10 Years Ago, ‘SNL’ Added Kristen Wiig, Digital Shorts + Came Back From The Dead
Season 30 was hardly a banner effort for Saturday Night Live: Jimmy Fallon waved a final goodbye, Ashlee Simpson infamously undermined the show's live performance segment with a lip-sync she wouldn't soon live down and Rob Riggle, the year's only new addition, was axed nearly as soon as he was welcomed aboard. Were it not for Tina Fey and Amy Poehler finally joining forces on "Weekend Update," SNL might have considered clearing out its historic 30 Rock desk space and seeking temp work at an office supply company downtown.
But the summer of 2005 must have been particularly restful for big boss Lorne Michaels, because when the sketch show returned for its thirty-first effort, its batting average began to spike. In one fell swoop, Michaels set a wave of change into motion that saved the show from obscurity, drew a new (and younger) audience and produced some of the most compelling content SNL's audience had ever seen.
For starters, Kristen Wiig, a standout of Los Angeles' famous Groundlings troupe, joined as a featured player in November 2005, but performed dauntlessly among her more seasoned peers. Where certain fellow players had carved out comfortable roles for themselves—Will Forte settled for being loud and absurd, Horatio Sanz begged for laughs by perpetually breaking character—Wiig proved to be the multi-purpose glue that kept the cast's otherwise disparate parts together. Between her overly-keen Penelope character, who'd challenge a hammerhead to a swimming competition, and her underdeveloped Gilly, an enemy to any elementary school's reticent teacher, her characters could have collectively occupied an intense emotional flow chart. She could impersonate (Lana Del Rey and Kris Jenner were among her most famous acts), she could criticize (you wouldn't dare see a movie without Aunt Linda's endorsement) and it comes as no surprise that Michaels ultimately deemed her one of the top three performers in SNL's history. It's no wonder, either, that she was nominated for four Emmys before hanging up her SNL hat in 2012.
While Wiig made good use of live broadcasts, one of her fellow newcomers, Andy Samberg, spent his free Sunday-through-Friday time wisely and ushered in a new trend of pre-recorded digital shorts. The show had featured non-live segments before—"Oops, I Crapped My Pants" and "Deep Thoughts by Jack Handey" among them—but where commercials and cartoons seemed entirely aware of the two or three minutes that limited them, Samberg's projects condensed entire stories into bite-sized clips that served as simulacra for grand, fireside tales.
His second offering, "Lazy Sunday," was conceivably the show's first viral clip, and its success meant there were many more to come from Samberg and his Lonely Island comedy trio—11 during Samberg's first SNL season, alone. Between airing of "The Shooting," a spoof of The O.C.'s melancholy, "Virgania Horsen's Hot Air Balloon Rides," in which Wiig played an unhinged saleswoman who pitched ridiculous products and, of course, "Dick in a Box," the Lonely Island team expanded the show's bedrock and tapped an online crowd that couldn't be bothered to watch each episode's broadcast, but would happily screen the highlights over coffee Sunday morning.
SNL purists will say the show has never recovered from the loss of its Gildas or Belushis, but a decade ago, Wiig, Samberg and fellow standout Bill Hader, who also joined in 2005, soared when they could have settled. While last year's "Backhome Ballers" was solid, it was a far cry from the Lonely Island's finest. Kate McKinnon's pair of Emmy nominations was well-earned, but it hasn't earned her a seat at Wiig's table. With Amy Schumer and Tracy Morgan scheduled as Season 41 hosts, the laughs will surely come when SNL returns in October, but will they register as loudly as they did a decade ago?
In the wise words of Wiig:
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