The Real Women of SNL: They are Fambily; Plus: a Totally Unnecesary Look Back at the History of Female Not Yet Ready for Primetime Players

Well, despite our reminder to you last week, we eagerly arrived home on Monday night only to be severely disappointed when we realized that we had neglected to set our DVR to record the Women of SNL special.  We had been looking forward to it ever since Jon Hamm delivered his goodbyes the day before, but the thought never occurred to us that our SNL season pass would not apply to the female-centric primetime special.  OUR BAD.

To add to our dismay, neither NBC.com nor Hulu is hosting the full special.  However, it appears that the only original material included a few one-on-one interviews and this excellent take on the Real Housewives (we’re going to go ahead and say they’re primarily targeting RH of NJ over the other installments, with Amy Poehler, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Laraine Newman channeling the nascent RH of Beverly Hills via satellite).

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We would have preferred it if each gal got a little more screen time, either in this sketch or in another, but, as we’ve pointed out incessantly, we have been getting plenty of Poehler, Tina Fey, Rachel Dratch and Maya Rudolph in the last couple seasons, so it’s a delicate balance.  Still, it would have been nice to see some more of the other ladies, like Nora Dunn, who we have to admit looks much better than we would have guessed (similarly, but on the other hand, Newman looks strikingly young (suggesting that, perhaps, she’s utilized some of LA’s best surgeons).

Without the benefit of seeing the rest of the show we can’t quite provide a true analysis.  But since the bulk of the show was a compilation of female-focused sketches, and we know which alums were invited back (or, at the very least, we know which ones accepted an invitation) we can comment on the nature of women on SNL in general (something that we did in-depth before last season).  What we currently find most interesting when thinking about the basic arc of female not yet ready for primetime players is how a) historically there has been a small number of female standouts, b) despite a crowded cast with many females in the early-mid 90s, that was pretty much the dark ages for women on SNL, and c) the last decade has been the strongest for the ladies, and their role is likely to expand.

Looking back, the history of women on Saturday Night Live can be  broken down into roughly (very roughly) six (and a half) parts:

  • 1975-1980: The original trio of Newman, Gilda Radner and Jane Curtain, who helped developed the show as it is today, and stood toe-to-toe with the early male heavyweights like Chevy, Belushi, Aykroyd and Murray.
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  • 1980-1985: Not just a dark time for women on SNL, but a dark time for the show in general, as it experienced it most tumultuous years after Lorne Michaels left in 1980.  During the time the program was basically the Eddie Murphy Hour, and the only female of note essentially Julia Louis-Dreyfus, whose role in the show is magnified in a bit of revisionist history because of her later success.
  • 1986-1990: The Jan Hooks-Nora Dunn era.  Victoria Jackson, while appearing in many memorable sketches, was probably the weak link of the group (she’s also turned into a right-wing, conservative Christian voice (for example, calling President Obama a communist), which likely hasn’t endeared her to her former TV and entertainment peers).
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  • 1990-1995: The second nadir for women on SNL.  Despite an above average number of female cast members, like Julia Sweeney, Melanie Hutsell, Siobhan Fallon and Ellen Cleghorne, as well short stints by women who went on to later success, such as Janeane Garofalo, Sarah Silverman and Laura Kightlinger, the female voice was drowned out by a bloated cast that included Dana Carvey, Mike Myers, Phil Hartman at the beginning of the decade and then later joined by the frat boy contingent of Chris Farley, Adam Sandler, David Spade, Chris Rock, and Rob Schneider.  With that many personalities (not to mention the legendary pool of talent), it would have been hard for any woman to make her mark.
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  • 1995-2000: A cast overhaul brought a new female comedian triumvirate in Cheri Oteri, Molly Shannon and Ana Gasteyer, starting a lineage that can arguably be drawn to today’s cast.  Shannon’s Mary Catherine Gallagher might have been the biggest female recurring character since Radner’s Roseanne Roseannadanna, and the first (and only) SNL character to be spun-off into a feature film.
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  • 2000 – 2010: With Rachel Dratch, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph and Tina Fey joining around the new millennium a new era of female players was ushered in, most likely the strongest and most unified in SNL‘s history.  Kristen Wiig picked up the torch in the the middle of the decade, and for a season or two carried the load virtually by herself.
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  • Present: The show currently offers a new crop of talented female cast members – Abby Elliott, Nasim Pedrad, Vanessa Bayer (not to mention the brief stints of Michaela Watkins and Jenny Slate) – but they’ve yet to truly distinguish themselves, especially with Wiig still present as the go-to girl.  In addition, the new class has been overshadowed by Poehler, Fey and Rudolph’s continued presence on the show long after their official departures.  But we’re going to consider the primetime special the end of what has been somewhat of a year-long victory lap for the last generation of SNL ladies, and with Wiig likely (and, as we’ll argue in a soon to come post, appropriately) to exit soon, we’re on the cusp of a new reign.
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So you can see, then, that the last ten years of the show have really been the best in terms of the female contribution, and we assume that was evident in the sketches that comprised the Women of SNL.  In addition, if you just look at the women who appeared in the above Real Housewives parody, a disproportionate amount originate from the last third of SNL‘s run.  Certainly, this is due to social factors, and a more egalitarian spirit, both in the willingness of the show to hire female cast members and in the greater opportunities in recent years for female comedians to develop their craft (more improv groups in more cities casting a more significant number of women).

It’s clear looking at the last ten to fifteen years that SNL has been enjoying a period of great prosperity with their female cast (hence the point of this special in the first place), and with a current strong young group of gals it appears they hope to continue this trend.  The question then becomes, however, will this have been considered the golden age for women on SNL, or just the beginning of a new paradigm.  We doubt we’ll see the kind of droughts we saw in the early 80s and early 90s, so devoid of a strong female presence, but there’s no guarantee that the current and future female cast will enjoy the same success as their immediate predecessors.

Tune into the updated Women of SNL in 2025 for the answer.  Or, if things on Earth go poorly, check out 2030’s Ladybots of Saturday Comedy Show Program.  DON’T FORGET TO SET YOUR DVRs!

(it’s kind of sad that in this post alone I named most of SNL’s all-time female cast members, and if I add a few more – like Beth Cahill, Danitra Vance, Joan Cusack, Nancy Walls, Casey Wilson, Yvonne Hudson(!) – well, then we’ve cited just about all of them)

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Filed under Analysis, Good Humor, Lists, Saturday Night Live, Yasmine Bleeth, Yvonne Hudson

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