Underrated/Overrated 'Saturday Night Live' Weekend Update Anchors
It seems we can no longer call the cast the Not-Ready-For-Primetime Players as they bring their cornerstone segment to a timeslot previously occupied by shows like "Frasier" and "Friends". This gives SNL a chance to enter the mainstream in a way it never has before, and with the endless wave of news (both straightforward and comedic) "Weekend Update" is the perfect vehicle to bring late night to primetime.
Unfortunately, those who don't like to stay up late are forced to endure an iteration of "Weekend Update" that's a shell of its former self. Gone is the unique showcase for a single comic talent as talking head reading jokes has become the standard in recent years.
Of course, it hasn't always been like that. There was a time when "Weekend Update" was a sublime weekly installment and often the highlight of each episode. Trouble is, many have forgotten those great anchors from the shows earlier years, and the recent teams are thought of as the standard for quality.
This leads the inevitable truth that some "Weekend Update" anchors will forever be overrated and some forever underrated. Here are the top five in each category.
5. Dennis Miller (1985-1991)
Miller has gone on to such a long and distinguished comedy career following his departure from the desk that few remember he even manned it. He did, in fact he was a solo anchor for "Weekend Update" longer than anyone else, and he did it about as well as anyone ever had. Miller was the first anchor to take the role upon Lorne Michael's return to the show and brought his informed acerbic wit to the desk in a way that many are still copying today. The silly jokes were there, but his brilliant sarcasm made him stand out. And to think, people probably don't even remember what he looks like without a beard.
4. Al Franken (N/A)
After Kevin Nealon left the desk, Franken thought the job was his. It went to Norm MacDonald instead (see below) and it was the viewer's loss. Franken would be the perfect host for this institution: He's a brilliant political comedian who could skewer those making news better than anyone else. Instead, the producers went for cheap laughs and Franken was left underrated by his own program. He'd still be a great fit at the desk, and would be an excellent replacement for the Poehler/Meyers team upon her departure. That is, as long as he isn't the Junior Senator from Minnesota at that point.
3. Colin Quinn (1998-2000)
Quinn was completely unique as a "Weekend Update" anchor in that he almost made a new format out of it. He'd start out with a bit of standup before moving to the desk where his free-flowing comedy would continue set to pictures. This was the prime example of "Update" becoming a showcase for a comic talent and while Quinn had his very very bad nights he was often sublimely funny and a welcome respite in a time where the show had started to plunge into a comic abyss. The problem with Quinn, is that he replaced a beloved and fired MacDonald and a lot of people just don't "get" him. It's their loss, because Quinn was as funny as any other anchor.
2. Guest Anchors (1983-1985)
Other than Eddie Murphy, the concept of guest "Weekend Update" anchors was the only good concept to come out of the pit that was early-80s "Saturday Night Live". Each week, viewers were treated to people like George Carlin or Don Rickles or even Jesse Jackson reading the news. This went out the window with the return of Lorne Michaels and nobody even remembered it happened. This probably wouldn't work as a mainstay, but some of the more comedically-inclined hosts would certainly be a treat to watch at anchor.
1. Kevin Nealon (1991-1994)
Easily the best "Weekend Update" anchor ever, and often the most forgotten. Nealon brought his absurdist brand of oddball sublimity and married it perfectly with the fake news format of the segment. Lines like "In addition, 2 + 2 = 4" flowed from Nealon regularly as he broke from simply the topical news jokes and made fun of TV news in itself. He also played the part of anchor better than anyone else who manned the desk: If you took out the jokes from his readings of news stories, you wouldn't think twice about his being a phony anchor. Nealon was the perfect host for this segment, but was quickly forgotten once the far more popular MacDonald took over the desk. It's a shame, because any time a Nealon segment pops up in a rerun, the viewers are treated to "Update" at its best.
5. Chevy Chase (1975-1976)
Rule of thumb: If you're first, you're almost always overrated. People always seem to think the original is best, even when that isn't remotely true. Chase does deserve credit for inventing the format along with Herb Sargent, but he really wasn't that great. Like everything Chase from that era, it seemed wildly unrehearsed, completely disorganized and only occasionally funny. People will continue to give him more credit than he deserves for being the first even though his career, much like Generalissimo Francisco Franco, is dead.
2-4. TIE: The new batch of Co-Anchors (2000-Present)
After the departure of Quinn, SNL scramble to find a suitable replacement. They didn't have a logical cast member, and brought in comedians like Jeff Ross and Kevin Brennan to audition for the chair. Instead they settled on head writer Tina Fey and giggling schoolgirl Jimmy Fallon. They got it half right, it should have been Fey's job by herself to begin with, and this started the insipid trend of co-anchors at the desk. Soon Fallon moved on to create excellent films like "Taxi" and Amy Poehler joined Fey at the desk. Poehler is a wonderful actress in films and is certain to be great on her new sitcom, but doesn't have the appropriate skill set for the gig, and has just been reading flat jokes since she got the gig and the segment plummeted further. Fey left to create the near-perfect "30 Rock" and just generally be awesome and new head writer Seth Meyers brought his self-described "capable" screen presence to the desk and became a reader alongside Poehler. Luckily for us, he's an infinitely better writer than he is a weekend update anchor. So in the time of co-anchors, "Weekend Update" went from a comic showcase to a pair of faces reading jokes off a teleprompter. How sad. Even though this signaled a pronounced devolution for "Weekend Update" many still love it. They love it to the point that it's become what viewers expect from "Update" and frightfully promises to be the standard for years to come. Now that's overrated.
1. Norm MacDonald (1994-1997)
Norm MacDonald is very funny. He's incredibly funny. He's surreally funny. Problem was, he wasn't a weekend update anchor. He brought a slovenly and lackadaisical presence to the desk that never really fit. The result was misfires on the teleprompter and far too many Frank Stallone jokes. Norm was so great in so many sketches that's it's all the more frustrating that he had to waste time doing something that clearly wasn't his strong suit. Of course, many people think it was his strong suit. MacDonald's tenure at the desk is often seen as the high point of "Weekend Update". It seems that most people consider the high point of comedy lazily delivered shtick that was never too funny to begin with. If that's true, then MacDonald was the best ever. It isn't, but he'll continue to be hailed as one of the greats and is therefore vastly overrated.
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Story by Andrew Payne
Starpulse contributing writer
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