I stopped watching Saturday Night Live a number of years ago. I did so primarily because I no longer found it very funny, but I was also able to determine exactly why I didn't find it funny: Since I had little familiarity with the pop cultural referents--the tv shows, the pop bands, the reigning celebrities of the day--I almost literally couldn't get the jokes. It wasn't that the current version of the show (which was roughly the latter days of the Will Ferrell-era cast) had suddenly become dependent on popular culture and thus required the viewer's "knowingness"; this had always been the case, going all the way back to the golden era of Aykroyd, Belushi, and Radner. But then I had been knowing. I knew the names, the styles, the programs. The jokes seemed pertinent to the world in which I was immersed, and thus I found them funny (sometimes).
(I realize that SNL is also know for its occasional "political" sketches, but even these I always considered part of the focus on popular culture--politicians as another kind of celebrity who was famous through being on tv.)
In a previous post, I defined literary satire as "corrective, a way of using laughter to mock attitudes and behaviors the author wishes to reform." Satire is a form of commentary on human misbehavior and social stupidity, usually anchored in a particular time and place. Daniel Septimus puts it this way: "satire must be tethered to the real world in some way. It must reference a reality we know in order to enlighten us with its absurdist twists" (Jerusalem Post). Satire points us to "a reality we know" in order to highlight its implicit if concealed deficiencies, which are mocked. Like SNL's Weekend Update, it is news with a "twist."
Septimus believes that satire without such a "tether" to the world it presumes to mock becomes merely "cartoonish." I think there's something to be said for cartoonish comedy, although I agree that if it is indeed presented as satire its satiric edge is blunted. Catch-22, it seems to me, is cartoonish comedy that is not primarily satirical. It presents us with a world that has itself become cartoonish; it can't be mocked because it can't ultimately be escaped. The comedy in Catch-22 penetrates all the way down because its "reality" is itself absurd, not merely in need of improvement. The fiction of, say, George Saunders is, on the other hand, cartoonish but also clearly meant as satire. In my opinion, the result is a brand of surrealistic comedy without sufficient roots in the "real world" to be anything other than silly. Its humor is whimsical at best and it doesn't really engage the world we live in firmly enough to be effective as satire.
But I digress. Saturday Night Live qualifies as satire, in my view, but the "world" it surveys is circumscribed by the narrow measurements of American popular culture. Those who enjoy the show inhabit that world, and presumably wish to continue living there, and thus the mockery of its manifestations and assumptions remain usefully "corrective," reminding them that it can all be quite ridiculous. SNL, of course, occupies its own fairly prominent place in that world, so its humor ultimately can reach only so far. "TV" is an open target for ridicule, but not to the point that we'd want to see it smashed up altogether. And SNL's own role in maintaining pop culture's hold on us couldn't be questioned. The satirist doesn't willingly satirize him/herself.
Those of us who no longer pay much attention to the world as rendered through tv and other forms of mass media (and perhaps wonder why we ever did) thus are outside the circle within which the humor of SNL and other tv comedy shows seems humorous. This isn't to say that the objects of this humor don't deserve to be mocked. It's just that they generally seem to survive such mockery perfectly well.