Why Aren't Ex-SNL Women Famous?

In a few months, Saturday Night Live will begin its 33rd season. It's been mired in terrible ratings for years but has kept on plugging, knowing that like McDonald's the secret to its success lies not in quality but in ubiquity. The conventional wisdom says that SNL goes in cycles, with funny years following unfunny years in orderly succession. But the truth is, as the saying goes, "Dying is easy. Comedy is hard." And there's a lot more dying than comedy going on at Studio 8H these days.

Traditionally the ship has righted itself with the unlikely emergence of the next big star. These soon-to-be matinee idols are its main source of revenue, both in ratings and in spinoffs, and the show has set itself up as a minor league for Hollywood, a talent farm for the next comic icon. (Be sure to see Hot Rod, opening August 3 and starring Andy Samberg!) But all the stars who've made it have been men. With the exception of one-season ringers like Joan Cusack and Janeane Garofalo--currently starring in Ratatouille--Saturday Night Live's women have struck out at the box office, and if it weren't for Tina Fey and Jane Curtin in the similarly-titled 30 Rock and 3rd Rock from the Sun, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus' run on a little show called Seinfeld, they'd be out of the public eye altogether. Whatever happened to Mary Gross, anyway? Ellen Cleghorne? Jan Hooks? Laraine Newman? Where did they all go?

The story has to start with Gilda Radner. Time was, her name would bring a hush on a room. Probably the most beloved female cast member the show has ever had, creator of many of the most memorable characters from the show's early years, she died of cancer at age 42. Since that time, like all Saturday Night Live women, her fame has waned. However, her tragedy obscures the reality that her Hollywood career probably wouldn't have survived much longer, even if she had. Women in Hollywood have an age range roughly equal to female tennis players: 15 to 30, or so. (Anatomically, from perk to sag.) After having given 5 years of her comedic prime to SNL, Gilda was 34, after which she began a movie career, making several stinkers, a couple ho-hum comedies, and one or two that you might want to rent. Several of them starred or were directed by her husband, Gene Wilder, so they probably meant more to them than they did to audiences. That's her entire body of work. Slim Netflix pickings for a comedic legend.

The first problem is that there have never been many women on SNL. Out of 116 in the show's 32-year history cast members), 36 have been women, and only 20 of them survived more than one season. Along with Cusack and Garofalo, other one-season wonders were Tony winner Christine Ebersole, Sarah Silverman, Laura Kightlinger, and Nancy Walls; these six women have gone on to have better careers than nearly all of the women they left behind. (Walls later went on to join the cast of the Daily Show, as did Rob Riggle.) One reason women might not last was offered in a parting shot by Garofalo, as she strongly condemned sexism in the writing staff, calling the atmosphere unbearable for a woman.

Moreover, because most of the show's memorable recurring characters have been men, who have delivered most of the memorable punchlines and starred in most of the most beloved sketches, only 3 of the 24 SNL cast member "Best Of" DVDs are of women. (Gilda Radner, of course, along with Molly Shannon and Cheri Oteri.) In the sketches and on Weekend Update, women have often played the straight man: Laraine Newman and Jane Curtin established the trend ("Jane, you ignorant slut!"), and to varying degrees the torch has been carried by Mary Gross, Nora Dunn, Victoria Jackson, Julia Sweeney, Ellen Cleghorne, Ana Gasteyer, and Amy Poehler. A good straight man is essential to nearly any punchline but has the most thankless job in comedy: building all of the setup and receiving none of the credit. The women on Saturday Night Live have often been fine comedians, but the show doesn't give them a good platform to be funny themselves. So after they leave the show, each becomes yet another thirtysomething woman struggling to make it in Hollywood, still looking for her one big break amid a sea of younger, hotter girls.

Everyone knows that comedy is a very male-dominated field, and it's no surprise to find that SNL upholds that trend. (Sadly, it's also not much of a stretch to imagine that the few women who do make it may not be treated well.) But SNL could do a much better job to raise the profile of the women it has, instead of burying them. Given the quality of the show these days, they might also want to try to hire some good writers and good performers and put more effort into the end product. The show's attitude toward women, treating them as props, means to an end, especially when the jokes are awful to begin with, may help explain why the show hasn't worked in a long time. A slavish reliance on process--develop recurring character with catchphrase, hammer catchphrase into the ground, repeat--and ignorance of human talent can lead to a comedic black hole. That's where they are now, and they'll need to rethink that. If they ever find another Gilda Radner, they'll need to make sure she stays more than one season. And maybe, for once, let a guy play the straight man.