. ET, but people watch the news and don't bother catching just a half-hour of the show).

Perhaps the writers are being lazy because they've got a lock with the show. Maybe we as viewers are so used to accepting Saturday Night Live for whatever it offers, that we've given up demanding more.

And maybe, and I think this is key, I need to find something else to do on Saturday nights.

Heidi Oringer is director of entertainment programming at ABCNEWS Radio.

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