Very few institutions in American life have realized the Facebookian style counter-culture to mainstream culture journey that Saturday Night Live has realized. Unlike Facebook however, SNL continues pushing the envelope and testing boundaries these days.
A current exhibit at the Museum of Broadcast Communications (360 N. State), “SNL: The Experience,” edifies the visitor on the roots and history of the 43-year-old television program. The first show aired on 10-11-75, and it quickly established the franchise’s counter-culture vibe, executed on stage by the “not ready for prime time” players.
Obviously, SNL is and has been mainstream culture for decades, but across those four decades and change, they have continued to be a thorn in the side of establishment. They have kept their edginess by continuing to skewer the powers that be, and giving us a steady stream of “they went there” moments.
The exhibit begins with a narration by Alec Baldwin inside a replica of “30 Rock” (30 Rockefeller Center, where the show is produced and taped), and then it’s a journey through a week of producing the show, and everything that it entails. There are historical tidbits along the way, and a whole lot to see and do, but for the purposes of this article we’ll limit our focus to the social and sociopolitical realm.
At the very end of the exhibit, you have a chance to see the Weekend Update desk, and its presence reminds us how this segment is/was truly the original “fake news.” Without SNL Weekend Update, you don’t have The Daily Show and all of its spinoffs.
It all started with Chevy Chase, who was the original fake news anchor during that inaugural season. Chase was the breakout star in the first year, and he quickly left to go and do bigger things. He was then replaced by Bill Murray. Weekend Update arrived at the absolute most perfect time in American history, as disillusionment with government and cynicism for the media could not have been higher.
This was in the wake of President Richard Nixon’s resignation over the Watergate scandal. The exhibit includes a 1992 letter from Al Franken (placed beside his Stuart Smalley costume) to Nixon himself, offering him “a once in a lifetime opportunity to answer our scorn and ridicule with scorn and ridicule of our own” on an upcoming SNL special in which every living former POTUS was invited.
Other prominent SNL political humor artifacts on display include Baldwin’s Donald Trump outfit and Melissa McCarthy’s White House Press Secretary podium and Easter Bunny outfit used to portray Sean Spicer.
Also, there's absolutely no way this sketch, by far the most popular of the 2006-07 season, would get green-lighted today, given what we know about the personal lives of so many men who work in the television and movie industry.
The most attractive quality of this exhibit is certainly its interactivity, and how easily it lends itself to social media postings. It was impossible for me to attend this exhibition and not get a photo on the Wayne's World couch, strumming the guitar and later standing behind the celebrity Jeopardy podium.
Coincidentally, it's the very same principle that will drive successful political campaigns in the future.
It's no longer about a "ground game" and television ads. Both the present and the future lies in providing your constituents with an experience that they'll want to share on social media and thus do your promotion for you.
If we take away one political marketing lesson from the 2016 Presidential election, it should be that.
Overall, SNL: The Experience is a WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY better option than the actual 30 Rock tour in New York City. To see the real SNL set in NYC, you have to endure bizarre, pointless and Draconian rules that will make most people opt out of the tour early.
On that tour, the vibe is Fascist and controlled.
Here, by contrast, it’s laid-back, with a spirit of openness. In other words, it’s 10 quadrillion, zillion times better, and actually way more economical too.
Chicago is the perfect home for the SNL exhibit too, as our hometown (via Second City, IO Theatre and more) has been the program's best farm club over the years.
Museum of Broadcast Communications Permanent Collection
Be sure to allocate most of your time to the SNL exhibit, as that has much more to see and do than the museum's permanent collection. Highlights of what's on display here include: Seinfeld "blue prints," exhibits on Bozo the Clown, Cuddley Dudley, Svengoolie, the Paul Lisnek room, and the corner devoted to vintage commercials (including Morris the cat of 9 lives fame).
Overall though, the biggest and best highlight on this floor of the museum is the Meet the Press set upon which Tim Russert did his last show in 2008.
SNL The Experience + Museum Admission is $25 for adults, $15 for those who qualify for reduced rate
(Last ticket sold 1 hour before closing time)
Paul M. Banks runs The Sports Bank.net and TheBank.News, which is partnered with News Now. Banks, a former writer for the Washington Times, NBC Chicago.com and Chicago Tribune.com, currently contributes regularly to WGN CLTV and the Tribune corporation blogging community Chicago Now.
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