Over the summer, I went with a friend to see Saturday Night Live: The Exhibition, which boasted “40 Years of Saturday Nights.”
We were welcomed by a slideshow narrated by Alec Baldwin, who gave a brief history of how “SNL” started and took off immediately, giving the American public something they wanted — something that pushed boundaries and injected humor into situations that didn’t always feel funny in real life. It was satirical, never afraid to skewer those in the public eye. It was pop culture with an unflinching spotlight on politics. It was fresh; it was funny; it was multi-faceted — and people loved it.
After the slideshow, we were invited to walk down a red carpet into Studio 8H, where the exhibit was organized by the days of the week, chronicling the process of making an episode and putting on a live show. There were original scripts and props and entire sets recreated. There were screens where Seth Meyers, Jimmy Fallon, Aidy Bryant and Cecily Strong each explained how “SNL” pieces came together. Some things we could touch and some we couldn’t (though that didn’t stop a lot of people), and people didn’t even bother putting their phones back in their pockets after taking pictures — every spot was another perfect Instagram shot.
We sat at the table where the cast does pre-air table reads, we stood in the dressing rooms next to Gilly, we smelled the faint paint fumes in the room with some of the original plaster casting molds. We saw every cast member’s original headshot and, for the finale, we sat in front of the complete stage while a recording of Tina Fey thanked us for coming to visit.
The exhibit, showed the best of “SNL,” with all the bonus features and extras come to life in front of us. It felt like our favorite characters were waving goodbye as event-goers left the stage.
Or at least, that’s how the emotional middle-aged couple who followed my friend and me out of the gift shop and onto 5th Avenue felt.
Personally, I felt a little confused. And then confused about my confusion. And then a little sad. And then guilty about feeling sad, and then I started to slightly resent my parents.
Here’s the thing: obviously, an exhibit of “40 years of Saturday Nights” would have to be boiled down into only the essentials. And while I recognized a lot of it, there was a lot I didn’t recognize, too. Some I recognized only from hearing my parents talk, and didn’t personally experience. I can only lay claim to a few of the most memorable exploits in the past few years: Kate McKinnon’s Justin Bieber, Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin and Amy Poehler’s Hillary Clinton, Justin Timberlake’s Dick in a Box, Shy Ronnie and anything Kristen Wiig. But the majority of “SNL” ’s “golden years” happened before I was born, or old enough to appreciate their material. (Incidentally, I once made the mistake of referring to the stint of “SNL” with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler as the “golden years” to my parents, who, remembering the likes of Gilda Radner and co., cringed.)
But at the same time, I also felt like I could appreciate and connect to the older seasons since I saw so much of it on the web. Our generation is really the first one to have grown up with the ability to look into the archives of history on the Internet and find a limitless wealth of text, audio, visual and multimedia. I see something on the Internet every week about “ ’90s kids” (which, in case you were wondering, is sometimes held to include those born anytime between 1990 and the early 2000s), and it isn’t weird to hear young adults talking about the ’80s, ’70s or even ’60s, as if they were there, with a kind of familiarity that used to belong just to historians. They speak as if those years belonged to them — because they can immerse themselves in the media of those times. Because of this, the lines between generational TV trends or pop culture trends are becoming more blurred; the importance or influence of certain pieces of media can’t be documented in as linear a fashion as they used to be.
Seeing the “SNL” exhibit made me feel nostalgic, which was disconcerting. Even though I’ve seen most of the important or popular sketches on the Internet (including the ones that happened before I was born), it felt weird to be nostalgic for something that was literally before my time.
While it was and still is a huge part of my adolescence, partly because it reminds me of my favorite things about living in New York City, “SNL” simultaneously does and does not belong to me. But maybe in five or 10 years, it will.