Jon Stewart's recently ended summer hiatus from "The Daily Show" received, in some quarters, the kind of attention previously reserved for anchor shifts in the network news glory days. Perhaps it’s not all that surprising given the comedian’s status – at least according to a decidedly unscientific 2009 TIME magazine online poll – as the nation’s most trusted newscaster, an honor once reserved for the likes of Walter Cronkite.
That's the way it is, in great part, because of “Saturday Night Live,” which made fake news a U.S. TV comedy staple when Chevy Chase first told us who he was and who we weren't (“I’m Chevy Chase and you’re not”) on “Weekend Update” nearly 38 years ago.
As “SNL” gets ready to return with an overhauled cast Sept. 28, probably most the scrutinized change will be relative newcomer Cecily Strong’s quick ascension to “Weekend Update” as Seth Meyer’s co-anchor and heir apparent (even if, as show producer Lorne Michaels told The New York Times, he'd like Meyers to stick around for the segment after leaving early next year for “Late Night”).
The notice given Michael’s announcement, which quickly spread after The Times story, underscored the very real impact of the fake news game - from “The Daily Show” to “The Colbert Report” to a strong new kindred spirit like FX’s “Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell.” It also underscored that the success of “Weekend Update” is crucial to the overall success of “SNL.”
The NBC institution has morphed over the years, not just in cast, but in comedy style, in keeping with changing times. The early days produced counter-culture-influenced humor, while the current sketch lineup is more pop culture driven. Recurring characters and skits, from “The Coneheads” to “The Californians,” come and go (and sometimes get their own movies, to mixed results, "From Wayne's World" to "It's Pat").
But “Weekend Update,” hasn’t changed all that much over the years. It’s always there, a little over a half hour into the show – and is usually worth staying up for, even if you can catch it later online or via DVR.
The anchor is key, and Michaels largely has been smart in his picks, which have ranged from those on the verge of another level of fame (Chase, Tina Fey, Jimmy Fallon) to rock-solid players (Jane Curtain, Kevin Nealon) to those in-between (the underrated Colin Quinn, Dennis Miller, Norm MacDonald).
The segment has been on a great run since 2000, with various combinations of Fey, Fallon, Amy Poehler and Meyers, an anchor seat mainstay since 2008. In this century, “Weekend Update,” has proven a launching pad for TV successes – “30 Rock,” “Parks and Recreation,” “The Tonight Show,” “Late Night” – if not necessarily movie superstardom.
Strong, who joined the show last year as a featured player, will be one of the greenest “Weekend Update” anchors since Chase. But she’s already showed fine comic timing – no more so than on “Weekend Update” with her “The Girl You Wish You Hadn't Started a Conversation With” character.
The one drawback to Strong’s promotion is that the character likely has made her last appearance. For Strong, a new conversation with the “SNL” viewers begins with the Sept. 28 season premiere. We'll see if she's able to make the audience glad she started talking.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.