As a longtime SNL watcher, the premiere of each season always feel a little bit like Christmas morning. All summer, you watch the news on who will leave and who will come back, silently ache at relevant news stories (“It’ll be too late to do a sketch on it!” should be classified as an emotion- who can I talk to about that?), and the preamble up to that first shout of “LIVE from New York, it’s Saturday night!” makes that first cold open seem like it takes an eternity. But finally, at long last, season forty is under way. The first episode’s success was uneven, but they did one thing really well that I want to talk about.
Among the gifts that we were given in last night’s outing were an introduction to Pete Davidson. The first SNL cast member to be born in the nineties, he also joined the cast relatively late in the summer (last year’s additions, save the midyear addition of Sasheer Zamata, were completed in late August; Davidson’s addition was announced only 13 days ago). It should also be noted that Pete’s background is in standup, and he entered a cast with considerable experience in improvisational and sketch comedy; these are far different crafts from standing up in front of a crowd and telling jokes. Coming on late, learning a new craft, and far younger than the rest of the cast…what’s a boss to do?
Lorne Michaels has been doing this job for (with little interruption) forty years, he doesn’t need me to tell him what to do, or if he’s done the right thing. However, I do love what he did to ease Pete into the show. For those following along at home, I’m referring to his “Resident Young Person” bit with also-new Michael Che on Weekend Update:
Guest hosts, with one week to shine on the show and no make-or-break implications, can be thrown into the sketch format quickly. If they succeed, they’re lauded; if they don’t, it’s no great loss. They have other day jobs to fall back on. But for new featured players, their transition should look different. They’ll be in this environment for a while, and should be allowed to find their bearings. The way that Pete was allowed to find his was, essentially, to deliver stand-up in a sketch. This let him be funny in a way that felt natural to him, while in an environment that allowed him to interact with his new coworkers.
Further, the show did little to mask the fact that he’s the baby of his proverbial office. By slating him as the “Resident Young Person,” Davidson got to make light of his “new” status, making it easy for him to ask big questions of things or processes he didn’t understand. It’s hard to know if this segment will recur for the duration of his time on the show, but it was a good way to start him off.
As you may have suspected, I believe there’s a lesson here. When you’re new to a work environment, and especially when you’re young, it can be hard to find your place. Getting to know your coworkers, transferring what you’ve been good at to a new environment…it can be hard without the right guidance. In introducing Pete in this fashion, Lorne Michaels and SNL’s writers set a good example for employers seeking to position their new hires well:
- Capitalize on their strengths. Yes, it’s incumbent on new hires to do some assimilation to the company, and apply their previous successes to new projects and in new ways. But not on their first day. Never underestimate the power of a big win early on in your employment. The confidence that it could build can garner loyalty and willingness to work hard. Any way that you can find for a new hire to apply his or her strengths to a current project, do.
- Recognize who they are. This is a tricky endeavor, don’t misunderstand me. Please understand, there is a difference between giving generational perspective on a project or initiative, and assigning the millennial to social media. The former recognizes their expertise, while the latter simply makes assumption based on their age. While Davidson’s contribution (intentionally) went off the rails quickly, we ultimately got to see his timing, sense of humor, and personality in what he was able to share. How can you do this for someone new on your team, regardless of their age?
- Once they’ve had a win, stretch them. Yes, Davidson turned some heads in his first outing at the Update desk. But that wasn’t the last place you saw him that night. He turned up in two additional sketches in minor roles. Loyal viewers of SNL will recognize that he still has some work to do to get where he could be- a tight, reliable member of an ensemble. But it was important to get him doing the important work that will get him there. He wasn’t allowed to rest on the laurels of having been on camera once, and then spirited away for the rest of the episode. And this is important for your new hires too. Find a way to get them a win, but then make it clear that they can’t rest on those successes. Help them stretch into strong and versatile performers by challenging them.
Pete Davidson still has a long way to go in his first season. And in a year where far fewer new faces were brought on, I think writers and producers have a chance to develop him into a strong player. Last year too many people joined at once, and cast members like recently departed Brooks Whelan (who shares with Davidson youth and a stand-up background) suffered for that. So as the season goes on, I look forward to seeing what else this Resident Young Person will bring to the table.