Volume 96, Issue 20
Wednesday October 2, 2002

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SNL's first season without Ferrell: will it make the grade?

Mark Polishuk
Gazette Staff

Sportswriter Bill Simmons is the creator of the "Ewing Theory," named after former basketball star Patrick Ewing.

The Ewing Theory states that when a team loses a talented but one-dimensional superstar player, it will not fold, but instead get better because the team can play beyond the limitations of its star.

If I was Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels, I'd be hoping that the Ewing Theory extends to television. SNL begins its 28th season this Saturday (11:30 p.m., Global/NBC) and the big question is how the show will do without Will Ferrell.

I've been an SNL fan for years, even to the point of (nerd alert) writing reviews of the shows online. I will be the first to admit, however, that SNL is probably the most inconsistent show in television history.

There has never been a program that can go from good to bad in the span of five minutes quicker than SNL; four dull sketches could be followed by the funniest thing you've ever seen in your life.

In this environment, a talent like Ferrell was invaluable. He had the unique gift of being able to make any sketch, no matter how poorly written, into something good. Something as simple as a facial expression or the cadence of his voice could get laughs; even fellow SNL actors often cracked up in the middle of skits at Ferrell's antics.

He could do it all: impressions (George W. Bush), characters (The Angry Dad, Craig the Cheerleader) or even a combination of the two (totally inaccurate, but hilarious caricatures of Janet Reno, Robert Goulet and Harry Caray).

So what does SNL do when it loses a star like this? Well, the show has bounced back from personnel turnover before.

Critics said nothing could ever top the legendary original SNL cast (the John Belushi/Dan Ackroyd/Gilda Radner bunch), but the performers of the late '80s/early '90s did just that; names like Phil Hartman, Mike Myers and Chris Farley created a Murderer's Row of great comedians.

In between these golden eras, however, there have been some periods where SNL has just utterly sucked. After Eddie Murphy left the show in 1984, for example, the show was junk for two years because no star could step up to replace him. They eventually got their lustre back by introducing the Hartman/Carvey cast in 1986, and focused the show around the ensemble rather than one single person.

The smart thing for Lorne Michaels and SNL to do now is to repeat this process. The foundation is there for another memorable cast. For instance, Tina Fey and Jimmy Fallon have made "Weekend Update" into a consistently good segment every week.

Amy Poehler shows signs of perhaps being the next major SNL breakout talent. Ana Gasteyer, another longtime performer, will not be returning this season, but her absence might not even be missed because of the strength of the remaining female performers (Poehler, Fey, Rachel Dratch and Maya Rudolph).

In the end, as always, it is up to the writers to carry the load. The key is to keep the humour fresh and relatively clever, rather than the stale recurring characters and juvenile material they too often fell back on last year.

Saturday's season premiere is hosted by Matt Damon and the musical guest is Bruce Springsteen. Let's hope this show can kick off a new era of success for SNL and, perhaps, put the "Ferrell Theory" into practice.


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