Cinema and Media Studies Saturday Night Live
Peter Kunze
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 July 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0334


Since the 1970s, Saturday Night Live has proven itself to be one of television’s most influential programs. Lorne Michaels created the show and served as executive producer from 1975 to 1980, then again from 1985 until the present; during his absence, Jean Doumanian oversaw the 1980–1981 season and Dick Ebersol produced the show from 1981 until Michaels’ return. Drawing on the variety format, Saturday Night Live provides a unique window into contemporary US culture with its popular guest hosts and musical guests, topical humor, and live presentation. Its wealth of characters and catchphrases has made its way into the popular lexicon, while its impact can be detected in live comedy performances, film, and new media, as well as other television programs. This bibliography loosely organizes the major critical works of Saturday Night Live scholarship and journalism into seven categories: studies of the show’s structure and style; critiques of how it has represented various identities; firsthand accounts by former performers and writers; historical analyses of the show’s development, production, and place within the television industry; examinations of its response to and influence on the news media; critical studies of key performers during the show’s run; and, finally, discussions of the show’s effect on US political discourse. The scholarship in this bibliography crosses many areas within communication and media studies, revealing the ongoing importance of the show to our understanding of comedy, politics, and television. Using satire and sketch comedy to both scrutinize and send up American society and culture, the show remains an enduring institution.

Aesthetics and Style

Limited, but not insignificant, attention has been paid to the comedic style of the show from its earliest days and its influence on other media, including film and new media. Elkins 2013, Marx 2019, and Whalley 2010 consider the development of the show’s comedic approach. Vesey 2013 looks at the role of music in the show, whereas Gurney 2013 charts its embrace of new media technologies. Marx 2013 and Whalley 2010 trace its influence into film, while Sienkiewicz 2013 historicizes shifts in comic address following major political events.

  • Elkins, Evan. “Michael O’Donoghue, Experimental Television Comedy, and Saturday Night Live’s Authorship.” In Saturday Night Live & American TV. Edited by Nick Marx, Matt Sienkiewicz, and Ron Becker, 56–74. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2013.

    Through a close study of Michael O’Donoghue’s experimental comedic contributions to Saturday Night Live in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Elkins challenges the presumption that Lorne Michaels is the primary influence behind the show and its comedy aesthetic. In so doing, he also underscores the complexity and nuances of television authorship.

  • Gurney, David. “Sketches Gone Viral: From Watercooler Talk to Participatory Comedy.” In Saturday Night Live & American TV. Edited by Nick Marx, Matt Sienkiewicz, and Ron Becker, 254–273. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2013.

    Gurney analyzes Saturday Night Live’s “Digital Shorts” series to better understand how the show has engaged its audiences as well as how it has adapted to digital media and culture, especially via platforms such as YouTube.

  • Marx, Nick. “Skits Strung Together: Performance, Narrative, and the Sketch Comedy Aesthetic in SNL Films.” In Saturday Night Live & American TV. Edited by Nick Marx, Matt Sienkiewicz, and Ron Becker, 213–232. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2013.

    Marx’s analysis considers how Saturday Night Live stars have fared in film, the nuances of sketch comedy stardom, and the challenges caused by transferring the SNL aesthetic into film narrative.

  • Marx, Nick. “‘. . . and You’re Not’: Saturday Night Live in the Network Era and Beyond.” In Sketch Comedy: Identity, Reflexivity, and American Television. By Nick Marx, 61–93. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2019.

    Marx explores the development of Saturday Night Live’s comedy aesthetic in its early days around the personalities of its largely white male stars and how this approach has extended into the comedic style employed in the films of its more recent stars.

  • Sienkiewicz, Matt. “Speaking Too Soon: SNL, 9/11, and the Remaking of American Irony.” In Saturday Night Live & American TV. Edited by Nick Marx, Matt Sienkiewicz, and Ron Becker, 93–111. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2013.

    Sienkiewicz examines how Saturday Night Live responded to the attacks of September 11th by, for a time, adopting a sincere approach to comedy. In so doing, he demonstrates how the show’s comedy at times has ventured beyond the political into the moral.

  • Vesey, Alyxandra. “Live Music: Mediating Musical Performance and Discord on Saturday Night Live.” In Saturday Night Live & American TV. Edited by Nick Marx, Matt Sienkiewicz, and Ron Becker, 112–129. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2013.

    Vesey studies how Saturday Night Live has used contemporary music not only to brand itself, but to underscore its edginess and cultural relevance. With particular focus on controversial live performances, she considers the interrelationship between producers, performers, and audiences.

  • Whalley, Jim. Saturday Night Live, Hollywood Comedy, and American Culture: From Chevy Chase to Tina Fey. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230107946

    Whalley charts the development of Saturday Night Live and the transition of its stars into film careers. He pays particular attention to the varied successes as well as generational differences among the careers of Saturday Night Live’s talent after their time on the show.

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