Saturday Night Live after 40 years has quite a bit in common with your average 40 year old; cynical youth that eventually donned the suit they once so fervently despised.
I started watching last nights broadcast hoping to see some stellar performances from years past, the murky era of 70s politics that spawned the shows creation, the city that inspired generations of comics. Then about an hour in I realized this broadcast wasn’t going to be so much a nostalgic trip down memory lane as it was a highly visible corporate event aimed at ingratiating modern culture. Kanye had more screen time than Bill Murray, Chevy Chase and Eddie Murphy combined!
It was somewhere in between the skits about 70s era New York crime and Disney buying property in Hooker-dominant Times Square that I realized Saturday Night Live has become victim to gentrification too. In fact it was one almost forgettable line in the middle of the broadcast that cemented this arc, a paraphrased one-liner uttered in the mid-90s on gentrified New York:
“it’s like New York got married and had kids.”
Only the gentrification now is in hyper overdrive. While it may seem nice for politicians and investors to claim “we cleaned up the streets” they cleaned up something else too in the process: our culture.
What made SNL so brilliant in its early days was the culture of comedians and their diverse backgrounds. Ultra wealthy Chevy Chase aside, you had comics like Eddie Murphy who grew up in lower-middle class Roosevelt, NY. You had large swaths of the East Village devoted to punk rock and anti-establishment shows and comics. Chris Rock grew up in the ethnic enclaves of Brooklyn, inspired by Murphy’s performance on SNL. Louis CK although not a cast member, he struggled in New York when people could still afford to do so.
Communities of artists, comics and musicians made 70s/80s NY, while dangerous, a place which inspired creativity. That is the New York SNL grew out of, a diverse and wonderful New York with soul, spirit and a gritty edge. You had graffiti on the subways. Underground comic clubs and punk rock shows. Nickel shows and oddities and adventures around every corner. Some of this lasted through the early to mid-90s too, depending where in the city you were.
Today almost nowhere is unscathed by gentrification. Brooklyn is the most expensive area to live in the nation, and Manhattan as entire island is now completely unaffordable to the middle class. Even Western Queens is starting to gentrify as newer yuppies get displaced by rising rents elsewhere in the city. It is a tidal wave of sterile culture perpetrated by a class of artists who can afford $3000/month in rent.
When nobody from the lower and middle class can afford to struggle on a bar tenders salary to perform in New York’s night clubs or Broadway theaters, what you get is the same Point of View: the upper middle class, rich Point of View. This has become very apparent in modern New York, as convenience has taken a priority over culture. You have banks on every corner, chains in place of local establishments, high end eateries in place of local diners and shiny glass condos in place of graffiti stained walls of New York’s creative past.
New York has become the playground of the ultra rich, and with their money comes their taste preferences and the culture that caters to them. In a nutshell, CBGB’s is now a John Varvatos clothier.
When Spike Lee took to ranting about his neighborhood being “Bogarted” by a bunch of mostly white affluent transplants, he ranted at great length about how they took the neighborhood and made it their own – completely disregarding the areas past.
It is the folks who live in Greenpoint and Brooklyn who will tell you they are the artists, that they are the cultural backbone of our city. But this is bull shit, these people, these transplants who shell out $3000 per month in rent on average have never been to New York – because the New York I grew up in, the New York Spike Lee grew up in, the one Chris Rock and Eddie Murphy grew up in, died with the invasion of these self-described artists.
There is a whole generation of transplants who’ve never been to actual New York. And yet like Spike Lee said, they try and own the culture; to be a part of something they are NOT.
When the only cultural point of view is white suburban hipsters, that narrative becomes dominant, and it prevents other narratives from being heard. The entertainment industry is already hard enough to break into, but when the city-centers of media are at a record lack of affordability and entry level opportunities have been replaced by a revolving door of unpaid internships advertised at elite colleges – you are further restricting that point of view to the upper middle class, affluent and mostly white.
New York once prided itself on its cultural diversity. But that diversity is in danger now that gentrification has amped up and spread like a cultural parasite throughout our city. Banks replacing bodegas and shiny corporate theaters taking over comedic factories, sponsored by the bank next door.
As I sat through Saturday Night Live’s 40th anniversary special, I wasn’t just nostalgic for old SNL, I was nostalgic for old New York, real New York, the New York that inspired a generation of comics, artists and gritty cinema – and Saturday Night Live itself. And as that New York rapidly disappears under a layer of corporate sanitizing in the wake of gentrification, so too does the show and the soul of culture that made you actually feel at home – “Live from New York it’s Saturday Night,” only this was Sunday prime time, and it certainly felt like it too.