Live From New York: The Ladies of SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE!

by Naomi Penner

“My dream for the future is that sketch comedy shows become a gender-blind meritocracy of whoever is the funniest.”
–Tina Fey in her memoir, BossyPants (2011)
Saturday Night Live is not entirely a boy’s club. Since debuting in 1975, SNL has featured an array of seriously funny ladies who have captured the hearts and souls of viewers across the nation. In this paper, I will discuss the role of Saturday Night Lives’ female cast members from the 1970s to the 2000s (approx. 2000-2008), answering the question: “How did women influence Saturday Night Live throughout its history?” I will first also look at how women are depicted in television in my discussion on how women have impacted television and the media since the emergence of the Feminist Movement in the 1970s, not just as actresses or comedians, but also as producers and writers. I will look at women not only from the cast and crew of SNL, but from other television shows and media sources. I will then describe the history and influence of SNL on society, culture, and television; how the show impacted what could be said on television regarding race, gender, and politics, paving the way not just for late night, but prime time television as well. Saturday Night Live successfully became part of the counterculture, targeted at a younger audience looking for a show that could successfully voice their opinion, which I will also explain. Another topic I will explore is the portrayal of women in Saturday Night Live in parallel to the portrayal of women in society from a feminist perspective, looking at how feminist humor has influenced these depictions. In doing so, I will look at a few characters performed by Gilda Radner and Cheri Oteri. Finally, I will describe one specific example of how a female cast member has contributed to and impacted the show as well as society: Tina Fey’s impersonation of Governor Sarah Palin. Tina Fey herself has been a huge celebrity to come from Saturday Night Live, and the best example of a female figure who is significant in the realm of comedy, television, and film.
Throughout history, women have been treated as the lesser sex not capable of doing what men can do. However, time and time again, they’ve proven themselves to be just as capable, if not even better. Up until the emergence of Saturday Night Live, women in television generally played very passive, submissive, and traditional roles, this depiction as the lesser sex represented. In comedy, they are perhaps looked down upon even worse. The women of SNLhave changed all that.
The media is an important place in learning about gender. Cultural expectations of masculinity and femininity are constantly repeated; validating what defines gender norms (Mittell 330). Viewers, therefore, adapt to them as part of their own behavior and ideals (Mittell 330). Prior to the 1970s, television defined femininity as a woman whose main priority was the home, her only duties domestic. Although I Love Lucy of the 1950s featured a female character that often disobeyed the orders of her husband, the husband still always got the last word. When the Mary Tyler Moore Show premiered, women no longer were chained to the home, instead becoming working professionals and living on their own without a man. However, because the tradition of a women’s only place being in the home, these females can sometimes be seen as overly masculine, as shown with Murphy Brown (late 1980s -1990s) (Mittell 333). Maude gave us an older woman who dealt with real life issues, some perhaps too provocative for their time. Maude, however, fit in with the socially relevant sitcom structure, and, like the Mary Tyler Moore Show, provided viewers with a strong female lead. Women are also frequently portrayed as being overly emotional, “soft” in news and political programs (Mittell 334), placed in roles that require sensitivity: mothers, wives, nurses, etc (Mittell 334). Too much emotion can equate to irrationality, which women are depicted as in real life and in television. I Dream of Jeannie is a perfect example of this, as well the stereotype that women lack in intelligence with Jeannie’s dumb blonde character (Mittell 336). The two most overused roles for women in the media are the passive female and the sexual object – the damsel in distress and the vixen. Women are over sexualized in music videos, commercials, and beyond. The Aaron Spelling hit of the 1970s, Charlie’s Angels, featured a band of women who were often objects of male desire, fighting crime in skimpy outfits. Today, women are sexual subjects who initiate relationships, Sex and the City is a prime example (Mittell 344).Before the 1970s, women worked way behind the scenes as publicists, casting agents, costume designers, and “script girls” in the entertainment industry (Kimball 61). Female producers and executives were very rare up until the 2000s, where there were hundreds (Kimball 61). This change in the industry resulted from the establishment of the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunities Commission) during the 1970s (Kimball 62). From 1970-2000, more women realized they had the power to make films, to study the arts and transform it with a woman’s point of view (Kimball 62). Lindsay Law, executive producer, says, “Women dig deeper into themselves, both in what they bring to the project and the subject matter. Women seem to make things they care about as opposed to ‘I can sell this’” (Kimball 65).When it comes to comedy, women have surely come a long way. I would have never thought of the comedic world to be a place uninviting to women, but it turns out that it’s just as controlled by men as everything else. Humor is a difficult realm for women to break into (Maki 6). Historically speaking “women are not supposed to be funny in the first place” (Horowitz 133), but during the 1970s, at the peak of the women’s liberation movement, comedy for women really began to change its ways (Horowitz 144). A new style of women’s comedy emerged that was assertive, aggressive, and focused on “oppressiveness of the patriarchal culture” (Horowitz 144). Comedienne Caroline Hirsch states that “You didn’t really see women break out in comedy until the feminist movement made it possible for women to be considered funny without degrading themselves” (Horowitz 144). Being outside the norm – a minority, is funny in our society, and women fall under that category. Women’s comedy pushes past old restrictions, challenges any sexist assumptions, and allows women to claim power over men (Horowitz 7-8, 144). A woman that is funny is mentally strong and daring (Horowitz 8). She has intellect and wit, and admitting that a woman is funny means admitting she’s highly intellectual (Maki 6) – a threat for men. Men are sometimes scared of the woman wisecracker: a woman who we can laugh with while being the subject of humor, who has opinions, and who says whatever she thinks, feels, or wants to (Horowitz 133). Men don’t like a woman who can out do them, especially when it comes to making others laugh.

In August 1974, NBC president Herb Schlosser gave Dick Ebersol, a sports executive for ABC at the time, the task of creating a show based on traditional comedy-variety, but with a twist, and that was to close late-night Saturday television (Hilmes 201). Later that year, Ebersol met Lorne Michaels, a young, Canadian writer and comedian who had written for CBC’s Laugh-In during its first season in 1969 (Hilmes 201). Deciding to give Michaels a chance, Ebersol hired him for what was then NBC’s Saturday Night, housing Michaels and his late night show in Studio 8H, Rockefeller Center (Hilmes 202).

Thus Saturday Night Live began, and on October 11, 1975 the show debuted with George Carlin as the host and a cast referred to as the ‘Not So Ready For Prime Time Players’ (Hilmes 202). It was 100% live, distinctly New York, bringing back the vaudeville type shows of television’s Golden Age (Castleman and Podrazik 253). With its week-by-week format, the ‘Not So Ready For Prime Time Players’ were given the opportunity to develop distinct character types while featuring a guest host that worked with the cast and writers, as well as musical guests performing two to three songs for each show (Castleman and Podrazik 253). The show attracted the highest percentage of viewers than any other program on the air with its topical attacks on society and culture, political satire, and parodies of advertising, movies, and other cultural happenings. It was the equivalent to the Smothers Brothers of the 1960s, but late night, and free to discuss issues without controversy. It’s cutting edge style and approach to critiquing society appealed to this new found “television generation”, the young and intellectual 18-49 year olds (Hilmes 202).

Saturday Night Live presented an awareness of a willingness to comment on the world around it that was unlike any other show at the time (Hilmes 202). It helped satirical sketch comedy emerge as a dominant force and cultural touchstone for young audiences living in the 1970s (Mitell 293). The battles faced with NBC’s censors pushed the boundaries of what could be addressed with current events (Mitell 293), what could be said on television, and what could be depicted on screen.

One of the most significant cultural institutions of our time, deriving from Saturday Night Live, is the mock news segment Weekend Update. Weekend Update takes a direct stab at politics, social issues, and media (Hilmes 202). Shows such as John Stewart’s The Daily Show are able to thrive and exist (Reincheld 196) thanks to Weekend Update’s establishment as a fake news show for poking fun at serious issues and people. “The writers and producers who filled the segment each week were in position to have a great impact on the American social consciousness at an important time in the country’s history…Saturday Night Live was part of the counterculture, and those who anchored and wrote for the show viewed it as a way to voice an opinion about the world around them to a mass audience” (Reincheld 190-192). Thus, Weekend Update not just made people laugh, but made people learn, informing them of major news stories and people. Saturday Night Live was created during a turbulent time in American history, from the Vietnam War to Richard Nixon’s presidency, these events an influence on Lorne Michael’s “inclusion of a news parody on SNL” (Reincheld 192).

As mentioned, SNL pushed the boundaries of NBC’s censors. “Because of it’s 11:30 p.m. start, the show was able to get away with much more than average prime time shows, resulting in skits and jokes that were seen as shocking and sometimes outright racy” (Reincheld 194). In the season one episode hosted by African American comedian Richard Pryor, he and Chevy Chase act as interviewee and interviewer in a skit involving racial issues. Chase and Pryor engage in an association test that is turned into an exchange of racial insults and slurs; Pryor calling Chase names like “redneck”, “cracker”, and “honky”, Chase calling him a “tar baby”, “jungle bunny,” and “nigger”. Another specific Weekend Update moment occurred when Gilda Radner’s character Emily Latella, an old woman who would come on Weekend Update and comment on the wrong topic, did something that caused a big uproar with the censors: uttered the word “bitch” (Reincheld 195). Jane Curtain was the anchor of Weekend Update at the time, Latella calling her a bitch in response to Jane. Luckily, Lorne got away with it, thanks to a made up story regarding the context of the word: not “bitch” in the noun form, but “bitch” in the adverb form – like, she’s acting bitchy (Reincheld 195). Not only did this prove that SNL have a strong voice in television, but the women too. The show allowed more freedom in what could be said in skits, its efforts to push the limits allowing other television shows that freedom too (Reincheld 195).  Finally, what was being said on television reflected what was being said by people at home (Reincheld 195).

The show has also changed the way political campaigns are run (Reincheld 190). New York City’s former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, political activist Ralph Nader, and vice president Al Gore are examples of political figures who have appeared on the show (Reincheld 195-196). “At a correspondent’s dinner in Washington, D.C., Senator Eugene McCarthy told Michaels that the show and Update jokes made about senators was the first topic of conversation each Monday on the Senate Floor. Another sign of its importance was that political candidates started to turn to SNL to get attention for their campaigns” (Reincheld 195). In the most recent Presidential election, in 2008, Senator McCain and his vice presidential partner Sarah Palin appeared several times on the show, including Update. Tina Fey’s impersonation of Palin had a significant impact on viewers’ votes for president, which will be discussed later in my paper. “Likening Weekend Update to political cartoons, Michaels said, “ ’That’s a big part of how Americans define democracy’ “ (Reincheld 196).

For thirty years, the youth of America have been taught the news from a variety of anchors, at one point by two successful female cast members Amy Poehler and Tina Fey. They’ve also been educated on mainstream culture, society, and a range of other socially relevant topics. The cast and crew of Saturday Night Live have fulfilled a need in American society: to make viewers laugh while, most importantly, making them think.

For a woman to be funny, she usually has to play up existing “funny lady” stereotypes, like the dumb blonde, the bitch, the old woman, etc (Maki 3). It has to be something men can connect to, since, as I’ve mentioned, they control the industry. Humor, in a society so deeply into entertainment, provides the humorist with a certain power, a way to be successful amongst our culture and society. Saturday Night Live is “the most powerful cultural form in our history” (Maki 4). As I’ve discussed already, no other show on television has done a better job of portraying our society. Given that SNL has pushed so many boundaries and been so radical in so many ways, it is “well suited to push the line of feminist humor in a public and socially palatable way (Maki 5).

On and off camera, woman have played a vital role in the production of Saturday Night Live. Rosie Schuster, Anne Beatts, and Marilyn Suzanne Miller were some of the first writers, writing material that addressed issues women were experiencing, as well as issues of their own (Maki 5). These women created new ground for female humor, setting the standards for it on network television (Maki 5). They didn’t seem to care that they happened to be surrounded by boys, or being unfeminine or anti-woman through the material they were writing. Because by silencing a women’s humor, you silence her voice, her feminine, intellectual voice (Maki 7). And during a time when all women wanted was their voice to be heard, silencing it was more anti-feminine than anything else.

Feminist humor purposefully targets cultural structures (Maki 7), perfect for a show like SNL. It makes very clear that “the very absurdity of the culture’s views and expectations of women” making it clear that it’s not the women who are being ridiculous, or easy targets for ridicule, but their culture (Maki 7). Domesticity is a popular subject matter for feminist humor (Maki 7), unsurprising to me since it’s such a dominant role for a woman to be domestic. This traditional depiction is unquestionably still relevant in our society of soccer moms and celebrity housewives. Female comedic characters are more than likely to be at home than male characters, providing childcare, serving food, and performing household duties (Maki 8). I will discuss other portrayals later when I look at specific characters of Gilda Radner and Cheri Oteri.

It’s all about survival with feminist humor (Maki 8). Female humorists point out the cruelties, injustices, and incongruities of their culture, drawing them to the light (Maki 9). Identity is key to the structure and narrative (Maki 8). Language is a key tool in portraying these oppressions, using puns, irony, and sarcasm (Maki 8). Parody, satire, and skits are idyllic for presenting feminist humor, even better on television since it’s just a dominant form of entertainment (Maki 10). Again, Saturday Nigh Live is the perfect platform. A skit allows for parodies, for a woman to poke fun at herself (Maki 11). Sketch performances, which are comprised of skits, monologues, impersonations, and parodies, allow more freedom for women (Maki 11). They can create and recreate reality however they wish (Maki 11). Saturday Night Live allows for all of this.

Gilda Radner and Cheri Oteri neither developed strong television or movie careers post SNL, but were huge successes during their time on the show. The two are known for their physical talent as comedians and goofy characters. Gilda was a cast member during the first seasons of SNL in the 70s, Cheri during the 90s. Each played similar types of characters who portrayed certain archetypes. Archetypes span throughout history and culture, found in books, film, and television. They serve as “symbolic responses to shared human experiences”, therefore an agreeable form of feminist humor, something the audience can identify with even if the individual reinterprets it (Maki 14). The three archetypes I will be focusing are: the virgin, the vamp, and the crone. These, I feel, are the most recognizable and used the most. The virgin is defined as innocent and good, personified as a daughter, sister, or girl-next-door. The vamp is alluring and seductive, fatal to men. Finally, the crone is vengeful, a villain, aware that she can use her maternal role to get what she desires.

Radner and Oteri’s “virgin” characters are Judy Miller and Althea McMinnamen. Both are energetic, elementary school aged, very talkative, and with wild imaginations (Mika 16). Their environments and subject matter are, however, completely different. Judy’s playing is her pretending to be on her own TV show, playing characters that are mostly beautiful brides or princesses, sometimes evil queens (Maki 16). Radner fully commits to Judy as a child, her world never invaded by adults (Maki 17). On the other hand, Althea converses with a pilot, bringing up provocative topics like her brother’s one testicle and her aunt’s life partner (Maki 17). Judy is in a world of typical childhood fantasy, Althea a bit more “adult”, both interested in being grown up while remaining innocent (Maki 17).

The vamp characters are Gilda’s “Hey, You” girl and Oteri’s Adele (Maki 17). Radner is a girl in a commercial selling a fake perfume title “Hey, you”, a perfume for one-night stands (Maki 17-18). In the commercial she eyes a man across the bar, leaves with him, and wakes up the next morning disheveled and exiting his apartment (Maki 18). Adele works in an office, always trying to seduce her co-workers dressed in a tube top and skintight pants (Maki 18). Both “Hey, You” girl and Adele are focused on seducing a man; “Hey, You” girl uses her scent, Adele uses assertive come-ons (Maki 18). They represent the standard vamp – the enjoyment of casual sex and constant flirtation.

Emily Litella (Radner) and Rita Delvecchio (Oteri) reflect the crone archetype. I’ve mentioned Emily already in my paper, the woman who appears sweet on the outside, but tells us otherwise when she calls Jane Curtain a “bitch.” Rita is an elderly housewife confined to her home and her neighborhood (Maki 19). She is sarcastic to her neighbors, nasty, and not what you’d expect from an older woman. Both are passive aggressive – Emily more submissive and Rita very blunt (Maki 19). Emily is never apologetic and Rita is constantly putting her foot in her mouth (Maki 19). Both are very critical of the world around them.

Clearly, feminist humor is a part of Saturday Night Live, although quite subtle (Maki 20). While Oteri is a bit more “unruly” than Radner, both are “unruly” woman – “the woman who truly subverts the dominant order to present something counter, provocative, and thus uproariously funny” (Maki 20). Perhaps Cher Oteri’s unruliness is a reflection of society at the time. By the 90s, women had gained the freedoms they had fought for during the 70s, more comfortable in their sexuality and femininity. Looking back at the pop stars of the 90s, like Britney and Christina, it’s very clear that women were seen as more sexual beings. The more liberal the society, the more sexualized, and Oteri’s characters are a reflection of that. Women are still somewhat excluded from humor, still perceived as humorless, but rather than dig into an issue they can just “hike up their skirts, stick out their chests…” and ignore it (Maki 22). What it all comes down to is looks.

A counter-example of this is Ms. Tina Fey. She has made leaps and bounds for female comics and female humor, playing up her sexuality and femininity while, at the same time, mocking it. Saturday Night Live has been an important show for female comics because of the number of women who have attained stardom through it (Martin & Segrave 380), Fey being a prime example. Most recently have been in her depictions of Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin during the 2008 Presidential elections.

Not only did it do wonders for Fey, but put SNL back on the map as a “television landscape for political humor” (Flowers & Young 48) and as a truly funny show. When the parody of Palin first aired, SNL received its highest Nielsen rating for a season premiere, and the video went viral with 14.3 million viewers on NBC.com and Hulu.com (Flowers & Young 49). The second skit, Fey and Amy Poehler mocking Palin’s Katie Couric interview, resulted in 7.9 million television viewers and 11.1 million views on the web (Flowers & Young 53). The third sketch, the debate between Palin and Biden, increased SNL’s viewership by 23%, and the fourth with Alec Baldwin gave SNL its best overnight ratings in more than 14 years (Flowers & Young 53). In fact, more people watched the SNL parodies than actual network news of Sarah Palin (Flowers & Young 62).

Tina Fey’s visual, verbal, and contextual impersonation of Governor Palin was so “remarkable, dead-on, spot-on, fantastic, pitch-perfect…,and a bull’s eye” (Flowers & Young 62) that it affected Palin’s public image, shaping her into a beautiful bimbo not at all qualified to help run a country. The New York Times commented “Ms. Palin has the distinct advantage – or disadvantage – of looking a lot like…Tina Fey, which saddled her with an instant association with someone who is not to be taken seriously” (Flowers & Young 62). Time Magazine also stated that Fey’s depictions were the perfect blending of reality and parody – “When voters close their eyes now and envision Public Palin, likely as not they see Tina Fey” (Flowers & Young 62). The images and dialogue of the skits provided an interpretation of Palin as an “unsophisticated, unworldly, inexperienced state politician, talking about subjects beyond her depth of knowledge” and even as someone who is uneducated (Flowers & Young 62).

In my opinion, Fey was the reason why Senator McCain lost the election – not only was there fear that he was too old, but fear of what Sarah Palin might do to destroy our country. “Fey had about as much impact on this election as the economy did” said a CNN reporter (Flowers & Young 62). “Tina Fey has done more to hurt Sarah Palin and John McCain more than anyone” pollster Dick Bennett said (Flowers & Young 63). Polls conducted by groups such as CBS News, Cable News Network, Fox News, and Women’s voice Women’s Vote uncovered that Palin’s favorability ratings decreased from September to early November 2008 (Flowers & Young 63). Time Magazine wrote, based off its list of “100 People Who Mattered in 2008”, that Fey made the list because “she proved that comedy can still have a serious political clout: her winking performance of Governor Palin defined the governor before she even had a chance to define herself” (Flowers & Young 63).

Television is a truly powerful medium. And Saturday Night Live, the show of satire, has proven time and time again just how powerful the medium can be. From its very beginning, it’s done nothing but provide its viewers with truthful – and hilarious – representations of topical issues and public figures.  SNL has also successfully reflected such issues regarding race and gender, more specifically, through its female writers and performers, women’s roles in society and the media. Every one of these female representations – from the virgin to the vamp- has been portrayed in a clever, comedic fashion, providing these female talents with a well-needed voice. The women of SNL have played a role not only as female entertainers and comedians, but also as women who have used their sexuality to break (as well as exemplify) archetypal boundaries and the lines that separate them from their fellow male comedians. If I were given more time, I would love nothing more than to watch every episode of Saturday Night Live, studying every female cast member – from the characters they play to the female archetypes most commonly depicted. I’d analyze lines, costumes, body language, and more, as well as research the extent of their careers. I’m fascinated with these women, these ladies who’ve really broken barriers in the world of comedy. With comedy, comes power, and these SNL females aren’t afraid to pack a punch.

Works Cited

Castleman, Harry, and Walter J. Podrazik. “35. 1975-76 Season: Freddie or Not?”  Watching TV: Six Decades of American Television. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2010, 1982. (253-259). Print.

Fey, Tina.  BossyPants. New York: Reagan Arthur Books, 2011. Print.

Flowers, Arhlene A. and Cory L. Young. “Parodying Palin: How Tina Fey’s Visual and Verbal Impersonations Revived a Comedy Show and Impacted the 2008 Election.” Journal of Visual Literacy, vol. 29, no. 1 (Spring). Ithaca: Journal of Visual Literacy, 2010. (47-67). Print.

Hilmes, Michele. “What Closes on Saturday Night: NBC and Satire.” NBC: America’s             Network. Ed. Jeffrey S. Miller. Berkley. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2007. (192-208). Print.

Horowitz, Susan. Queens of Comedy. Amsterdam: Overseas Publishers Association, 1997. Print.

Kimball, Gayle. “Galloping in Slow Motion: Women’s Influence on Film and Television.” Women’s Culture In a New Era: A Feminist Revolution? Ed. Mollie Gregory. Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2005. (61-78). Print.

Maki, Kelsey J. “It’s Always Something: Creating and Sustaining Feminist Humor on Saturday Night Live.” Conference Papers – National Communication Association, p1, 0p. Minnesota: Conference Papers – National Communication Association, 2009. (1-27). Print.

Martin, Linda, and Kerry Segrave. “Gilda Radner.” Women in Comedy. New Jersey: Citadel Press, 1986. (380-386). Print.

Mittell, Jason. “Representing Identity.” Television and American Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. (305-353). Print.

Reincheld, Aaron. “’Saturday Night Live’ and Weekend Update: The Formative Years of  Comedy News Dissemination.” Journalism History, vol. 31, no. 4 (Winter). Ohio: E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, 2006. (190-197). Print.

Shales, Tom, and James Andrew Miller. Live From New York: An Uncensored History of   Saturday Night Live. New York: Little Brown and Company Hachette Book Group USA, 2002. Print.

2 thoughts on “Live From New York: The Ladies of SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE!

  1. The article seems to paint SNL as a haven for women comics, but I have also read that it can be hell for women. I grew up in the late 80’s early 90’s when Farlry, Sandler and Spade were the break out stars. Really what percentage of sketches at that time feature women as the main characters? And I mean real women not Farley,Spade,Sandler dressed as the Gap Girls(which I love!). Yes SNL has helped improve how we view funny women but is it really a paradise for funny women? When this article was written there was just two women as regular cast members the others were just feature players. I will thank God though for the existence of Tina Fey.

  2. I think that an interesting way to expand this paper would be to compare and contrast the SNL years where there were a higher concentration of female performers and writers (ie Tina’s head writer years; the age of Amy Poehler, Rachel Dratch, Maya Rudolph, and Fey) with the current SNL climate with fewer female writers and fewer strong female performers (aside from Kristen Wiig). I’ve found that it’s very evident when there is a lack of female input in the creative process throughout all genres of TV, but it is especially noticeable with SNL.

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