Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings
Even night owls need nests. From 10:30 p.m. to midnight most Saturdays, I fashion my own—composed not of twigs and leaves, but a pillowy couch, modest TV and sketch comedy.
Pastors and theologians often endorse the value of a good Saturday night’s sleep. Christians shortchange themselves, they soundly reason, when they crawl burdened and fatigued into a Sunday gathering. Preparing the heart for corporate worship begins at home, as we rest and ready ourselves to receive God’s grace.
An austere, lovely logic surrounds this notion. We set our minds on things above as we furnish only our simplest physical and spiritual needs: a warm meal, a quiet house, a soft bed. And yet I wait until the day turns over before laying me down to sleep, spending 25 years’ worth of after-hours watching Saturday Night Live.
I started showing up for the show as a preteen in the early 1990s. What felt irreverent and thrilling—this was not my parents’ sense of humor—turned into something formative. My first pop-culture ritual, Saturday Night Live captured my attention and engaged my affections.
Taking cues from Mike Myers, my sense of humor—still a work in wet cement—dried and grew more absurd. I felt the gravitational pull of young, brash cast members such as Adam Sandler and Chris Farley. Then I set them aside, seeing someone more like myself in “glue guys” and unsung utility players like Phil Hartman and, later, Bill Hader. I nursed crushes on Tina Fey and Maya Rudolph. I responded to the refreshing loyalty of Kenan Thompson.
As a pastor’s kid, my eyes adjusted early and often to the light fixtures in sanctuaries and fellowship halls. Perhaps that’s why I trace the contours of church in strange and surprising places. Spend enough time with Saturday Night Live, and you see the resemblance.
On Saturday nights and Sunday mornings, you encounter unwelcome recurring characters. Some you learn to love with time and repetition. You bear with others in grace, even recognizing that some offend by reminding us too much of ourselves.
The shape of Saturday night involves nearly as many rites and routines as the average Sunday service. A cold open, often located on the arid political landscape. Then, a recitation of the cast’s names, inflected with startlingly similar energy from week to week.
The week’s host navigates their monologue, often getting by with a little help from their new friends. We revel in a few sketches before bearing witness to the first musical performance of the show.
The actual fake news arrives with “Weekend Update,” followed by more sketches and another musical number. Just as the congregation grows restless or succumbs to a full-bodied yawn, we land at the “ten-to-One” sketch, a vehicle for the show’s most outlandish ideas. Finally, the full cast of players assembles as the “goodnights” send us back to reality, off to bed.
Does this well-worn format imply laziness? Is this the sort of consistency which comes as you become a cultural institution? Or is there something almost mystical about the rhythm? Probably all of the above.
The last moment in one liturgy leads me on toward the next. However high or low a week’s episode, however drowsy I grow, the goodnights call me to attention.
My dream of standing on the stage of Studio 8H lingered too long. As a teenager, I coveted keeping company with my favorite comedians and rock stars, exchanging high-fives and promises to hang out. In my early twenties, I still believed I had a comic breakthrough or alternative-rock hit in me. Something to propel me out of the wings, into the last of the limelight. Even now, long after I know better, my heart leaps a little as I watch the last of the night’s lightning unbottled.
At my most aware and most grateful, I lose nothing in the hours between Saturday night and Sunday morning. The end of a particularly powerful worship gathering feels like Saturday’s goodnights.
A ragtag bunch did what they came to do. They made mistakes, fumbled lines, went off-script, broke into laughter or tears at inopportune times.
But they did it together, learning not to take themselves too seriously. As they prepare to scatter into the watching world, they offer words of encouragement and awkward hugs. A gospel piano riff plays them out the door. Before leaving, they promise to do it all again next week, taking their place in a greater communion, basking in the beauty of something bigger than themselves.
Not unlike the church, Saturday Night Live inspires detractors. The former faithful lament how a once-righteous pillar lost the plot, becoming a shell of its earlier self. Where some beat a retreat back to the church fathers, others pray to patron saints like Chevy Chase, Gilda Radner, John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. No doubt, in comedy and in church, some weeks outdo others. Some seasons represent a slog behind the plow, whereas others yield more memorable, sustaining fruit. But if you love something, you stick around.
At its most crass or cliche, I’m tempted to suspend my belief in Saturday Night Live. But then it keeps faith, and sees enough in the world worth saving. Holding that vision before its face and the camera prompts come-to-Jesus moments when satire speaks truth to power, when millions of people make time to glory together in life’s little absurdities.
So I come back each weekend. Others, more well-rested and pious than me, wait till Sunday afternoon to watch highlights online. But I’m more than willing to take the night shift. Because maybe the end of Saturday Night Live models the beginning of the world we all want.